A Civics Lesson, Or Why I Love Jamie Raskin

Watching today’s House of Representatives too often reminds me of farce: Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk are so lacking in gravitas, so proudly ignorant, so strident as they parade their various prejudices and display their utter unfitness for elective office, the show they put on tends to overpower recognition of their more serious and/or able colleagues.

One of my favorites in that latter group is Jamin Raskin. I’ve followed Congressman Raskin since before he was first elected, actually–many years ago, my husband and I were in Washington, D.C., catching up with former Mayor Bill Hudnut and his wife Beverly. Bev was then in law school, and introduced me to her Constitutional Law professor, who–among other things– shared my obsession with civic literacy, and had produced a book for use by high school government teachers. That professor was Jamin Raskin.

During his tenure in Congress, Raskin has frequently called upon his academic background to explain America to his dimmer colleagues. One of my favorite examples was when he told an excessively pious lawmaker, “When you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.” (He recently repeated this to Mike Johnson, the current Speaker, who has frequently opined that “the bible comes first, before the Constitution.”)

He taught another lesson when he spoke out against the censure of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who had made remarks that echoed long-time anti-Semitic tropes. In a press release, Raskin–who is Jewish–

urged the House to respect and protect the right to political free speech granted under the First Amendment and the Speech or Debate Clause by not using the House disciplinary process to punish Members’ political speech; warned of the chilling effects that politicizing and weaponizing the House’s censure mechanism would have on the speech of all Members; and noted that, in the history of the House of Representatives, the overwhelming number of censures have been for conduct, like taking bribes, embezzling funds, assaulting other Members, engaging in mail fraud, and having sex with pages, and that the only kinds of speech that have ever been punished have been true threats of violence, fighting words on the floor towards other Members, and incitement to insurrection and secession, none of which are protected by the Constitution and none of which are implicated here.  

Raskin’s legal skills were evident when he managed Trump’s second impeachment.

And recently, when Congressman Glenn Grothman attempted to lecture Raskin on a perceived distinction between a “republic” and a “democracy,” Raskin outdid himself, providing Grothman with a history lesson.

The link is to CSpann, and I urge you to click through and watch Raskin deliver that brief but powerful lesson.

Raskin’s work ethic has been obvious, as he has continued to work during a recent bout with cancer and the unimaginable pain of losing a son to suicide. 

There are undoubtedly other Jamie Raskins in “the people’s House,” with whom I’m unfamiliar. I focus on him because I’ve met him, because he actively defends important constitutional values,  and because his wit and intellect and work ethic have all been particularly impressive, but I am confident that for every MTG, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar and Jim Banks there are two or three serious elected Representatives trying to do a good job for their constituents at a particularly contentious time.  (The recent bipartisan booing of MTG on the House floor was a welcome indicator that those individuals are as tired of performative politics as I am.)

Perhaps–if and when Americans tire of confusing political gravitas and legislative capacity with celebrity–we will be able to replace the Christian Nationalist “God squad” and other self-important know-nothings with people who are actually familiar with the Constitution and serious about producing legislation to improve Americans’ lives, and strengthen democratic values.

Like Jamie Raskin. 


It’s We, The People

Robert Kagan recently published a lengthy excerpt from his recent book  “Rebellion: How Antiliberalism is Tearing America Apart — Again” in the Washington Post.

In it, he dismissed a variety of explanations for the MAGA embrace of Trump–discarding arguments that the movement is a result of rapidly changing technology, widening inequality, unsuccessful foreign policies or unrest on university campuses. Instead, he pinned it on failures of We the People.

It is what the Founders worried about and Abraham Lincoln warned about: a decline in what they called public virtue. They feared it would be hard to sustain popular support for the revolutionary liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence, and they worried that the virtuous love of liberty and equality would in time give way to narrow, selfish interest. Although James Madison and his colleagues hoped to establish a government on the solid foundation of self-interest, even Madison acknowledged that no government by the people could be sustained if the people themselves did not have sufficient dedication to the liberal ideals of the Declaration. The people had to love liberty, not just for themselves but as an abstract ideal for all humans.

