By Derby Chukwudi
Dr. Lauren McKee, Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Berea College
Dr. Lauren McKee is the Assistant Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies. A significant resource in the community, McKee is also the instructor for the Model African Union for this semester. With the current issues concerning immigration and executive orders signed by the newly elected President Donald J. Trump, the Pinnacle had the opportunity to interview McKee.
Pinnacle: What led you to Berea college?
McKee: I’m currently a Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies. I first came to Berea in 2014 as an ASIANetwork-Luce Foundation postdoctoral teaching fellow after finishing my Ph.D. in International Studies at Old Dominion University. I came to Berea for two primary reasons: one, I am attracted to the mission of the college and feel my work here is supported and appreciated by students. I’ve found the work at Berea challenging but equally rewarding. Two, I enjoy teaching in an interdisciplinary setting. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in English and my doctoral degree is also interdisciplinary, so it’s actually difficult for me to think about learning as confined to strict disciplinarian boundaries.
Pinnacle: With the current President and the signing of the executive orders, where do you think Berea stands in this political landscape?
McKee: Berea’s unique history promoting social justice, especially at times when political trends challenge that mission, continues to enforce its commitment to inclusive education. Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but I do know that all faculty and administrators I’ve talked with over the past weeks are committed to the safety and security of all Berea students in the short term as we see what comes of the president’s executive orders. New actions and reactions are coming to light as we watch the first few weeks of this presidency unfold, so there is a degree of uncertainty. In the long term, I can only imagine the college would continue to follow its founding mission, even in a political environment that seems adverse to that mission.
Pinnacle: Many people are shocked that President Donald Trump, is actually carrying out what he promised during his campaign. What do you think about this? Are you part of the surprised group? If yes, why?
McKee: I think Donald Trump crafted a very successful narrative about the economy during his campaign to a very specific group of people who have been, or, at least see themselves as having been, left behind by the process of globalization. This was a zero-sum narrative in which someone else’s gain equals a direct loss for someone else. So if you are a person who suspects your job was outsourced or taken by “non-American” workers, whether that’s true or not, it gives you someone to blame and, more importantly, a way (and a presidential candidate volunteering) to fix it. Of course, the world is more complicated than that, but many people don’t want or don’t have the time or skills to understand this complexity. That’s not a new phenomenon. Even though one of the most important fundamentals of a successful democracy is education, we repeatedly fail in that respect in America. I say all this to conclude that I’m not surprised a lot of people in this country support his policies, even when I don’t myself.
What alarms more than surprises me has been the boundary-testing of democratic institutions and processes by the new administration. Conflicts with the justice system, a lack of transparency with the media, the questionable constitutionality of some of these executive orders, all those things are very concerning. On one hand, the strength of an institution, like the justice system or the media, can be defined by how it responds when tested. We’ll see how strong our system of checks and balances is and it may be the American system of democracy emerges stronger than ever.
On the other hand, if these institutions fail under pressure from the Executive, the future for democracy seems less clear. It’s also important to note that the populist sentiment in the U.S. is part of a much bigger trend across the democratic world, in Germany and France and Britain, for example, where far-right nationalist rhetoric is uniting millions of people. This is bigger than just what is happening in the U.S., and how we react now to this polarizing swing in policies will be a significantly contributing factor to international politics, as well as domestic, for years to come.
Pinnacle: What words do you have for the Berea community, as fears and anxieties arise among students at large, especially the directly affected students?
McKee: I mentioned the strength of institutions earlier, and that includes civil society. If you’re a person who always enjoyed the benefits of living in a free democracy without ever having to actually do anything to maintain it, now is the time to become involved. If you have been involved in one way or another, through protests or education or lobbying your representatives, then keep doing that! There are numerous resources out there for how to engage with this administration. I would also add that your participation is especially important if you are a person with a privileged voice without fear of political retaliation. Use your position to stand up for others.
I don’t patronize people by telling them “everything is going to be fine.” If you are a student directly affected by or fearful of the actions of the current administration, that’s an especially unhelpful sentiment. What I will say is that you have many people on your side, at Berea and beyond, and we are advocating and working for you.