Recap | The American Dream in the Age of President Trump

America prides itself on being the place where a common man  has the best chance at making a life; a place where opportunity is widely available. While this was especially true in times like the first half of the 19th Century and in the 1950s, SMU Political Science Professor Calvin Jillson argues the American Dream is in decline.

Jillson gave a lecture at the Tower Center, “The American Dream in the Age of Donald Trump,” discussing his newest book The American Dream in History, Politics, and Fiction March 20. He argues that great American literature portrays the dream in a dimmer light than politicians do in their campaign rhetoric and promises. With social mobility in decline and income inequality on the rise, a common person does not have the same access to opportunity as was offered before.

Jillson argues there are three images or ideas that must be realized for the American Dream to be accessible. First, is the idea of America as “The City on a Hill.” A home for all people who must have freedom. He quoted Ronald Reagan’s 1989 Farewell Address, in which Reagan described a shining city: “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

The second idea is the balance between the dollar and the man. A small man needs to have the chance to start, and this is not possible if the dollar is too strong. President Trump understood this idea, according to Jillson, and was able to direct his messaging at people who have felt the imbalance for decades. The third idea is the need to have a fairly-run race.

In his research of great American novels, Jillson found that literature treats the idea of the American Dream dismissively. The novels are a cautionary tale of those who pursued the dream and lost it. Chance and fate can crush aspirations, as can cultural restrictions for certain sectors of the population such as women and black Americans.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is an example of fate, which according to Jillson, “grinds you in a certain direction towards destruction.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter illuminates the constraints of culture with the story of Hester Prynne who is cast out of the Puritan culture due to her status as a woman who had an affair. He quoted Bigger Thomas, the main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son, saying: “Why should I want to do anything? I ain’t got a chance. I don’t know nothing. I’m just black and they make the laws.” He feels hopeless as a black man convicted of a crime in Chicago.

“These novels provide insight to the hurdles that come with pursuing the dream, but little of how to get over them,” Jillson said. Overcoming the hurdles is a question answered by social science, in books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”

For further reading, here’s a list of the other novels Jillson alluded to and authors he read in his exploration of the American Dream:

Billy Bud, Herman Melville; Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner; Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser; Sula, Toni Morrison; The Rabbit Series, John Updike; Babbit, Sinclair Lewis; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; American Trilogy, Philip Roth; and Mark Twain.

Listen to the lecture here:

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Spring Break at the Library of Congress

Professor Joseph Kobylka with his Honors Program class “The Supreme Court Seminar” in Washington DC.

HCM Tower Scholar and Tower Center student intern Destiny Rose Murphy is spending Spring Break at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Murphy is researching Chief Justice Earl Warren and his leadership throughout the Civil Rights movement for her final paper as part of Prof. Joseph Kobylka’s Supreme Court seminar.

Read about her experience so far on SMU’s Adventure blog.

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Texas Reps take the show on the road, bipartisan style

U.S. Reps Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke on their bipartisan roadtrip

Texas U.S. Reps. Will Hurd (R) and Beto O’Rourke (D) embarked on a 1,600 mile road-trip from Texas to DC in order to beat Stella the snow storm and make it to Wednesday’s congressional votes.

The two decided to livestream their trip. Read Jamie Lovegrove’s story on the “bi-car-tisanship” here.

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Q&A | Tower Scholar studies death penalty in Dallas County

The Tower Center sat down with Senior Kate Moody, class of 2017, to discuss her research project on the cost of the death penalty in Dallas County. Moody is majoring in human rights and international studies, with minors in Spanish and Public Policy and International Affairs as an HCM Tower Scholar. She plans to attend law school upon graduation in May.

Why did you decide to focus your research on the cost-effectiveness of the death penalty in Dallas County?

I am a human rights major and from the start of my time in the major, issues with our criminal justice  system captured my attention, specifically capital punishment and the use of the death penalty versus life without parole.  I can cite a lot of problems with the death penalty from a human rights perspective. However, my minor in public policy through the Tower Scholars Program and my second major in international studies have taught me there is more than one way to address a problem. For my research, I wanted to tackle an issue that was important to me because of my experience with human rights but from a public policy perspective. I hope that by focusing on the costs of the death penalty versus life without parole, I am able to communicate with a wider audience.

