On September 11, 2001, I was studying abroad in the Netherlands, when the first of two planes piloted by terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center. I will never forget arriving at the only television in our dorm just in time to see the second plane collide with its target. Any hope that the first had been a mistake was instantly shattered, and the only world in which I had lived, one in which America was blessed with peaceful prosperity, was wiped away with it.
Nineteen years later, Duke’s students today also are living through a time of frightening change, as the United States stares down double digit unemployment, a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any conflict since World War II, unprecedented environmental catastrophes and public displays of racism and other outrages that go against the very idea of what it means to be American.
Because it is your Duke generation–the readers of this paper–who will inherit the future outcomes of today’s decisions, you will have to fight to make sure the choices made in the present shape the country that each of you deserve.
Fighting for your future may seem like an abstract notion when every day, you are trying to stay healthy, make it through classes and just get by while being bombarded with disinformation and extraordinary demands on your time, attention and financial resources. But the scale of the challenge is why now is no time for any Duke student to turn off, tune out and settle for a future that is less bright than what America has always promised. As someone who lived through 9/11 and saw our country meet that moment, the benefit of experience has shown me that your generation has tremendous power to effect meaningful and lasting change.
You can build the country you want and deserve. It will demand small acts of virtue and bold acts of ingenuity in the communities you call home after you leave Duke. But more immediately, it requires that you exercise your right as a citizen to vote in this November’s election, which will decide the path our country takes for a generation or longer.
For those of you who vote in North Carolina, your vote carries outsized importance for both the presidency and the Senate. You have a choice between two very different presidential candidates. But in case those differences are not yet clear, I offer you the following comparisons.
One of the candidates has promised to rally Americans around our shared identity, rather than divide us by party, race, religion or class. The other has brazenly sought to profit from inflaming those differences and stoked racist hatred among his supporters.
One is known for telling the truth. The other has told more lies than anyone to ever hold the office of the presidency, one of which led to untold economic devastation and tens of thousands of preventable deaths.
One presided over eight straight years of economic growth that created 11.6 million new jobs after inheriting the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. The other unwound those eight years of progress and now presides over the worst U.S. economy in nearly a century.
One has a history of championing the rule of law and chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. The other has repeatedly put his personal financial interests over those of the nation, and is being investigated for fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.
One candidate commands the respect of world leaders and has worked his entire career on issues that cross borders, including tackling climate change, protecting human rights and finding a cure for cancer. The other has spent his time on the world stage seeking photo ops with dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.
One has offered steady leadership through myriad crises, including the 2008 economic collapse and the Ebola epidemic. The other sows chaos and incompetence at every turn, terribly mismanaging the covid-19 pandemic response and lying to the American public to try to hide his failures.
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One has an economic plan that will give all Americans a shot at climbing the wealth and income ladders and create millions of new jobs, including green jobs. The other offers even deeper tax cuts for the wealthy and mega corporations.
One sees diversity as a strength, not a liability, welcomes new Americans to our shores, and has shown compassion during an era of attacks on Americans of color. The other closed the border to immigrants and sends dog whistles that perpetuate racism and violence.
One candidate believes in climate change–and has an ambitious plan to address it. The other denies climate change even exists.
One has a plan to reduce student debt. The other simply ignores this burden hurting millions of America’s graduates.
One candidate is known for his kindness and empathy and promises to lead our whole country, even those who ultimately do not vote for him. The other has withheld medical supplies and federal funds from parts of America he does not think support him enough.
One offers the most progressive policy platform seen in decades, with bold, Rooseveltian ideas to create a modern, sustainable infrastructure, an equitable clean energy economy, and to even the playing field for workers who have long been given the short end of the stick. The other offers regressive policies that favor his cronies at the expense of the most vulnerable among us.
The next four years will be defining ones for your generation. Your energy and ideas will be crucial to rebuilding this country. You have an opportunity to begin righting the ship with your vote in November. I trust that you will use it wisely.
Corey Then is a 2006 graduate of Duke Law School and served four years in the Obama administration, including as Special Assistant to the President in the White House and as Deputy General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.