Hope in small doses

With the presidential campaign fallen to a form of mud wrestling, I’ve largely tuned it out. What a welcome surprise Tuesday night to hear some fresh perspective and a dose of hope from three young foreign journalists who spent the last nine weeks crisscrossing America talking to people in newsrooms, think tanks, political offices and on the street.

Yasmine Ryan from Tunisia, Aurelio Tomas from Argentia and Nino Bucci from Australia  have toured the U.S. thanks to the World Press Institute, a small St. Paul nonprofit that brings 10 foreign journalists each year to the United States to experience what it’s like to work as a reporter here. I was fortunate to moderate a discussion with them Tuesday night when the three spoke to the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota at the Minneapolis Women’s Club.

Fueled by caffeine, curiosity and adrenalin, WPI fellows Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota studied for three weeks at the University of St. Thomas before taking off to visit nine cities across the country and two small towns – Tracy and Ely – in Minnesota. They dug deep into selected topics – presidential politics, police-community relations, nuclear security and the struggles of American journalism.

Their final U.S. trip was to St. Louis for last Sunday’s presidential food-fight. I expected them to describe is with head-shaking astonishment and despair.

But no. Tomas likened Trump’s appeal to the populism Juan Peron brought to common people in Argentina in the ’40s and ’50s who felt ignored and abused by a wealthy political elite.  Trump offers an answer that is bigoted and misplaced – attacking immigrants, Muslims and political insiders. Going forward, the answer is not to shame and demean Trump’s supporters, Tomas said, but to address their genuine problems — loss of jobs and status and a sense that they’ve been forgotten.

Yasmine Ryan talked with Bernie Sanders supporters and was struck by their commitment to work for change at the local level, where politics is less polarized and paralyzed than in Washington. Nino Bucci too sees the power of Americans can-do spirit, the way people recognize a problem and come together to find a solution.

They all remarked on the disproportionate role that money plays in American politics and culture. They turn on TV and are besieged by drug companies’ ads touting their wares. In St. Louis, the free buffets, beer and bags of swag for journalists, all underwritten by corporate sponsors, blew them away. Tomas was even more shocked to learn the price tag to attend Washington University for a year: $65,000 for tuition, fees, room and board. How can opportunity be equal when the cost of college is so high and the distribution of wealth so uneven?

In the appalling scrum of this election, it’s valuable to be reminded of our strengths and the ways money in politics, high college costs and income inequity have distorted our society. Thanks to Tomas, Bucci and Ryan for that, and safe journeys as they travel home.

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