What have you learned so far from examining this issue?

I have learned that the death penalty is far more expensive than life without parole, but it is hard to collect the data to prove that. There have been tons of cost studies done in other death penalty states, but I have not been able to find a recent cost study on the death penalty in Texas. I think part of that is because Texas is the number one death penalty state in the nation, and I think as a culture in Texas we have normalized the use of the death penalty. I wonder if the high use of the death penalty in Texas is why there are few questions about its use and hence fewer studies published on the issue.

Has conducting the research been different from what you expected?

Yes, research has honestly been a lot harder than I expected. The advice I would give to someone starting research would be to stay true to your research but be flexible enough to adapt when circumstances require you to. It has been hard to collect cost information on capital punishment in Dallas County specifically, but instead of giving up, I had to adapt and narrow the scope of my research.

What did you take away from your experience interning for Congressman French Hill (R-AR-02)  in Washington DC?

I got the internship through a connection with the Tower Scholars Program; it was such a great opportunity to really see how public policy works in our nation’s capital. That experience affirmed my decision to approach my death penalty research from a public policy perspective because I think at the end of the day that perspective will get the message across and incite change.

Has your research made you feel more immersed in the Dallas community? If so, what has that been like?

Yes and no. Many organizations in Dallas have been helpful and given me advice whenever I have reached out to them. I also really like that my research is specific to Dallas County. On the other hand, submitting open records requests and getting them fulfilled has not always been the most efficient process, which can be frustrating. I think on that end, the lack of transparency has made me feel at times disconnected to Dallas.

How has your research impacted or shaped your goals for the future? What about the Tower Scholars Program?

Although I was intentional about studying the death penalty from the outset, I have really enjoyed the interdisciplinary approach in my research. I am preparing to go to law school in the fall, and because of this research experience, I want to be intentional about maintaining an interdisciplinary approach in my legal education and legal career. It has also been really neat to look back on my experience as an HCM Tower Scholar and remember those moments where public policy concepts sort of “clicked” and then seeing how they are playing out in my research now. I hope those are concepts I carry with me after I graduate in May.

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Event recap | The Migration Challenge in the U.S. and Europe Compared

Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and James Hollifield, academic director of the Tower Center, sat on a panel moderated by former journalist Lee Cullum discussing migration in the U.S. and Europe compared Feb. 28. Orrenius opened the discussion with a series of graphs to put the issue of migration in perspective on both continents.

Illegal border crossings and asylum applications spiked dramatically in the European Union in 2015 with most migrants coming from Syria and Afghanistan. Germany received the most applicants by an overwhelming margin, while Sweden received the most per capita.

These trends in Europe starkly contrast immigration to the U.S, where the only type of immigration that is increasing steadily is student visas. Illegal border crossings are down to levels last seen in the ’70s. Orrenius also noted that while applicants for asylum have been increasing, the amount of refugees accepted has remained stable.

“I don’t see the crisis,” she said of U.S. immigration.

Orrenius also pointed out that while the U.S. has 700 miles of wall built across it’s southern border, Europe has never had walls. Now countries like Hungary are trying to build them.

Immigration is a new phenomenon in Europe.”We are an immigrant nation — there’s no question about it,” Hollifield said. “This is not the case for Europe.”

If the United States faced the refugee crisis Germany is continuing to face it would be like 4 million people showing up on our shores, Hollifield said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel assumed Europe would follow her lead and share the burden of the refugees, but she was mistaken. The crisis has gotten out of hand in Germany and acts of terror have increased dramatically with seven occurring in 2016 alone.

Cullum switched the discussion to President Trump’s crackdown on immigration, specifically looking at the immediate repercussions of his travel ban that is now held up in courts. She used the narrative of Henry Rousso, a French holocaust historian who was detained 10 hours at the Houston International Airport for no apparent reason. Rousso was traveling to the U.S. to attend and speak at a symposium at Texas A&M University.

“How is this serving our nation?” Cullum asked Hollifield.  He didn’t have an answer, but Hollifield argued Rousso was detained because of his birth place — Egypt, even though it was not one of the seven nations listed in the ban.

