Remarks by Governor Wolf at Franklin & Marshall College Commencement

May 07, 2016

Franklin & Marshall College
Lancaster, PA


I am pleased to be here with you today

As a result of this grand ceremony, I now join my wife in holding a degree from F & M

I am truly honored

I know you are honored too

And your families, friends, and professors who are with you here today

They are honoring you by their presence

This is after all a magnificent college with a long and glorious heritage

And you have accomplished a great thing by earning your degree here

The question for you is: “Now what?”

What comes next for you?

I know this is probably the most over-asked question in commencement addresses

On the other hand you have to admit there is a clear timeliness to the question

I mean you’re at a real pause in your life

I know that many of you have already launched on a life path

Still, it’s the perfect time to ask:

What do I want to do?

How do I want to live my life?

When I’m old what will I want to say I’ve accomplished in my life?

Believe me you’ll have a lot less time to reflect on such things once you become immersed in the minutiae that will so quickly come to dominate your lives

So now is the perfect time to think these broad thoughts and ask these broad questions

One of the broad things I want you to think about is our democracy

It really needs your attention

It needs it because that’s the way self-government works

It thrives only when it gets the attention of the people it serves

It needs the attention of good people like you

Curious seekers

Thoughtful dreamers

Practical doers

It needs the attention of people who categorically reject the notion that our democracy is beyond our control

It needs the attention of people dedicated to the task of building and sustaining a political system worthy of the trust of the people it serves

And it needs this attention now

The problem is that too many people simply don’t trust their government

They despair of it; they suspect they can’t make it work

And so they avoid it

This is a problem

Democracies can survive neither the indifference nor the scorn of its citizens

They are founded on the consent of the governed

It is we who create and sustain our system of government

And we must have confidence in that system we create and sustain

So, if we say we don’t trust our government

We are pretty much saying we don’t trust ourselves

And that’s exactly what too many of us are saying just now

For example, the National Election Study has been taking the political pulse of Americans since 1958

It shows a steadily declining trust in our government

It has been asking respondents things like:

Do you think you can trust your government in Washington to do what is right?

Does the Federal Government “care much about what people like me think?”

Is the Federal Government “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves?”

Up until the early 1970’s a majority of respondents said they believed they could in fact trust the government to do the right thing

Since then, not so much

Except for a brief blip around 9/11, trust has consistently been at a steep discount

A number of Rasmussen polls taken recently show much the same thing

In 2014, 63% of a sampling of Americans said they believed that most representatives in the US Congress “were willing to sell their votes for either cash or campaign contributions”

And 59% believed their representatives had already done this

And look at voter turnout at election time

Most people are so disaffected that they don’t even exercise the most basic act of citizenship – voting

As Robert Reich observes in his most recent book, the largest political party in the United States is not the Republican or Democratic Party

It’s the party of those who don’t vote

For example, turnout of eligible – not registered – voters in the 2014 mid-term election was only 33.2% nationally

This was the lowest turnout in a mid-term election in the United States since 1942 – during World War II

Anyway, you get the point, Americans are frustrated

And this frustration can show itself in destructive ways

The late V O Key – an eminent political scientist of my era – suggested that throughout much of the post-Civil War era, Southern politics displayed a peculiar dysfunction

Low voter turnout

A political process that kept the lid on most of the time

But that every once in a while boiled over with some really weird results

Another political scientist, Walter Dean Burnham suggests that by the 1970’s, American politics was beginning to look a lot like Key’s Southern politics

Burnham even compared the emerging pattern of American politics to that of Weimar Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s

And you know who came out of that period of political alienation and turmoil

So, back to the question, “What are you going to do about all this?”

Remember, a democracy is about self-rule

We’re in charge

And given my age this is less and less my generation’s problem

And more and more yours

As I see it, you have only two options

On the one hand you can conclude that there’s really nothing you can do so “let’s just forget about it”

Shrug your shoulders

Do your own thing

Live in the moment


Or you can conclude that you really ought to do something to make our – your – democracy better

I’d suggest the latter

But you have to decide for yourselves

You do have a choice

The first choice is a seductive one

It is truly tempting to throw up your hands and proclaim, “It’s not my job”

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “Animal House” – and I really hate to make such a low-brow allusion to such an exulted group

In that film, the Delta House members have just been expelled by the harried and frustrated Dean Wormer

One of the characters looks at his colleagues and suggests, “This is a time that calls for an entirely futile gesture on someone’s part, and we’re just the guys to do it”

I also remember when I was a first year student at Dartmouth and I voted along with a majority of my peers to abolish student government

“That’ll show ‘em,” we thought

After we won – by electing Mickey Mouse, I believe – we congratulated ourselves on what we had done

For about 15 minutes

Then we looked at each other and asked, “Now what?”

