Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
November 15, 2020
My Fellow Citizens,
“It feels like America is at a fault line. Like this is an end of an era,” a foreign journalist reflects on our recent election. If you have spent these last couple of weeks feeling like you’re managing an emergency situation, this fault line explains that too.
With election results decided (no concession required), academics have started debating the use of the word “coup” and whether or not the U.S. survived an autocratic attempt. Political observers insist that American institutions have proven themselves and will continue to hold. The wheels of American democracy continue to roll forward.
And, yet, it still feels like it’s a dangerous time to look away.
This idea of America at a fault line comes from Arjen Van Der Horst, a reporter for NOS in Holland. His observation introduced a theme that persists through New Yorker magazine’s video, “America Bureau.”
The video presents a collection of views from correspondents watching our politics on behalf of the world. Sonia Dridi, a U.S.-based reporter for France24, explains:
“Voters are not always aware of how their votes count a lot. Not only for them but for the rest of the world.”
Abderrahim Foukara, a reporter for Al Jazeera adds:
“Nothing that happens in the United States spares—whether good, bad, or ugly—the rest of the world.”
There are more than a few mentions of the world watching us and holding its breath. The journalists explain that the stories they are covering here look similar to stories they have covered in Egypt, Lebanon, and South Africa. Could the instability they witnessed in those other places overwhelm democracy in the United States too?
These outside perspectives reminded me of one of my favorite Einstein stories.
While at Princeton University, Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel would often walk across campus, thinking together. Gödel, the logician who formulated the Incompleteness Theorem, had been studying the U.S. Constitution in preparation for taking the U.S. citizenship test. Einstein had written the Theory of General Relativity, so the two men had a deep and expansive idea of how systems work.
Gödel believed he had discovered a fatal flaw in the U.S. Constitution, “an internal inconsistency… that could allow the entire government to degenerate into tyranny.”
With the future of American democracy at stake, Gödel believed he had a responsibility to explain this to the judge overseeing his naturalization ceremony.
Einstein decided to accompany Gödel to the courtroom that day. He hoped to dissuade his friend from burdening the judge with this theoretical concern.
In his biography of Einstein, Walter Isaacson writes:
“When the judge asked him about the Constitution, Gödel launched into his proof that its internal inconsistency made a dictatorship possible. Fortunately, the judge… cut Gödel off. “You needn’t go into all that,’ he said, and Gödel’s citizenship was saved.”
All that. These perspectives from other countries make it possible to go into all that. We have to look away from the comfort of what is familiar. We have to ask ourselves to make a distinction, separating what is true from what we believe to be true because it is familiar.
In a video from The New York Times, “How U.S. Elections Look Abroad,” voters from other countries respond to the stories of American voters. Their observations:
- On gerrymandering: “This sounds like cheating,” and “That’s illegal.”
- On long lines on Election Day: “To me, it sounds like the 19th century, to be honest.”
- On shorter lines in white neighborhoods on Election Day: “That’s the definition of racism,” and, “It’s the same in South Africa.”
One journalist who has made this international perspective accessible throughout the Trump Administration is Anne Applebaum. In 2018 she contributed to The Atlantic’s project “Is Democracy Dying?” with lessons she learned living in Poland. She wrote about polarization, conspiracy theories, and attacks on the media. The subtitle to her article reads: “Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.”
More recently, she wrote about how the imagery of President Trump returning to the White House after receiving treatment for COVID. Applebaum saw parallels to the imagery of Moussilini and wrote about how these images work:
“Of course the scene was staged. Of course it’s cynical… But those staged pictures are what a lot of people want to see, and that false reassurance is what a lot of people want to hear. Don’t underestimate their power.”
Our democratic friends from other countries have invited us to look away from the pageantry. They have asked us to look at ourselves again.
The story of American democracy today includes a global call to action. The United States of America can do better.
Let’s answer that call to action together.
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Questions of Civic Proportions
“While democracy, in the long run, is the most stable form of government, in the short run, it is among the most fragile.”
—Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State, 1997-2001
Did our elections systems deliver a free and fair election?