America seems to be in the middle of a wave of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment. The sentiment stems from economic frustration and perceived cultural threat. Fears that are largely groundless, according to Hollifield and Orrenius. For example, the CATO Institute found that there is a one in 3.6 billion chance of being killed by a a foreign-born terrorist in the U.S. Yet, President Trump justified his ban by claiming people are pouring in from “dangerous countries.”

Cullum closed the discussion with this final thought: The rally around free enterprise is being replaced by a rally around sovereignty. “It’s something we’re all thinking about,” she said.

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Josh Rovner | What a war with China could look like

Tower Chair Joshua Rovner’s latest article in the Journal of Strategic Studies explores what a war with China could look like. He gives two possible scenarios: nuclear escalation and protracted war — both of which he argues would be a catastrophe.

Read his article in the journal here.

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How refugees can boost the economy

Tower Center Fellow and Oxford Professor Alexander Betts argues that accepting refugees can lead to an economic boost for the host country. He says the refugee problem is one of politics rather than numbers.

“For a long time, there has been an organised hypocrisy in the way the West responds to refugees,” Betts said. “On the one hand, states have signed up to refugee conventions and made commitments to respect the human rights of all migrants. On the other, they’re engaged in a competition to deter and avoid responsibility for taking in refugees.”

Read Global Citizen’s article on Betts and his “radical idea” here.

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Josh Rovner on new national security advisor Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster

Tower Center Chair Joshua Rovner was quoted on President Trump’s new national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn after his abrupt resignation, in the Tribune de Geneve Feb. 22.

Rovner said there is definitely potential for friction between Trump and McMaster.

“The general is for a much tougher approach to Russia than Donald Trump is,” Rovner said. “HR McMaster is also much more cautious than the president when he addresses the issue of the links between Islam and terrorism.”

Read the full article (in French) here.

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Keeping Dennis Simon’s Legacy Alive Through Students

Dr. Simon talking with students at the Tower Center student barbecue in August 2016.

Dr. Dennis Simon, professor of political science and founding member of the Tower Center for Political Studies, touched countless lives during his time at SMU. For him, the most important part of his job was taking students on the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done as an instructor at Southern Methodist University, and it’s also something that’s made me terrifically proud of the students at SMU,” Simon said in the beginning of his TEDxSMU Talk on the Pilgrimage in 2014.

In honor of his memory and in order to continue his legacy, the Tower Center will allocate $1,000 a year to the Pilgrimage to help support students who want to go on the journey.

MacKenzie Jenkins with Dr. Simon before leaving on the pilgrimage.

Simon led the Pilgrimage for seven years, taking students and community members across the South to visit “shrines of freedom” over spring break.

MacKenzie Jenkins, SMU junior and HCM Tower Scholar, went on the Pilgrimage with Simon her freshman year — the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March.

“His passion carried on to his students. It’s like having little seeds of hope in the room,” Jenkins said. “He pours so much into his students.”

She said she came to SMU knowing she had to take his civil rights class, but his enthusiasm on the trip confirmed it.

“He was a really amazing man, really funny and he’s going to be so missed,” she said.

Listen to Professor Simon’s TED Talk on the Pilgrimage here>>

Dr. Simon speaking at the Tower Center “Elect Her” event in 2014.

Dominique Earland, a senior majoring in biology and human rights, was inspired by the Pilgrimage to organize an alternative break trip to Selma, Alabama. The trip focused on concepts from Simon’s class and Earland hopes to have it named for Simon once the funding is secured to make it a recurring trip.

“He played an important role in my life and where I see myself going,” Earland said. “The fact that he loved American history and was able to convey the truth of that time period and the political power of the Civil Rights Movement inspired me.”

Earland said Simon taught her how important it is to continue to reflect on that time period and the impact so many people made — people he referred to as soldiers.

“We were so fortunate to have such a great leader and friend in Dennis Simon at the Tower Center,” said Tower Center Executive Director Luisa del Rosal. “We couldn’t think of a better way to honor his legacy than to give to the Pilgrimage he was so passionate about.”

Read more about Dr. Simon’s impact at SMU here>>

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Jeff Engel on “Trump vs the Press”

Tower Center Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Presidential History Jeff Engel was interviewed on FOX4 to discuss President Trump’s relationship with the media.

“We used to see administrations be challenged by the press on interpretations,” Engel said. “We’ve never seen an administration so blatantly challenged by the press because they are simply being factually wrong.”

Watch the full interview here.

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