Remarks by Congressman Jim McGovern at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s 2022 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony
AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY
Chancellor Subbaswamy, thank you for that incredibly kind introduction.
Members of the Board of Trustees: thank you for all you do and for inviting me to speak today.
President Meehan, distinguished members of the legislature, faculty, and staff, family and friends: It’s a privilege to be with you all.
And most importantly, to the class of 2022—congratulations on reaching this milestone, and on a job well done! I’m grateful to be here not just as your commencement speaker, but as the husband of a UMass Amherst alumna who fell in love with this school, then fell in love with Massachusetts, and then, somehow, shockingly, fell in love with me.
As the Congressman who represents this school, I can tell you hands down that you are graduating today from one of the finest institutions of learning, not just in this country, but on this planet.
And by the way, my kids tell me you all know how to throw one hell of a party, and the food at Berk is pretty damn good. I want you to know that I’m honored to be in the presence of such an amazing group of students who earned your degrees during an unprecedented, once-in-a-century global pandemic.
We all know that wasn't easy, but the fact that each of you endured and persisted simply makes your accomplishment all the more inspiring. To your family and friends—your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody—I want to congratulate all of you, too.
I have a son who just graduated from college and a daughter finishing up her sophomore year. So I know exactly how proud you are today, and I also know that no matter how many degrees your kids earn, you’ll always be smarter. Graduates, give another round of applause to your family and friends.
Now I have a confession to make. I was a bad student, especially in high school. I worked hard, but A’s and B’s eluded me. I think when I got my diploma, it said magna-cum-lousy. But a while back, I actually got invited to give the keynote speech at the high school I graduated from in Worcester. I couldn’t figure out a good way to start my speech. So as I got up to the podium and looked out at all my old teachers, I just said, “surprise!”
I don’t think they thought it was as funny as I did.
Anyways, I really mean it when I say “congratulations on a job well done” to those of you who got such wonderful honors and awards. And to those of you who got C’s and D’s—I’m living proof that you, too, can one day be Members of the United States Congress.
Alright, now to the serious stuff.
The first time I ran for Congress, I lost. I felt like I let a lot of people down—my wife, my family, my supporters. When you lose an election, it doesn’t just hurt—it aches. I cared about the issues, I cared about fighting for people, but a majority of voters picked someone else. It was a humbling experience that taught me two things:
First: whether you win or lose, the most important thing is that you have to get back up when you’re knocked down.
And second: in a democracy, losing with grace and dignity matters. Because democracy depends on the consent of the people—not only from those who win, but also from those who lose.
Losing forces people and political parties to change and grow. To take action, and take chances. That’s what I did when I lost. I talked to new people, came up with new ideas, learned things about myself and about my community. I came to appreciate that politics is about addition and not subtraction. And two years later, I won. That’s how the system is supposed to work. Hell, that’s how life is supposed to work. When you fail, you learn from what happened, get back up, and try again. Progress doesn’t come only in moments of victory or triumph—it comes through the hard moments of disappointment and defeat, too.
Over the past four years you have experienced many triumphs—and too much trauma. From a pandemic that has left too many empty seats in this stadium, to the profound outrages of racial, social, and economic injustices this country is reckoning with, to the generations of pain and suffering caused by choices made long before us—and I want to acknowledge in that spirit that we are here today on stolen Pocumtuc land.
I want to talk to you about how we can solve these problems. And I want to make a simple pitch to you: don’t give up on democracy.
I’m not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, cookie-cutter idea of democracy—not just about winning or losing, or about something you learned about in political science class— I’m talking about giving everyone a seat at the table, and the power to demand a say in what kind of future they have. Democracy is a process—a way of solving problems to create a more just, inclusive, peaceful, prosperous, free and fair future.
And I’m asking you to believe in democracy, because I believe.
I still believe—even though, like you I can see that democracy is in crisis. And not just halfway around the world, but halfway down the block. We’ve watched in horror at what is happening in Ukraine as people stand up for the right to make decisions about their own future. It’s gut-wrenching.
Sometimes, it feels like ignorance and lies are winning out over wisdom and truth. Like evil and hate are winning out over love and kindness. I’m not here to tell you that everything will be all sunshine and rainbows if we believe in democracy. It’s not easy work. But it is important work.
The choices you make in the coming days, weeks, and months will decide if we are a country that demands truth—or fears power. Teaches tolerance—or tolerates tyranny. Opposes oppression—or bans books. These are not imaginary problems. We are living through dangerous times. And I know democracy might seem like it can’t solve these problems. After all, too often and for too many in this country, change has come either not at all, or not soon enough.
I was born when segregation was the law of the land and abortion was still illegal in many places. My generation lived through Watergate and the Vietnam War. I got pepper sprayed protesting outside the White House and arrested for civil disobedience 3 times. These are not new fights, but they are new again.
