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An assignment for the Class of 2017: Stomp out elitism

Half of America thinks they’re better than the other half. And it’s not clear which is which.

Students attend their graduation.

Students attend their graduation. Photo Credit: iStock

It’s time for my annual commencement speech where I offer nuggets of advice mined through a half-century of failures and foul-ups.

I’ve recently asked friends, relatives and acquaintances what guidance they would offer younger versions of themselves.

They gave me this: “Look up from your screens, remove the earbuds and engage those around you.” And this: “Instead of fame and money, aim for empathy and gratitude.” I would add: “Learn to see other people as more interesting than you are.”

But this year’s commencement takes on special significance. The Class of 2017 is the first crop of “Trump graduates” who are leaving college -- and either going to graduate school or into the workforce -- in the shadow of our 45th president.

There are important lessons to be learned from these times.

Such as: “What appears to be a blessing can become a curse.” Twitter lets President Trump circumvent a hostile media and speak directly to supporters, but it also gives federal judges the basis for striking down executive orders.

Or this: “Words can’t hurt you, but they can give a little nudge to those who want to hurt you.” Anti-Trump liberals have done such a good job of demonizing Republicans that one deranged disciple -- James T. Hodgkinson -- singled out GOP congressmen for target practice.

This batch of post-millennials should also take a good look at the man in the White House. They should spurn some of his traits, but they should try to emulate others.

They should not be like Trump when it comes to attacking, bullying, humiliating or trying to demagogue individuals or groups of people. But they could learn from Trump’s profound understanding of human nature and his uncanny ability to predict how others will respond to what he says and does.

Finally, the graduates of today should follow the lead of previous generations and dedicate themselves to a cause much larger than themselves.

The World War II Generation set out to defeat fascism. The baby boomers who fueled the civil rights movement tried to eradicate racism. The post-millennials could make it their lives’ mission to stomp out another “-ism”: elitism.

This scourge isn’t exactly new.

In 1787, when the Framers gathered in Philadelphia to spell out the code of conduct for their newborn country, admission wasn’t just limited to white men but white men with property.

In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term “manifest destiny” to describe the belief that settlers were entitled to expand across North America because of the “special virtues of the American people and their institutions.”

In 1903, the African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, a graduate of Harvard, advanced the idea that “the Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people.”

From the robber-baron industrialists of the 19th century, to the flak that Franklin D. Roosevelt caught from his upper-crust cohort because of the New Deal, to John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s description of the United States as the world’s one “indispensable nation,” elitism has always been part of America.

Nevertheless, the 2016 election put the concept front and center. Thanks to the great reporting that Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes put into their best-selling book “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign,” political observers now have a pretty clear idea of why Clinton lost. And it’s not because of sexism, Russia or then-FBI Director James Comey.

It’s because of this: Clinton and her inner circle were so clever that they ignored the advice -- of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton (who together only won four presidential elections) -- to address working-class white Democrats in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton focused on coastal elites and lost those four states. Now the country is paying for her arrogance with the sideshow known as the Trump presidency.

So this is where we are. Half of America thinks they’re better than the other half. And it’s not clear which is which. The folks in the blue states think they’re more enlightened and sophisticated; those in red states think they’re more patriotic and have more common sense.

Abraham Lincoln had it right so long ago. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Listen up, youngsters. You have reason to wince at your inheritance from generations that preceded you. We broke the country. Apologies for that. But unifying this divided house, that’s on you. Do away with elitism, and you’ll take a giant step toward bringing us together.

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