The inauguration of President Donald Trump clearly represents a watershed moment in the political life of our nation – a welcome moment for some, and a painful, vexing moment for others. But let me begin with one note of optimistic wonder, and this emanates from the part of me that is profoundly patriotic as an American: I have always been — and continue to be – amazed at the tradition of a peaceful and dignified transition of power when a new President is sworn in. Election-year politics typically involve the swirl and mayhem of intense debate, vigorous disagreement, even name-calling. But once the votes are counted and the new President shows up at the front door, the outgoing President is there to greet, First Ladies shake hands and take a short ride together, a swearing in occurs, an outgoing President and First Lady step into a waiting helicopter, he waves to the crowd, and they glide off into the sunset.
It’s the part of me that wonders how the heck one manages to get a democracy to actually work, where the mantle of power is passed at the will of the people — without tanks rolling down the street, bloodshed in alleyways, political competitors becoming political prisoners.
At the close of America’s Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a colleague, “Well, sir, what do we have?”. Franklin responded: “A Republic, sir – if you can keep it.” Franklin recognized that getting a democracy to actually work is as lofty a goal as it is messy.
And, folks, we have some mess right now.
As President Trump is now sworn in, there has been much made of the emergence of “The Resistance,” and as the leader of a private foundation, we will be proud to support the work of The Resistance. But I want to assert some clarity about what we intend to resist.
At The California Endowment, we are not about the business of resisting President Trump, or members of his cabinet, or the Republican Party, or even the “Alt Right.” This is not about resisting a person, or a political party.
By virtue of our mission, we are resisting a narrative, or set of narratives. Well-constructed narratives have power, and the power of such narratives shape culture, and drive policies. And the policy environment shapes how systems and practices touch the lives of real people in real communities.
I learned this as a practicing pediatrician in New Jersey and Philadelphia in the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s, as I had a front-row seat to the emergence of the crack cocaine epidemic in urban America. Hopelessness-driven addiction soared, drug-related crimes skyrocketed, and our nation criminalized the epidemic via a bumper-sticker narrative called “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” The public policy landscape shifted, and a Punishment Narrative unfolded. The nation emphasized jails over community mental health and substance abuse services, and the prison population exploded by more than 400 percent. As a physician, I viewed the policy response as roughly the equivalent of putting someone in jail because they got cancer.
Most caught up in the vortex of this voracious incarceration pipeline were black and brown young men and women. Three Strikes and You’re Out had the racist overtones of the narrative and politics of exclusion.
This is a prime example of how powerful narratives can harm – but they can be deployed positively as well.
As a result of President Trump’s election, the paired set of narratives I am most concerned about – narratives that constitute an affront to my spiritual and faith beliefs, the best of our democratic society, and the mission of our foundation – are the narrative of Exclusion, and the narrative of Punishment.
The Exclusion narrative argues that we will be more prosperous as a nation if we marginalize certain people, build walls, and isolate ourselves. The narrative of Inclusion says: “When we’re all in, we strengthen one another, and we all win.” This has been California’s story in recent years, and this represents the story of America when it is at its best.
When immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ communities are scapegoated, targeted, or excluded, we pledge to resist. Community health and public health works best through inclusion, not exclusion.
When “law and order” is code for a narrative and the public policies of racism through hyper-incarceration, we pledge to resist.
When the threat of harming the dignity of health coverage and health care for millions of Americans is real, we pledge to resist.
When a woman’s right to make safe, healthy choices is threatened, we pledge to resist.
When public policies exacerbate rather than close the economic gap between the very rich and the very poor, we pledge to resist. As a general rule, poverty is bad for your health.
We assert the right to support the resistance against such narratives, because the policy choices that emerge constitute a threat to the narrative that our mission, our community partners, and our work are about.
We believe in inclusion, and the widest possible circle of human concern and compassion.
We believe in prevention and support for young people – rather than punishment, juvenile facilities, and prisons.
We believe in the dignity of health for all.
We believe in the robust participation of young people, their families, and communities in democracy and civic life. Their voices must be welcomed, respected, and heard.
We believe that a wide array of Americans – from the unemployed white coal miner in Kentucky, to the laid-off African-American factory worker in Detroit, to the struggling immigrant farm worker in California’s Central Valley – desire the same basic set of dignities for health, freedom, and economic opportunity for their families. That the best of America’s democracy is inclusive, and does not set or pit one group against another.
This, my friends, is the narrative we are fighting for. We believe in this narrative unapologetically, and we will pursue it in support of the tenacity and audacity of our partners and grantees across the communities we serve. And if we must “resist” in service of asserting this narrative, then so be it: this narrative represents the very best of what American can and must be.