A futile gesture indeed!

In any case, a futile gesture is a real option for you

And you could possibly justify to yourselves this course

After all, things really are screwed up

And it’s not your fault

But then what?

Your futile gesture certainly makes a vivid point

But it is also a clear abdication of the responsibility thrust upon every citizen in a democratic system to do just the opposite

Non-involvement doesn’t really solve any problem

It simply passes on the responsibility for solving the problem to someone else

Someone whose policy preferences you might not like

Someone who won’t deliver the real improvements we need

So, I would ask, encourage and beg you to take the alternative course of action

Do what too few of us do today

Reject the easy pessimism

Drop the cool cynicism

Get involved and make our government better

This course is hard and success is not inevitable

As President Obama said in a recent speech in Great Britain, “It will require struggle, discipline and above all faith in making a difference”

But if you do not take up this particular challenge

Your government will not get better

Nor will the policies that government promotes

Nor will the people who make those policies

Nor will our world

Nor will your lives

If you don’t get involved, you will prove those kings and queens of 18th century Europe right

They’re the ones who scoffed at our ancestors for suggesting that ordinary human beings could govern themselves

By abdicating your responsibility as a citizen, you’re essentially affirming their noxious prophesies

You’re turning our system over to people who will not make self-government work

So this is your challenge; this is your chance

Keep in mind, I’m not asking that you embrace my policy preferences

This is not about the design of public policies

This is about the design of the system within which those policy preferences are:




Or implemented

This is about the way our democracy works

Not the decisions it makes

The assumption is, however, that better public policies will come out of a political system that is open, transparent, representative and responsive

Than from one that is none of these things

And the only way that system will be open, transparent, representative, and responsive is if its citizens make it so

OK I know I’ve just presented you with a very depressing prospect

I’ve basically told you it’s your turn to try to turn a dysfunctional democracy into a functional one

It will not be an easy task

In some ways, it might even be a thankless and painful task

Also you probably have better things to do

But you would be wrong

This is a great chance to do something spectacular something important

It’s actually an exciting time to be alive and engaged

Just think of the times that were most interesting in American history

The people we remember – the Franklins and Marshalls and the Washingtons, Lincolns, Tubmans, Roosevelts, and Anthonys – were active at times precisely like these

Those times were messy, challenging and full of friction, turmoil and angst

Just like ours

The people we respect were those who lived and struggled in those interesting times

Who got involved

Who were controversial

And who ultimately made a difference

They built and rebuilt our nation

You can do no less

We needed them then

We need you now

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about

First, vote!

This is the fundamental obligation of a citizen in a truly democratic system

Such a system can be neither truly democratic nor legitimate if it speaks for a mere minority of its constituents

And it will only include you in its activities if you vote

Second, choose wisely when you vote

Vote for good people

Or better yet, run for public office yourself

Insist on candidates who are honest, trustworthy, smart and competent

Look for people who will serve as able stewards of our noble tradition of self-government

Reject people who you know are simply trying to tempt you with tantalizing illusions

And patronizing happy talk

Third, care about the traditions that sustain and protect our democratic process

Interact with people of different political beliefs

Avoid certainty; but hold onto your beliefs

On the other hand, be willing to consider alternative points of view

Sharpen your own ideas by testing them against those of others

And use the logic you honed here at F&M to do this

Finally, get involved with enthusiasm

Take pride in improving the system that is yours to improve

Find real joy in doing what our founders asked us to do

Make our union more perfect

These are the kinds of things an engaged citizenry must do to make sure our government works as we need it to work

These are the kinds of things people like you must do

If our government becomes as good as it should be

It will be to your everlasting credit

So here’s the deal

I would love to stand here and tell you that my generation is passing a perfect world – including a perfect democracy – onto you

But we all know that simply isn’t true

The world you are about to inherit has its obvious challenges

Things could clearly be better

Including our democratic system of government

And whether or not they become better is up to you

What I would like is for one of you to stand here where I standing – say 30 years from now

And I’d like you to be able to look at those smart Franklin and Marshall’s graduates who are sitting where you sit now

And tell them that you gave your all to improving the government you’re handing off to them

That you took a flawed system and made it better

That you made a difference

You have the ability to do this

Thanks to Franklin and Marshall, you have the tools

And thanks to your impeccable timing, you have the chance

Congratulations on getting to this brilliant point in your lives

Be good to the institutions that matter

Remember your friends, teachers and families

Remember this glorious institution that has left such an imprint on your lives

And remember our democracy

Dedicate your brilliant lives to enriching them all

Congratulations and good luck with the tough, important, and yet satisfying tasks that lie ahead for you

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