Kagan worries that too many of us no longer care about preserving the system the Founders bequeathed us–a system based on the principles of universal equality and natural rights. Preserving that system, he says, “plain and simple, is what this election is about.”

“A republic if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin allegedly said of the government created by the Constitutional Convention in 1787. This is the year we may choose not to keep it.

Kagan follows that sentence with an extended recap of what most Americans know–about the intent of the January 6th insurrection, about Trump’s candid announcements of his goals, about the unconscionable failure of the Senate to use impeachment, the mechanism provided by the Founders, to negate the threat of further insurrection. Then he gets to the crux of his argument.

So, why will so many vote for him anyway? For a significant segment of the Republican electorate, the white-hot core of the Trump movement, it is because they want to see the system overthrown. This should not come as a shock, for it is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it is as old as the republic. Historians have written about the “liberal tradition” in America, but there has from the beginning also been an anti-liberal tradition: large numbers of Americans determined to preserve preliberal traditions, hierarchies and beliefs against the secular liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The Founders based the republic on a radical set of principles and assertions about government: that all human beings were created equal in their possession of certain “natural rights” that government was bound to respect and to safeguard. These rights did not derive from religious belief but were “self-evident.” They were not granted by the Christian God, by the crown or even by the Constitution. They were inherent in what it meant to be human.

That paragraph introduced a lengthy historical discussion in which Kagan reminded readers that MAGA is really nothing new. Throughout our history, significant numbers of Americans have rejected the classical liberal foundations of the nation’s constituent documents–and especially the notion of civic equality.

For two centuries, many White Americans have felt under siege by the Founders’ liberalism. They have been defeated in war and suppressed by threats of force, but more than that, they have been continually oppressed by a system designed by the Founders to preserve and strengthen liberalism against competing beliefs and hierarchies. Since World War II, the courts and the political system have pursued the Founders’ liberal goals with greater and greater fidelity, ending official segregation, driving religion from public schools, recognizing and defending the rights of women and minorities hitherto deprived of their “natural rights” because of religious, racial and ethnic discrimination. The hegemony of liberalism has expanded, just as Lincoln hoped it would, “constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of colors everywhere.” Anti-liberal political scientist Patrick Deneen calls it “liberal totalitarianism”….

Kagan reminds us that the fury on the Right against “wokeness” is nothing new. “Anti-liberal movements in America, whether in defense of the White race or Christianity, and more often both together, have always claimed to be suffering under the expanding hegemony of liberalism.”

There is much more, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety.

Bottom line: MAGA’s Christian Nationalism is nothing new. In November, We the People will either defend our “natural rights” or we will lose them.


The Way We Never Were

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is Stephanie Coontz’ The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. In it, Coontz debunks several of the persistent myths that continue to distort contemporary politics. (I think my favorite chapter is the one titled “We always stood on our own two feet,” in which she details several early important government programs that “small government conservatives” conveniently ignore.)

I thought about “The Way We Never Were” when I read a recent column by Jennifer Rubin, addressing the notion that today’s divisions are deeper than they’ve been–that the times we occupy are worse than those of the past. She titled her essay, “Get real and read some history. The past was worse.”

Nostalgia is a powerful political tool. Wielding nostalgia for a bygone era — one that is invariably mischaracterized — is a favorite weapon for fascist movements (Make America Great Again), harking back to a time before their nation was “polluted” by malign forces. In the United States, such nostalgia none-too-subtlety appeals to white Christian nationalism. Even in a more benign form (e.g., “Politics didn’t used to be so mean,” “Remember the days of bipartisanship?”) plays on faulty memories. If you really go back to study U.S. history, you would find two things: The past was worse, and conflict has always been the norm.

Economically, Americans were a lot poorer, even as late as 1960, when there were roughly 400 vehicles per 1,000 Americans, about half of today’s car ownership rate.

