Individuals, not politicians, will be the driving force behind change and reform in the future of the United States, Howard Dean ’71 told Yale students Thursday.
The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and 2004 presidential nominee spoke at a Pierson College Master’s Tea Thursday, which was limited to roughly 40 Piersonites who had secured spots through a lottery. Dean covered the midterm elections and the rise of the Tea Party, and emphasized the importance of grassroots movements in making a difference in the world.
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Dean attributed the growth of the Tea Party to two factors: the economy and the changing demographics of the United States. While Obama has prevented the economy from falling even further, Dean said the effort is not enough for voters.
“‘It could be much worse’ would not make a very good campaign slogan,” he said, adding that the bad economy has led some people to adopt an “it’s their fault” mentality about their leaders.
Changing demographics, and the difficulty some Americans have in accepting the change, are another critical factor in the Tea Party’s sudden rise, Dean said. He argued that this is not the equivalent of racism, which he said is only a fringe element of the Tea Party.
Dean used California as an example of a state where there is no longer a demographic majority, and this is changing the way constituencies vote.
“People see that the country is being run by different people who are not like them,” he said.
While Dean said he respects and trusts President Obama’s intellect, he said he is disappointed with how Obama and his staff have handled important political issues, particularly health care reform and the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
He said he thinks the health care measures were not radical enough, and were very similar to a plan moderate Republican Governor Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts in 2006.
“So what people call ‘Obama care’ really should be ‘Romney care’,” he said.
Dean said that he thinks Obama’s attempt to reach an accord with Congress over “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is doomed, especially now that the Republicans have taken the House of Representatives in the recent election. Using Lyndon Johnson’s legislative achievements as examples, Dean argued that the president needs to ignore or bypass Congress sometimes.
When asked about the prospect of bipartisanship in Congress, Dean said that he has a glimmer of hope: future House Speaker John Boehner.
“He comes off as a man who wants [Congress] to work right.” Dean said.
While Dean said he thinks Washington politicians are responsible for many of the problems people face today, he added that the American public must take responsibility for their actions as well. The ways that people spend their money — on material goods instead of education — impact the country, he said, and the conduct of individuals can shape a nation.
Despite the problems plaguing the country, Dean said he is optimistic that the current generation of young people are willing to take actions and work for something they care about.
“Change comes from the bottom down,” he said. “The ultimate arbitrator of your fate is you.”
Two students interviewed said they found Dean eloquent and visionary about the problems facing America.
Andrew Giambrone ’14 said he was impressed with Dean’s intelligence and his ideas about important issues such as health care and immigration reform.
Sinead O’Brien ’13 added that Dean did not mince words and answered all questions candidly.
At the beginning of the Tea, Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt presented a birthday cake to Dean, who turned 62 on Wednesday.