There’s no question but we all know at least one person who wants to make it one. A statistic making the rounds this week reflects our partisanship more than our electoral system, “70% of Republicans don’t think the election was free and fair.“
If you’re more interested in the integrity of the system than proving the tenacity of your political identity, there’s great journalism available for looking deeply into these processes:
“The Wondrous Banality of Democracy” by John Witt at The Yale Review
“How Hard is it to Overturn an American Election?” by Benjamin Wittes on Lawfare
“The Pandemic Election” by Emily Bazelon at the New York Times Magazine incorporates a terrific series of photos too.
And, for the sake of countering anyone who still suggests this system failed us, you can share “U.S. election security officials reject Trump’s fraud claims” from BBC News or this list from the Washington Post, “The Republican election officials pushing back on Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims.”
Will we ever sort out what’s presidential again?
For this question, we’ll borrow a page from John Dickerson’s “Reporter’s Notebook,” posted on CBS News. The video begins:
“This week in the presidential drama, the actors seem to be changing costumes right on stage. The President-Elect was acting presidential. The ever-present President was not present. And the previous President launched a palooza, shouldering his nearly 800-page memoir onto the marketplace.”
To help you collect your own thoughts on what’s presidential now, there are a couple of useful reads:
New York Times presents a visual series from Opinion, “Who Inspired the Trump Campaign Playbook.” Take the time to “flip” through it.
Vox offers “Joe Biden has Won. Here’s What Comes Next” by Dylan Matthews. As for the previous president, The Washington Post describes the new memoir as a story of “hope, despair and life at the center of a divided nation.”
Geoffrey A. Fowler, a tech columnist at The Washington Post picks up a question that’s not going to go away, “Twitter and Facebook warning labels aren’t enough to save democracy.” CNET accumulated a comprehensive list of what tech companies did to manage misinformation. President Trump, of course, plays a lead role in that story.
Will we have saved the soul of America then?
It’s complicated. In a recent article, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi took up this question and the inescapable reality of our divided nation. He, too, is asking us to look closer at our history so we can prepare for our future.
In “The Battle Between the Two Souls of America,” Kendi writes about a “divide in America between the souls of injustice and justice.” We have to drop this idea that there’s a single soul to the nation. We have to understand the fight against the soul of injustice.
“Humans lie about themselves, like they lie about their nations. Humans and nations hide behind the cloak of ideals and intentions. But the outcome of what humans do and what nations do is never a lie. The outcome—what comes out of a nation’s policies, practices, and ideology—is what a nation breathes. Nations—like institutions and individuals—are not inherently anything. They are what they do. What they do is what they breathe. And what they breathe is their soul.”
Good Work: The Brooklyn Public Library and the 28th Amendment
They have now dubbed it “the Brooklyn Amendment.” Brooklyn Public Library invited its community to consider what the next amendment to the U.S. Constitution should do. Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library, described the project’s purpose:
“Our intent is to identify the ‘blind spots’ of the original Framers and to welcome the voices of those who were historically disenfranchised.”
Brooklyn Public Library convened its first town hall meeting in March. They had to move the input sessions online, but that didn’t seem to slow the project down. The library’s Vice President of Arts and Culture, László Jakab Orsós, reflects on the impact of the project:
“The fact that hundreds of people came and many kept coming back to town hall meetings to think about our lives and democracy— this fact itself is so moving.”
The list of recommendations is extensive and incorporates many of the controversies amplified again through our recent election results. You can see the consolidated notes from those public input sessions here. The 28th Amendment would require abolishing the Electoral College, reallocating seats in the U.S. Senate, making Election Day a national holiday, adopting automatic voter registration at birth, and democratizing workplaces.
This list is long and interesting, but we should all talk more about the questions they used to build that list. At the public input sessions, attendees focused on three questions:
- What protections, ideas, or language would you like to see included in the Constitution?
- In this present moment of the coronavirus, when so much has been so swiftly and fundamentally changed, what new protections would you like to see included in the Constitution?
- Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election will face a United States that is charged, challenged, and changed in ways it has not been before. What new Constitutional amendment would you want that president to heed?
The text of the Brooklyn Amendment begins with the resolution:
“Whereas the government of the United States should represent all of the people of the United y.”
This is a recipe for talking about democratic politics like it matters.
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