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Septuagenarians and the future

| Monday, September 14, 2020

When Joe Biden officially accepted his nomination as presidential flagbearer for the Democratic Party, he became the oldest presidential candidate in the history of the United States, a record previously held by his opponent Donald Trump. A U.S. presidential race between two septuagenarians — Biden (77) and Trump (74) — has great symbolism both domestically and globally. Domestically: America, confronted by a daunting future for which it has no clear vision, is reaching back into its glorious yet fading past to rediscover itself. Globally: The world cries out for leadership and a vision for the future. Perhaps most importantly, this moment symbolizes our generation’s unique historical mission.

Two septuagenarian presidential frontrunners represent America’s effort to reach back into its glorious but fading past in hopes of rediscovering herself. The U.S. is at a crossroads, confronted by a daunting future for which it is utterly unprepared on the one hand and tempted by a glorious yet fading past on the other. One would imagine that the future is the obvious choice. Not for America. The country seems to have no clear vision for the future and is rather responding in typical human fashion — when in doubt, revert to what you know. This is the context in which the 2020 presidential race ought to be understood. Neither Biden nor Trump offers America — or the world — even a semblance of a vision for the future. Trump, in seeking to “make America great again,” evokes a fading memory of American exceptionalism. Biden’s platform is essentially the same, though worded differently — he seeks to “restore the soul” of our nation. Both Trump and Biden, and by extension their supporters, believe that America has lost something which ought to be recovered. For Trump, it is the economic might and global influence. For Biden, it is America’s soul — whatever that means. Consequently, both candidates are promising to lead the nation not to the future, but to a familiar past.

Reverting back to the past can be understood either as an act of self-preservation or a tactic of strategic retreat. As strategic retreat, one seeks to reorganize themselves and re-launch much stronger and better organized. As self-preservation, all one is doing is simply saving themselves to see another day. But you cannot win a boxing match if you are outside the ring. In that sense, therefore, self-preservation is not a winning strategy. In the case of America, going by the campaign platforms of the presidential frontrunners, one is hard-pressed to say that America is not on a strategic retreat. Either candidate’s lack of a clear vision for the future suggests that in this election, America is simply on a self-preservation mission. If indeed that is the case, regardless of the winner in the November election, America’s retreat into the past will have serious implications for the future of the world, not least because America has ably superintended the post-war world order for the past several decades.

On the global stage, this presidential race lays bare the impending global leadership crisis — an absence of new ideas and vigor to lead the world into the next phase of human history. With America’s retreat into the past, a global leadership gap emerges. In the face of a daunting future, this crisis is compounded by the recourse to septuagenarian ideas amongst America’s European allies. As America runs to old people, Europe is running to old ideas ill-suited for the world’s present challenges. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is indicative of yet another return to a familiar past in the face of an uncertain future. Brexit was not so much a strategic retreat but a self-preservation tactic. Elsewhere in Europe, narrow nationalism is resurgent. The leaderships of the U.K., France, Germany and even Russia are nothing but variants of a deficient and dying world order that persists at the behest of capital and military might. As America, captain of the band, retreats, the rest of the pack is far from able or ready to offer the world a vision for the future, owing to their own existential crises. Perhaps, as some analysts have argued, we’re starting to see the beginning of the end of the Western hegemony. The sun is seemingly setting on the West and rising in the east. But for us, as the younger generation, our interest ought to be in having the sun shining everywhere — not just in the east or the west.

With America retreating into the past and a global crisis of leadership emerging, this presidential race also signals the task at hand for our generation; the world cries out for direction into the next phase of human history. Franz Fanon says that every generation “must, out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” As next-generation leaders, our work is cut out for us: to craft a bold, innovative vision for the world that radically breaks away from the old, recessive ways of thinking and doing things which have brought some of us prosperity at the expense of others and midwifed our present challenges. Yet, while we all may have ideas of what that vision ought to be, there are certain “non-negotiables” that we, from all corners of the world, ought to agree on if we even remotely care about a better future for humanity. As a bare minimum, our guiding principle ought to be a humanism underpinned by love. Under such a humanist conception of the future, person — not profit or the market — ought to take precedence. Down with narrow nationalism, racism, sexism, exploitation of man by man and all forms of human oppression.

As Cornel West once said, we do not need leaders who are “well-adjusted to injustice and well-adapted to indifference.“ We need leaders “who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid, and unintimidated to tell the truth.” Here at Notre Dame, with our access to power and privilege, we are well-placed to lead in crafting a bold vision for the future — if we hearken to the religious character of our alma mater and her mission of being a force for good.

Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda and lives off campus. He is a dee-jay in his other life and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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