Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter
January 10, 2021
My Fellow Citizens,
Listen, the United States has come unstuck in time. You might recognize this line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, but it matches the landscape of my mind today.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz provoked this feeling of coming unstuck or unmoored. He represents me in the Senate, and he insisted on demonstrating that he has a peculiar relationship with time.
By contemplating his actions, I realized that the way we orient ourselves to time makes all the difference in how we understand who we are. It changes how we understand our responsibility to others too.
If we can go back in time to the beginning of this week, our elected representatives challenging the Electoral College certification suggested this anti-democratic effort to discard votes had democratic legitimacy. To prove their claim, they cited a congressional compromise in 1877.
For those who study history, this compromise of 1877 marks the beginning of the end of Reconstruction. The backroom deal that ultimately settled the contested election cleared the way for everything that was the Jim Crow South and segregationist policies across the country. To take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the compromise, see “The Origins of the 1887 Election Count Act” by Gregory Koger on the MIschiefs of Factions blog. His essay includes all the details of what led to that moment and what followed.
In a few exchanges on Twitter this week, someone would lament that “244 years of democracy” would end like this, and someone else would counter with some version of journalist Adam Serwer’s response: “Makes a lot more sense when you realize the real number is 55.”
We are a country that is 244 and 55 years old at the same time. The events that the compromise in 1877 made possible account for the difference. We lose a lot of what we have learned from our past when we fail to see this difference.
(For more about this difference, read Adam Serwer’s recent article in The Atlantic: “The Capitol Riot Was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy“)
But what are concerned citizens, those of us with “deep concerns about the nation’s future” to do? In The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham offers a list of answers that includes “Keep History in Mind.” He explains, “A grasp of the past can be orienting.”
This use of history aligns with how Madison turned to the past in Federalist No. 37. He wrote that the failed confederacies of the past were beacons that “give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.”
Repeating what were bad answers then is surely no way to find the right answers today.
Meacham turns to a moment in 1830 to illustrate how this strategy works. In response to a nullification crisis in South Carolina, U.S. Senator Daniel Webster wanted to re-center the debate on the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. He introduced his “Second Reply to Hayne” with this imagery:
“When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course… Let us imitate this prudence, and before we float further on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we are now.”
We risk getting lost in time when we cite history without considering its orientation. We not only need to ask where we are now, we also need to ask where we were then and where we want to be tomorrow.
Senator Cruz’s approach requires merely citing history. Senator Webster provides an exercise of keeping history in mind.
Writing during the same time as Webster’s famous speech, Tocqueville offered warnings about democratic tendencies that would cause the whole project to come undone. Of democratic people, he wrote:
“They are in the habit of always considering themselves in isolation, and they willingly fancy that their whole destiny is in their hands. Thus not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries.”
Recognizing this habit of losing touch with our past means we can resist its pull and reject appeals to history that leave too much behind. We can insist that we learn from our past. There’s still time for us to decide what kind of ancestors we want to be.
Let’s keep history in mind and chart a better course forward,
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A difficult year made my reading goals impossible so I asked a different question. Working with a shorter list of titles, I ended up reflecting on the books that managed to live on in my mind despite a difficult year.
What did you read last year that made a lasting impression? There was a lot competing for our attention!
You won’t find a long list of titles on my 2020 reading list. Instead I reflected on the books that changed the way I see the world today. Read more here.
And, if there’s a title that quickly comes to mind when you consider that question, hit reply and tell me about it. If you I’d love to share your recommendations here too.
Questions of Civic Proportions
“History is philosophy teaching by examples..”
—Thucydides, Athenian historian
What can we do when the executive branch is the emergency?
Jeffrey Tulis wrote that question the day after the insurrection. A Professor of Government at the University of Texas, he also provided detailed instructions for what Congress needs to do next. It includes invoking the 25th Amendment, drafting Articles of Impeachment, and articulating their position that self-pardons of a president are illegal.
Tulis also wrote The Rhetorical Presidency in 1987. Here he responds to the news that Twitter permanently banned President Trump, “The End of the Rhetorical Presidency on Steroids.”
About the original book, you might consider this podcast from Benjamin Wittes on the Lawfare Blog. he read the book at the beginning of 2019 and decided that it taught him “more about the developments that led to the Trump presidency than anything I have read in a very long time.”
Another post on The Constitutionalist combines these questions of presidential rhetoric, wrongdoing, and necessary consequences Read “Yes, again. And Now.” by Allen Sumrall and Connor M. Ewing. They challenge the argument that a second impeachment with a limited chance of approval is a wasted effort:
“The President’s conduct in recent hours, days, and weeks is more egregious, more explicit, and more evident than what led to his first impeachment. For that reason, even a partial rebuke by Congress would be significant. Standards of appropriate constitutional conduct would be affirmed. The effort would offer opportunities for Republicans who supported the President during his first impeachment but no longer do to stand and be counted. In doing so, Congress would resume its role as a forum for the authoritative articulation of democratic will.”
Do we have a responsibility to do more to defend facts?
One of the twenty lessons in the small book On Tyranny is “Believe in the truth.” He published that book in 2017 and wrote, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” With that effort to guide us through what was to come, Snyder hoped we could learn from the history of other countries.
This week, Snyder wrote an essay for The New York Times: “The American Abyss: A historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump, the mob, and what comes next.” In his reflection on an insurrection fueled by misinformation and conspiracy, he sees a shared responsibility:
“Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump… is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.”
Good Work: The Symbols of the People’s Voice
There are many ways that events on January 6th could have ended in more destruction and chaos. Good Work this week is simply holding space for remembering what worked.
One story of heroism came by way of a group of women who “saved the boxes of the electoral college votes during a riot in the Capitol.” (Read more on The 19th). Senator Tammy Duckworth explained:
“One of the staff members was very quick thinking and was able to grab and secure the electoral college ballots and take them with her to this location, so we have them with us and we will be able to proceed as long as Mitch McConnell calls us back into session.”
Once the Senate reconvened, Senator Jeff Merkley praised their work from the Senate Floor:
“Their cargo is precious. These boxes contain the voice of the American people weighing in, as they have election after election.”
The photos that circulated on social media (Top and Lower Right here) were taken earlier in the day but became symbols of democratic resilience. This is also the spirit of The New Yorker’s most recent cover. The Washington Post declared “New Yorker cover captures a nation’s mourning after Capitol riot.” The artist, Edel Rodriguez, titled it “After the Insurrection.”
Rodriguez reflected on the events at the Capitol with a unique perspective:
“The events that unfolded at the Capitol felt like the death of a family member… I come from a country that was forever changed by a coup.”
The art editor who selected Rodriguez’s artwork, Francoise Mouly was born in France, said the image captured a common emotion:
“It seemed as if everyone had just experienced a personal loss. It made me realize the depth of patriotic feeling in so many Americans.”
Reflecting on this sense of a shared loss, let’s also remember U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicnick who died defending our democratic institutions and elected representatives.
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