Maria Echaveste, a former White House deputy chief of staff under President Clinton and special representative to Bolivia under President Obama, joined a conversation at UC Merced on Tuesday night about “The Future of American Democracy.”
The engagement was part of the Chancellor’s Speaker Series led by UC Merced Interim Chancellor Nathan Brostrom who was visibly excited and smiling from ear to ear. The auditorium in the Arts and Computational Science building — with a capacity of 300 people — was filled with students and Merced community members interested in what Echaveste had to say during the free, public event.
Echaveste is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up working in the fields alongside her family when they lived in Texas and then Clovis and Oxnard, before she attended Stanford University and earned her law degree at Berkeley.
She posed the question: “How does a farmworker’s daughter go from one generation from the fields to the White House?”
Her answer: The state invested in education and public schools.
“To me that is what is so amazing about this experiment that is America,” she said during her opening statement.
And then she continued, “It’s important to think about our democratic institutions, and what we are prepared to do as citizens and residents of this country. … We often say we are a nation of immigrants, very proudly, but what most people forget is that no group has ever been met with open arms. That discrimination, the hatred, that was leveled toward immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, or against the Irish, the Italians, the Japanese, the Chinese. No group. So we need to understand how this experiment, which is about an idea, keeps expanding the definition of who gets to be American because we have these institutions, a Constitution, the Executive Branch, the courts, Congress, and most importantly, we have the right to vote. … And it’s the will of the people, over the years, that has expressed itself to expand who gets to be American.”
Echaveste reminded those in attendance that “tribalism” exists in every human being.
“Unless we are encouraged and inspired to be better, or we have experiences that allow us to see our common humanity, human beings default to tribalism. We default to us versus them. …
“You have a country like ours where people came willingly and unwillingly — and yes with a history of genocide of the native peoples — but with this idea of individual freedom, of ‘You get to prove yourself if you work hard.’ This idea that is not limited to nationality based on ethnicity, race and religion. So here we are at a moment when our leaders in the highest offices are using our technology and media to drive people further apart. … So this is a critical moment.”
She sighed and admitted: “I’m a little worried.”
Chancellor Brostrom then sat down with Echaveste to take questions from the audience. The queries included themes of “voter suppression,” “the influence of social media,” “thoughts on NAFTA,” “worldwide protests about economic conditions,” “the responsibility of corporations,” and “comparing the impeachment proceedings between President Clinton and President Trump.”
On voter suppression, Echaveste commented:
“The political parties have not done a good job in really motivating us to vote. … If Pepsi spent a billion dollars telling you Coke was poison, and Coke spent a billion dollars telling you Pepsi is bad for you, you would probably drink 7-Up, right? That’s what has happened with Democrats and Republicans. So many people get turned off. … I feel like we have to find ways to reduce that cynicism. Make no mistake about it: If we let ourselves be intimidated, misinformed or lured into ‘your vote doesn’t matter,’ we will get worse government.”
Regarding social media and corporate responsibility, Echaveste received a round of applause when she said:
“In order to conduct business, in order to make money, these companies in the social media arena need to own up to their responsibility if they want to keep making money. …
“Capitalism unleashes innovation, but it also unleashes the worst of humanity. That’s why we need rules. That why we need laws. I’m not saying we get rid of capitalism. We just have to constrain it a little bit, and have it be a responsible actor.
On impeachment, she recalled:
“I remembered distinctly the day the allegations regarding President Clinton surfaced. I remember being so angry. … How do you risk this administration, and the work we are trying to do?
“But here’s the thing: Impeachment back then did not risk the republic. What we’re dealing with right now, as the facts come out, really are threatening to the republic. How do you use foreign policy for personal political gain? How do you engage in policies that put your political interests ahead of the country. I disagreed with George W. Bush. And I got involved with the Clinton campaign because I didn’t want to see the first Bush elected. But I never doubted that those presidents put the country’s interest ahead. That’s not what we have right now.”
Overall, Echaveste noted that despite having a country in crisis, U.S. citizens should be proud to know that they can turn to strong institutions, meaningful and effective laws, and the right to vote — an American way of governing that is unmatched in other areas of the world — including nearby Mexico.