UNC law prof Gene Nichol | Q&A | Indy Week
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UNC law prof Gene Nichol 

On why our politics should help the poor

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Yes, we can, our president-elect has told us.

Yet it's not apparent whom "we" will include. Discussion of Wall Street and Main Street doesn't necessarily address those living on the other side of the tracks.

After returning from a controversial stint as president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Gene Nichol, a professor of constitutional law at UNC-Chapel Hill, recently became director of the university's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. While Nichol was dean of UNC's law school in 2005, he helped then-U.S. Sen. John Edwards launch the center. With Edwards out of public life, but the "two Americas" still divided, Nichol is taking up the charge of finding policy solutions to help people work their way out of poverty through education, job training and other initiatives. Nichol spoke with the Independent about the task of helping the poor in a global financial crisis, and about his hopes for political change.

How does the economic crisis affect what you expect to accomplish?

It has a huge impact. I was down in Siler City a couple weeks ago with some of our colleagues from the School of Social Work, who are doing great and important work there. On the way back, I turned on the radio and the stock market had fallen through the floor. I would concede that getting people to pay attention to these chronic and debilitating problems of poverty is even more difficult in this time of economic crisis.

I'm not a political leader or a presidential candidate, so I don't think I can get as much attention as Sen. Edwards could, but I am hopeful we can shine a light.

What impact will the election have on this effort?

I think this was one of American democracy's best days. The stunning and heartening participation of young people in this election, in more powerful ways than in 1972, is even more heartening when you think there's not a draft motivating this generation. A lot of folks chose to reject the debasement of American democracy—starting wars, greed, incompetence, the cynicism of politics which is based on the division of people, the belief that our common efforts to rebuild society are not worth anything.

Yet even in this remarkable and culture-changing election that was so potent and energizing, there was almost no discussion of the fact that 20 percent of American children live in poverty in the richest country on earth, the richest country in human existence. Economic inequality is accelerating among the richest nations in the world, and the United States is now the most economically polarized industrial nation. Those are crushing problems that are at odds with what we believe we are as a people.

It's become fashionable to use terms like "working families," "hard-working Americans," "real Americans." You can talk about Main Street as a way of avoiding those who have not yet worked their way onto Main Street. It's just understood, you're not supposed to talk about poor people when you run for office. I think that has to change in American politics.

[Former U.S. Sen.] Paul Wellstone used to say that we turn our gaze away from those locked at the bottom. Most of us are doing well, the people we know are doing well. We know there are real challenges for a very large chunk of the American people, but we simply choose to look away.

Many people are starting to get very worried about their own well-being and fear they'll slip out of the middle class.

No doubt about that. Budgets are blown, and the requirements of dealing with an astounding economic crisis are huge. And it's quite understandable that Americans will not be in a generous mood.

But this is an opportunity to ask, How are we all doing, top to bottom? I mean, if we can bail out those at the very top over and over again, surely we can focus on those who are struggling much more profoundly.

Thankfully, there has been more of a sense that we're all in this together. That, too, is a fundamental, foundational American idea. It's not all simply sink or swim.

Lincoln said that the central purpose of America was that the weak would gradually be made stronger and everybody would have an equal chance—the central purpose! That's big. What was central for Lincoln has in a lot of ways become alien to us. We need to refocus our efforts.

Nichol discusses "The Constitution, Politics and a New Democracy" at UNC's Friday Center Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. Admission is $10, advance registration required. Contact 962-2643.


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