As the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Benjamin Franklin is purported to have said, “We must all hang together, or … surely we shall all hang separately.” Almost 250 years later, an English-born naturalized American citizen nears the end of her remarkable story that began in the coal house and took her to the White House with similar thoughts about the absolute necessity of working together.
She sees too many people born into similar circumstances in the generations after her who did not have the same opportunities she was given. “Deprived and disadvantaged, they will continue to be preyed upon by unscrupulous politicians who offer them a promise of opportunity in return for their votes.”
Those who are left-behind deserve better, however. Their problems are everyone’s.
They are our fellow Americans and fellow Brits, in some cases our family members and friends. Helping them will not be purely a selfless act. Because as long as they feel that there is no hope for them, there will be no hope for the rest of us. There will be nothing for us, anywhere.
There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century is a remarkable memoir by foreign policy and national security expert Fiona Hill. How she ends up with that conclusion comes out of her very personal story of growing up in England’s North East — coal mining country — the wrong class, in the wrong region, with the wrong accent and nonetheless working her way through St. Andrews and Harvard to the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings, and service in the White House. That last stop is where most of us first came to know her as a key witness in the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Her years as a nonpartisan national security analyst in the Trump White House come in the middle of the book and are told in her direct, honest manner. Hill doesn’t spend excessive time on wild Trump tales, with the exception of her disbelief at how much the former president wanted the main purpose of his first state visit to England to be the introduction of one dynasty (his) to another (the Queen’s family) and not a celebration of U.S.-U.K. ties. Her reaction to this narcissistic statecraft — which was visible to all who watched that visit with open eyes — is fully understandable. She does, however, focus on the challenges of working in a dysfunctional work environment and the impact that approach to governance, combined with Trump’s “autocrat envy” worldview, has on serious policy needs. Outside of the prologue and a few pages at the end of her description of the White House years, Hill’s participation in the impeachment trial gets very little play in this book.
Instead, in much of the book she focuses in an empathetic and understanding way on her upbringing in coal mining country as seismic shifts in global economics combined with Margaret Thatcher’s brutal and de-humanizing policies of the 1980s closed opportunity after opportunity for the region’s citizens. Her father, a former coal miner who ended up working as a hospital porter, encouraged her to leave England’s North East, saying “there’s nothing for you here, pet.” She was one of the fortunate ones who still had enough support systems, contacts, access to government assistance, and personal motivation to work her way out. But early on she notes that “opportunity does not materialize from thin air and no one does anything alone.”
At age 13, Hill was on a school exchange in Germany when she first heard the three questions that would follow her from childhood to adulthood, “all in the following order:”
- “So, where are you from, then?
- What does your father do? (there was no follow up about my mother), and
- What school do you go to?”
These were not “get to know you” questions in England. “This was a highly determinative trifecta of questions — the beginning of a socioeconomic class sorting exercise. Depending on how you answered, you could be either accepted or written off.”
Hill uses her story as both backdrop and cautionary tale. Her upbringing in a region that was forgotten in the 1980s, a key turning point when “Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan helped to drive the nail into the coffin of twentieth-century industry while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off” certainly shapes her perspective and her empathy for the forgotten regions in the U.S. and the U.K. Modern Russia, which she has spent most of her career closely studying, is another cautionary tale. “Russia is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future,” she writes, “a harbinger of things to come if we can’t adjust course and heal our political polarization.” Finally, her time as a national security analyst on Donald Trump’s National Security Council led her to see that “In some respects the crises of 2020 would mark the final reckoning with the revolutionary reforms of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s.”
What moves There is Nothing for You Here from absorbing memoir to an even more compelling call to action is the book’s final section: Our House. In those 80 pages, which some reviewers criticize as a boring Brookings paper but which I found persuasive, Dr. Hill lays out the issues in straightforward language, and then provides prescriptions for the sick patient in useful detail. It is set up in the chapter that ends the previous section — The Horrible Year — which chronicles 2020. Hill is struck with how much the U.S., the U.K., and Russia began to resemble each other, not only in the disastrous response to the pandemic but in their separate but intertwined marches toward authoritarianism with populist leaders primarily focused on gaining power and riches.
All three had faced the challenges of managing major economic and technological shifts and had had to deal with the political consequences of post-industrial decline. Prime among those political consequences: governments seemingly without the interest or ability to solve the deadly serious challenges of the twenty-first century (emphasis added).
But we don’t have to follow the Russian model here in the U.S.
Education was key to Hill’s survival and advancement, and she strongly believes that we have to provide modern, 21st century education for children, young people, and adults to survive and thrive in the new world we now face. She also makes the strong case that where class is the determinative factor in how one is accepted in England, that key factor is race in the United States. Here in the U.S., we have “wasted human capital on an enormous scale over the last forty years by constraining social mobility for millions of people.” The problems the U.S. faces have “festered since the 1980s” so fixing them will take time. Nonetheless, she is optimistic that we can do so.
(O)n the national level, it will require a major policy effort to create the kind of comprehensive antipoverty, education reform, and jobs-creation programs for the United States to succeed in creating a new infrastructure of opportunity for all Americans in the twenty-first century. One-off initiatives and temporary interventions are insufficient.
The work also has to be place-based. In a very compelling chapter entitled No More Forgotten Places, that follows a similar chapter on working to remember and support forgotten people, Hill writes:
In the final reckoning, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, there should be no such thing as the wrong place to live.
Building opportunity that is spread more evenly across America’s vast landscape and its population is key to addressing our partisan polarization and fragmentation.
Dr. Hill provides examples that can be taken to scale, changes in policy that would benefit wide swaths of Americans, and specific steps each of us can take to help build forward together to create opportunity in the 21st century.
If you are a CEO or an executive of a corporation or other large organization, she shows how you can help break down barriers and even the playing field. In a similar fashion she has ideas for those who are retired and have free time, an experienced working professional, a young professional, a college professor or administrator, a college student, or a teacher. These go from simple and practical (volunteer as a mentor); to more challenging (set aggressive hiring targets for women, minorities, and underrepresented groups); to significant policy changes (pulling together and streamlining existing government and philanthropic funds and setting clear development goals). They are people-based and place-based.
Fiona Hill’s call to action may seem improbable. However, no less than the Financial Times applied that descriptor to Hill after she stepped before the country to effectively speak truth to power. She has seen firsthand where we are headed without a major change in direction, one that recognizes that our left-behind citizens deserve better in part because we will all do better — we will all build hope together — if we recognize that life is a team sport.
More to come…
Image: Historic photo of Newton Cap Road Bridge in Bishop Aukland, England.