One of my best friends in Congress was civil rights champion John Lewis. In 1965, he led 600 peaceful protestors on a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to show the nation and the world that Black voters in Alabama were being denied the right to vote. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a chilly Sunday morning when a group of Alabama state troopers attacked them. They were beaten, bloodied, and barely escaped with their lives because they demanded change. Because they demanded respect. Because they demanded their rights. And you know what? After that, they got back up and did it again a few weeks later, and they forced Congress to finally pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I tell you these things because I want you to believe deep down in your bones, like I do, that everything worth fighting for in this country happened because everyday people stood up for what they believed in. “Democracy is not a state, it is an act,” John wrote in his final essay before he passed away. He knew that for all its shortcomings, democracy is the best way to solve big problems, defend human dignity, and make a difference.
And I know it’s easy to just put things on autopilot—to tune in when you need to vote, and tune out until the next election. But here’s the deal: it’s no longer safe to assume your right to vote will be around the next time you want to use it. Democracies are resilient, but they are also fragile. Just like all of us, they contain within themselves the possibility to self-correct, and to self-destruct.
That’s what we saw on January 6th. I was there that day, when a violent mob attacked the Capitol because they didn’t like losing—and because they had been fed lies about the election being stolen. I was one of the last people out of the House of Representatives as we evacuated. I came face to face with the people who were breaking down the glass doors to hurt us and prevent the certification of a free and fair election.
It was an awful day. Not just because people were hurt and died, not just because of the damage to a building, but because of the damage it did to our democracy. It was an attack on the basic idea that if you lose, you give up power peacefully—you don’t stage a violent attack because you didn’t like the results.
I know it’s easy to feel removed from things like this, or to think they don’t impact you. But like it or not, your future and the future of our democracy are linked.
Let me give you an example. Many of you are about to graduate with a boatload of student loans. I’m someone who believes we should cancel your student loan debt. And guess what—most Americans agree with us. But our democracy has been so chipped away at and distorted that the makeup of our government no longer reflects the majority of people.
Twice in recent history, the candidate who got fewer votes in the election became President of the United States. The filibuster gives a minority of senators representing a fraction of the people in this country the ability to stop bills that most of us support. And we have politicians cynically spreading dangerous conspiracy theories, radicalizing people into believing lies while they fundraise off the hate and anger they create. More and more, it’s the well-off and well-connected few who buy their way into the rooms where decisions get made. I think that’s just wrong. In a democracy, the losers are supposed to lose gracefully, and the winners are supposed to be accountable to the people.
These are huge problems, but they are solvable problems.
And I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I’m proud of it. But I’m not here to make this pitch to you as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent. I won’t tell you what to believe—but I will tell you that you have been given an incredible gift—a world class education. My question to you now is, what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do for democracy?
I know many of you have already embraced the call to public service. I know we have future teachers, nurses, doctors, journalists, firefighters, police officers, and more.
I want you to live a meaningful life, travel to interesting places, make new friends, fall in love and find your purpose. Life is short and it goes by too fast for you to not do what you love. But at the same time—I’m asking you not to forget that part of living a meaningful life is about being part of a community. And giving back to that community.
It will be tempting to let someone else do the work. To step back, throw up your hands and say, “not my problem.” But if democracy just means leaving it to someone else, then our country is not going to work for you. It’s going to work for fewer and fewer people. It’s going to work for those who are willing to rig the system, or overturn elections.
So I’m asking each of you—all of you—not to give up on democracy. That doesn’t have to mean taking on the biggest challenges. I’m someone who grew up in a family that wasn’t involved in politics. Yet they believed in the power of community. They didn’t pass judgment or feel sorry for people. They rolled up their sleeves and tried to help however they could. They taught my sisters and me that sometimes, the best way to change the world is to change someone’s world for the better. And in that lesson, we learned more about politics than any degree could have taught—no offense to the political science department.
We learned that sometimes, democracy simply means listening to others with respect and understanding and finding joy and purpose in giving back. So to the class of 2022, here is my challenge to you: We face big problems. Climate change, intergenerational poverty, systemic racism, hunger, war. Piercing partisan division and a rigged economy that too often rewards wealth instead of work.
It’s going to take courage, grit, and imagination to solve these problems. It’s going to require you to find joy and purpose in giving back.
Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. Even when you lose, and you want to throw up your hands and scream—trust me, I’ve been there. We are all citizens of this world. We all share a common destiny—common hopes and dreams of a more peaceful and prosperous future. The answer is more democracy, not less. And in a democracy, the power of the people will always be stronger than the people in power.
May we all be worthy of that awesome responsibility—knowing that better days always lie ahead if we come together in purpose and partnership to bring about peace on earth and goodwill towards all. Thank you for letting me share this special day with you.
Congratulations, and Go UMass!