Tom Nichols has written extensively on the politics of false memory. “Times are always bad. Nothing gets better. And the past 50 years have not been a temporary economic purgatory but a permanent hell, if only the elites would be brave enough to peer through the gloom and see it all for what it is,” he wrote. “This obsession with decline is one of the myths surrounding postindustrial democracy that will not die.”

Given all the hand-wringing about crime and crime rates, for example, it is bracing to look at the actual data: It turns out that crime was considerably higher in the 1970s. Not only crime rates, but “poverty, child mortality, deaths from virtually any major disease, workplace injuries, high school dropout rates, etc., were all much worse in the 1950s. Also, kids got polio, Jim Crow was in full swing, gays had to be in the closet and no one had cellphones, home computers or microwave ovens. Very few people had air conditioning or could afford to fly.”

Troubling as the gap between the rich and the rest is and remains, income inequality has been on the decline since 2007. Rubin traces America’s history since the 1930s and The Great Depression–through World War, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the riots of the 1960s, the political assassinations, the Vietnam War….

You get the point. Though those who rail against modernity, urbanity, pluralism, tolerance and personal freedom in service of an authoritarian perch would like to turn back the clock, a perusal of history suggests now is the best time to be alive.

And what about the myth of America’s former bipartisanship? She reminds us that– “from the get-go”– politics in America was vicious. Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, et al all assumed the worst of one another:

Jefferson, watching the government amass power and assume state debt, concluded that Hamilton’s Federalists were royalists and corrupt financiers who had been plotting ‘to betray the people’ since independence.” In turn, “Federalists, conversely, thought Republicans ideologically deranged to the point of near-treason. Blind infatuation with a hostile (and anarchic) France, faith in state sovereignty, Luddite opinions on public debt — all of these seemed like symptoms of a deeper mania among Jefferson’s followers.”

The founding era was followed by slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and racial segregation.

You can flip through the history of presidential insults, devastating feuds and congressional violence. None of this suggests we ever enjoyed a sustained halcyon period of unity. To be certain, we had brief interludes when World War II united the country and when the ideological gaps between the parties were not as vast. However, we “got things done” mostly when one party (in modern times, usually Republicans) got wiped out in elections, leaving Democrats to construct the New Deal and the Great Society. Republicans vilified Democrats every step of the way (even testing out a coup against Franklin D. Roosevelt).

What we have not had before is a president who rejected democracy, attempted to retain power by force and wound up indicted on 91 criminal counts. So yes, four-times-indicted Donald Trump was worse than every president who preceded him.

As both Coontz and Rubin remind us: Nostalgia– especially nostalgia for a time that never was–is the stuff of snake-oil salesmen.

That said, we need to protect that progress–and democracy–this November.


(Some Of) We The People

I’ve been reading The Words That Made Us, a magisterial history of the origins of the Constitution, written  by Yale Constitutional Law professor Akil Amar. Amar’s previous books include The Bill of Rights and America’s Constitution: A Biography, both of which I read and found enlightening. (For example, in the latter book, Amar documents the extent to which the Amendments passed after the Civil War–especially the 14th–represented a significant reconstruction of the nation’s legal framework.)

This new book is also copiously and carefully documented, and as a consequence, it can be a bit of a slog; on the other hand, I’m encountering a number of heretofore unknown (by me, at least) details about the process that produced our Constitution, and the personal characteristics of the men who fought over it, theorized about it, and negotiated it.

Which brings me to a point on which most of those Founders apparently agreed–sovereignty in the U.S. rests with “We the People.” Not with the individual states, certainly not with Kings or Presidents–but with the people. We can now be critical of the worldview that confined definition of “the people” to free White males, and we should celebrate the later expansion of “the people” to include women and people of color–but we shouldn’t minimize the importance of what was then a truly revolutionary concept of sovereignty.

Interestingly, Amar points out that after the “constitutional conversation” over ratification took place, most colonies eliminated property ownership requirements for voting on the new charter. (Something else I’d previously not known.)

“The people” was–for that time–an inclusive concept.

America today faces a very dangerous tipping point–brought to us by a party, really a cult or cabal–that wants to change the concept of sovereignty and the definition of “people.”

