Renewed infrastructure and the threat of inflation weigh heavily on the minds of Americans, but national unity remains paramount.
In former presidential speechwriter and adviser Ben Rhodes’ recent memoir, “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made” (Random House, 2021), the author travels the world in an effort to understand the relationship between America’s recent past and the rise of authoritarianism in places such as Hungary, Russia, China, and Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, one of his acquaintances reflects on the types of political movements that gain broad appeal. He concludes that those that awaken sympathy for universal values, even more so than identity politics (which can be inherently confrontational), bring together people from different backgrounds for a common cause.
One way to rise above partisanship and find common purpose is by recognizing the universal values our politicians propose and pursue, even with their notable differences. I recently undertook such an exercise and found the results illuminating and reassuring about our country’s future.
Kamala Harris, the current Vice President, and Nikki Haley, former Ambassador to the United Nations under Donald Trump, share a common origin story: both were the daughters of Indian immigrants. Harris’s mother hailed from India and her father from Jamaica, while Haley’s parents were both Sikh Indians from the state of Punjab.
Harris and Haley recount their life’s journey to the spotlight of American politics in their respective memoirs.
Both had mothers who were models of the importance of education and made her own contributions to society. Dr. Shaymala Gopalan, Harris’s mother, earned a PhD at the age of 25, worked as a cancer researcher while raising two daughters on her own, and insisted that Kamala acquire a meaningful education. Each day, Kamala and her sister, Maya, participated in a highly personalized after-school program that likely sparked her own interest in developing the talents of those without a strong social support system.
Haley’s mother, Ajit Randhawa, earned a law degree and qualified to serve as a judge in India but was discouraged from doing so by her family due to her gender. Upon relocating to the United States, Ajit started a luxury import business with revenues growing to seven figures. Nikki, born with a gift for working with numbers, balanced the books as a young teenager.
Both Harris and Haley made good on the educational expectations of their respective families (both of their fathers held PhD’s as well), the former attending Howard University, a historically black institution, and earning a law degree from the University of California Hastings. Nikki took her affinity for mathematics to Clemson University, where she earned a degree in accounting.
Both Harris and Haley used talents developed as young professionals to transform their respective states and garner national attention as promising young politicians.
Kamala Harris worked first in the Alameda County district attorney’s office before ascending to district attorney across the bay in San Francisco County. In that capacity she developed Back on Track, a program to rehabilitate non-violent law offenders through community service and job preparation, a concept that she later applied statewide while serving as Attorney General for the State of California.
Nikki Haley developed a deep sense of fairness and championed a wide range of measures as a state legislator and later as governor that improved government accountability and an improved climate for small and medium sized businesses in South Carolina.
While they differed significantly on other issues, both Harris and Haley embraced political agendas that encompassed universal values that should be appreciated above party divisions. In Harris’s case, she championed redemption from the bloated public corrections system, as well as law and order. For Haley, political accountability and fiscal responsibility underscored her efforts to improve the quality of governance in South Carolina.
As we look for ways to build conversations about the needs of our nation that rise above party lines, we need to appreciate the abilities of all who wish to address universal values in ways that speak to us as Americans rather than as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. As we do so, we will build a stronger nation that can be appreciated by all.
Evan Ward is Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history. His views are his own.