So What About This? A Note on Optimism

I teach public administration and public policy at Seton Hall University.  My students (many of them 1st generation) are hard-working, street smart and polite.  “Good Parish Kids” as they say.  I love working with them and am thankful every single day that I get to be in a classroom.   

But I am not a good parish kid.  I am not Catholic and many of the traditions and social norms are lost on me.  I do know that faith matters at Seton Hall in ways it doesn’t elsewhere. I also know that faith requires optimism and hope.  I also know that hierarchy matters.  What the Pope said yesterday will actually show up in the actions of the flock tomorrow.    

Both of these aspects of Seton Hall were on full display at a recent campus event entitled “Solidarity is our Word: Reflections on What Pope Francis Means to Working Men and Women on the Fifth Anniversary of His Election.”  It featured Governor Phil Murphy, Cardinal Joseph Tobin and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. It was quite extraordinary.     

After an introduction by Seton Hall President Mary Meehan, Cardinal Tobin began the night.  His sentiment could not have been more clear. For Cardinal Tobin there is a moral and ethical obligation to protect and help immigrants, to serve the poor, to fight for equality and to honor the worker.  For Cardinal Tobin, these progressive ideals are moral responsibilities, full stop.  They are for him not policy options but policy necessities.   

Next came AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.  He gave a long, impassioned, full-throated attack on neoliberalism and much of capitalism.  Trumka said;  

Pope Francis’ love for work and workers is the heart of his challenge to neoliberalism, to the false and destructive idea that we should allow unregulated markets and greed to dictate what happens in our global society. (You can watch the whole speech at https://aflcio.org/speeches/trumka-reflects-pro-worker-ministry-pope-francis  

The room immediately broke out into a spirited rendition of the Internationale.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sh4kz_zhyo  followed by “There is Power in the Union” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwbzxemJZIc Both from Billy Bragg.   

Ok just kidding on that.  No one sang.  But you get the picture.  

My point is that the progressive approach championed by Pope Francis has made it, at least in some small way, to Seton Hall.  His local champion Cardinal Tobin has been a fearless and vocal in his focus on social justice, protecting the stranger and serving the poor.  The change (at least to my outside the Catholic faith perspective) seems real and seems to be growing on our Catholic campus.  There are still many conservatives on campus and hopefully there always will be but I do feel like more and more students are taking these progressive social issues to heart from a particularly religious prospective.   

The last speaker of the night was Governor Phil Murphy.  For the most part, his remarks went right along the pro-labor progressive roadmap laid out by Tobin and Trumka.  That is not surprising, that is who he is.   

What is a little surprising is the optimism and energy that he gave to the effort.  Everyone knows Murphy likes to thank people in the room and does it a lot.  He sure did that the other night.  He gave shout outs to everyone from former campaign manager Brendan Gill to South Orange Councilmember Steve Schnall to a Nun from the neighborhood who I didn’t know.   

In his thanks to Cardinal Tobin, he reiterated the heartfelt and genuine connection he felt toward Tobin when they met first met on the chamber train. In his thanks to Richard Trumka, he poked gentle fun at Trumka’s connection to Seton Hall’s Big East Rival Villanova.  Murphy went bold and predicted a Seton Hall victory in the Big East tournament over Villanova. 

In all cases, Murphy had a seemingly boundless excitement about simply being in the same room as all these amazing and cool people.  He also made it clear that addressing the substantive issues raised by Tobin and Trumka (protecting the immigrant, taking care of the poor, supporting the workers, taking care of the environment) will only get solved if all of these amazing and cool people actually work together.   

The role that Murphy played was not a typical one for a powerful elected executive.  Murphy was not the person with the gravitas and moral compass needed to address problems; that was Tobin.  Murphy also didn’t play the policy wonk who outlined why the current system was broken and how to fix it; that was Trumka.   

Instead, Murphy played the cheerleader and the excited optimist. At one point, he even did a shorten version of his election night victory dance he was so enthusiastic. He was almost breathless in his excitement to talk about what was possible if we all worked together.  While the breathless part might have been because Trumka’s speech went on forever and the Governor had an emergency nor’easter to get ready for; it was still refreshing to see an elected official appear excited about changing the world and trying to make it a better place. 

The odd thing is that it actually rather worked.  So much of our politics today is negative, angry and hostile.  So much of it is profane. So much is about the lies and the lying liars that tell them (thank Al Franken for that one).  So much is ugly palace intrigue that at the end of the day doesn’t feed, clothe or care for someone in need.  So much of our politics is about the importance of “me” and not about the power of “we”.  

Murphy offers a bit of counter programming to this negative narrative.  It is refreshing to hear from an elected official for who “Mad as Heck” is about as angry and profane as it gets.

So what about this?  Ask yourself; why it is so easy to discard and make fun of the optimism, hope and yes faith of people like Governor Murphy?   

For all of you who earlier made snarky comment about the fact that Seton Hall never got to play Villanova because they lost to lowly Butler in the tournament.  As if that was somehow proof that Murphy is a lightweight in a heavyweight ring.  Ask yourself; why not focus on the fact Seton Hall is going to the Big Dance anyway?  

For all of you who snicker at me in my ivory tower filled with naïve students wanting only rainbows and unicorns and wanting them immediately? Ask yourself; why not help them understand that maybe they can have rainbows today and unicorns tomorrow but only if you work hard to make both happen. 

For all of us, itching to talk about the coming budget fight between Steve Sweeney and the Governor over where to raise taxes.  Why not recognize that both men have a vision of a more equitable and fair distribution of society’s goods than we have seen a quite some time and because of that they might have the will to make it happen.  

Theodore Herzel once said;

If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and dream it will stay. 

Governor Murphy has the dream.  He might have the will.  I hope so.  

Matthew Hale is a Professor of Political Science at Seton Hall University.

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