We talk and write a lot about democracy, but what we mean by that term varies. As a number of pundits have pointed out, autocrats around the globe often claim to be “democratically” empowered, because their countries hold “elections.” (Note quotation marks.)

The men who crafted America’s Constitution broadened the then-definition of People, and saw democracy as the authority of those people. Today, faux patriots are engaged in narrowing it.

Gerrymandering carves out particular “people,” whose votes will outnumber and void the voices of others. The Electoral College–which Amar reminds us was an unwise concession to the slave states–operates to nullify the votes of a majority of the people who cast Presidential ballots. And as the Committee investigating  the January 6th insurrection is discovering, a not-insignificant number of elected and appointed Republicans–including Trump– fully intended to mount a coup and overturn an election decided by the people that numerous investigations (and Trump’s own dishonorable Attorney General) confirmed was free and fair.

The introduction to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say “We (some of) the People.” It doesn’t say–as far too many of today’s faux patriots evidently believe– “We the (White Christian) People.” It says “We the People.”

If sovereignty is to be vested in We the People, all people’s votes must be counted and all people’s voices must be heard. That isn’t happening. (Okay, it’s never really happened, but we have previously moved in that direction.) To the contrary, we’re moving backward, thanks to a well-organized effort to subvert democratic equality and the very idea of “one person, one vote.”

As Barton Gellman reports in the linked article,

For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.

It is past time to reassert the sovereignty of ALL of We the People, and take back the country we thought we inhabited.


We’re Far From Number One

These days, in the aftermath of the “former guy’s” administration, Americans seem intent upon tearing the country apart. It has become impossible to ignore the reality that approximately a third of our fellow Americans are–excuse the language–bat-shit crazy, and that the people they vote for range from self-interested panderers (Indiana’s Todd Young just announced he will run again) to delusional fellow-travelers.

On the other hand, the rest of us are (slowly and reluctantly) coming to terms with realities we have previously ignored or downplayed. It is no longer possible to evade recognition of the extent to which racism has infected our politics and dictated our policies, for example. And our naive belief in “American exceptionalism” turns out to be our very own version of The Emperor Has No Clothes.

Last September’s release of the Social Progress Index reported that– out of 163 countries– the United States, Brazil and Hungary were the only ones in which people were worse off than when the index began measuring such things in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.

As Nicholas Kristof noted in the New York Times,  the United States, despite our immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranked a sad 28th — having slipped from a not-exactly-impressive 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.

The Social Progress Index finds that Americans have health statistics similar to those of people in Chile, Jordan and Albania, while kids in the United States get an education roughly on par with what children get in Uzbekistan and Mongolia. A majority of countries have lower homicide rates, and most other advanced countries have lower traffic fatality rates and better sanitation and internet access.

We lag in sharing political power equally among all citizens, and we rank a shameful number 100 in discrimination against minorities. (Note: that isn’t 100th in eradicating discrimination; that’s a rank of 100 among the most discriminatory.)

And those metrics were before COVID.  Since social scientists tell us that inclusive, tolerant and better educated societies are better able to manage pandemics, that doesn’t bode well for upcoming rankings. Kristof concludes by saying

We Americans like to say “We’re No. 1.” But the new data suggest that we should be chanting, “We’re No. 28! And dropping!”

Let’s wake up, for we are no longer the country we think we are.

Permit me a quibble: I’ve been reading a lot of American history lately, and it has become painfully clear that we never were the country so many of us (me included!) thought we were.

From Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths, to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, to Isabel Wilkerson’s searing Caste, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us,  these unadorned, un-falsified, meticulously documented accounts explain–as McGhee puts it–“why we can’t have nice things.”

Thanks to America’s long history of tribalism and “zero sum” thinking (if “those people” get X then that must mean I will lose X), we can’t even have the public goods that other countries take for granted, let alone a social infrastructure that supports and values all  citizens.

A full third of America wants to keep it that way. To them, that was the American “greatness” they wanted the former guy to restore.

The rest of us have our work cut out for us.