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Larry Donnelly: The country of my birth is broken. Can it be fixed?

Larry Donnelly says based on recent events in his home country, it’s hard to argue that America is still the ‘land of opportunity’.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE COUNTRY OF my birth is in a very tough spot. This isn’t the first occasion on which I have written or spoken that sentence.

It doesn’t give me any pleasure to repeat it here because I love the United States and I always will. I will never be ashamed to be American and, above all, I am very proud to hail from the corner of it where I was born and raised.

But two things last weekend gave me serious pause and affected me profoundly on this front.

One was getting ready to interview Marion McKeone, who covers current affairs stateside for the Sunday Business Post, as part of the Galway Arts Festival’s First Thought Talk Series.

The subject of our conversation was “Will Trump Win Again?” Of course, that required a deep dive into some of the themes, issues and nitty-gritty political realities that I visit regularly in this space.

A hard look

In preparing for our encounter, I had to evaluate where the US is at the moment. How and why did Donald Trump become the 45th president? The country has elected men on the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats, aspirants who came from diverse circumstances.

The people have arguably never entrusted someone like Donald Trump to be commander-in-chief, however.

Leaving ideology aside, his background as the star of The Apprentice, a bombastic billionaire with a chequered record and a thrice-married, serial womaniser renders him unique.

At his core, he is not presidential – in the slightest – at least not in the way we Americans traditionally conceived of that label.

The second was reading a piece by Newstalk broadcaster Sean Moncrieff in The Irish Times, entitled “I’ve fallen out of love with America.”

In a rather searing indictment that was equally compelling and depressing, Moncrieff acknowledged that he was formerly “a little bit in love” with the place’s optimism and vibrancy before assailing the extraordinary gulf between the wealthy and the poor, the paucity of social protections as compared to Western Europe and the eternally vexed quandary of race and racism.

He asserts that the country, where the central tenet of the civic religion drilled relentlessly into its citizenry is that ours is the greatest nation on earth, “cannot resolve the unendurable tension between what it thinks it is, and what it actually is.”

Moncrieff’s diagnosis was hard to swallow, harder still because I could not push back against him on most of it.

Trump, the symptom

In assessing how to repair what ails America, too much attention has been paid to denying Donald Trump a second term. It may seem heretical or hypocritical for me to say so – both as an opponent of this president and a passionate believer in the power of electoral politics as a vehicle for transformative change – yet it is true nonetheless.

Trump did not create the malaise afflicting his country; he is a symptom of it. Income inequality and the racial divide predate his inauguration. Indeed, each has grown under previous Democratic and Republican occupants of the White House.

Sociologists and experts in related fields have looked at the root causes of problems that have proven intractable. These have been exacerbated by political failure, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

Another mantra of our civic religion is that the next generation of Americans will invariably have it better than the one before them. Increasingly, though, people don’t buy it.

Only 37% of parents believe their children will fare better than they did. Their perspective is rooted in what they see. Statistics show that the share of children with higher inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents has declined precipitously since the middle of the last century.


There are two primary reasons in my estimation. First is the cost of higher education. It is, by any objective measure, outlandishly expensive. One year, with housing and food included (to be fair), at the top colleges and universities can run in excess of $70,000.

It is not uncommon for graduates to emerge after a four-year bachelor’s degree in a discipline that won’t lead initially to a decent income with debt well into the six figures. And it is not excessively hyperbolic to say that this burden is akin to a noose around a 22-year-old’s neck.

Blue-collar in decline

Second, not all young people are interested in or suited to higher education. Outside of smallish pockets where labour and public sector unions remain strong, there is no longer much there for the high school graduate beyond minimum wage employment.

This was not always the case. The twin forces of globalisation and technology, coupled with misguided policies that accelerated the export of good jobs to Mexico and to the developing world, have largely put paid to the old days.

For many of these young men and women without economic means and who aren’t sure about their future, a period of military service has served historically to provide direction and, more tangibly, an advantage in securing a position as a police officer, firefighter, with the postal service, etc.

As of late, that alleged “choice” to enlist in the armed forces has made them cannon fodder in the unnecessary wars so desired by the military-industrial complex. The consequences for them have been catastrophic and have been felt far more widely.

If you were to sit at the kitchen table in homes of American families in both red and blue states, you would almost certainly hit upon about these sorts of topics prior to any discussion of the wisdom of cutting the capital gains tax or introducing unisex public toilets.

Bizarrely, for decades, these crucial concerns didn’t feature right at the top of the agendas of the political parties as they should have. In that context – feeling unseen and unheard – is it any wonder that lots of these voters took a punt on Donald Trump?

Not only in the weeks ahead of 3 November but also in the years to come, Democrats and Republicans ought to focus their platforms and appeals on expanding access to higher education and improving career prospects for young people.

Tinkering around the edges won’t cut it anymore. There is a major crisis. While the reckoning with race is undeniably more complicated, this is a key ingredient in the recipe for fixing a broken America.

Otherwise, the rest of the world will continue to scoff when they are told that ours is the “land of opportunity.” And I will just have to keep my head down.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg – A Tribute

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supreme-court-obit-ginsburg Source: Alex Brandon

After this column was filed, we learned of the death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Diminutive of stature, soft in speech, she was at the same time a towering intellectual giant and a powerhouse. 

She was a trailblazer who showed women that they really could do it all. Despite graduating at the top of her class from the prestigious Columbia Law School, none of the then male-dominated large New York law firms would hire her. 

The establishment may have shut her out, but instead of marginalising Ruth Bader Ginsburg, they immortalised her. For her career as a legal academic, public interest lawyer and jurist was far more impactful than it ever would have been had she become a senior partner with a plush office in a Manhattan skyscraper.

Much has been made in recent times of her fan club. I am sure Justice Ginsburg got a kick out of being known as “Notorious RBG” by a new generation of earnest activists. 

But that she was also admired and revered by those who didn’t always agree with her (and I am one) is telling in so many ways. Indeed, her closest friend on the Supreme Court was the late Justice Antonin Scalia. They disagreed passionately about the role of a judge and on lots of the “hot button” issues the Court had to decide.

Sincere differences of opinion did not lead to disrespect or enmity, however. Now more than ever, America, and the world should heed their example. It was a great honour to be present when the School of Law at NUI Galway hosted Justice Ginsburg in 2007. 

I was there when she spoke and inspired the future of the legal profession in Ireland. By her words and by her example, the law students – the young women in particular – were visibly moved.  The adjective may be overused, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg truly was extraordinary.  May she rest in peace.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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