Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

January 24, 2021

My Fellow Citizens,

A lot of magic happens on a successful Inauguration Day. This 59th rotationthrough the ceremonies and traditions came with a shared sense of relief after everything had seemed so dangerously compromised.

While there is logistical wizardry at every turn throughout the day, there is also a magic that almost makes you believe in time travel.

We not only look to the past to orient ourselves in time, but we imagine that we can see that past alongside our present moment while imagining our future. It works in a way similar to how Carl Sagan described the image of the Earth from space:

“That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”

On Inauguration Day, we seem to believe it’s possible to see all of time all at once. Real or imagined, there’s a through-line from the country’s beginning to the very moment in which we stand together.

Senator Roy Blunt started the day by emphasizing a theme of survival. Borrowing a reflection from President Reagan’s First Inaugural Speech, Senator Blunt described the day as something that is both commonplace and miraculous:

“Commonplace because we’ve done it every four years since 1789. Miraculous because we’ve done it every four years since 1789.”

He punctuated the phrases that followed with persistence:

“Once again, all three branches of our government come together as the Constitution envisions.

Once again, we renew our commitment to our determined democracy forging a more perfect union.”

Senator Blunt reminded us that the country had confronted uncertainty in previous generations. They still celebrated the inauguration of a new president just like we would do. We have been tested by time, and we have survived.

In the forward to his 1986 book, The Cycles of American History, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. suggests there is protection provided once we survive a test:

“History, by putting crisis in perspective, supplies the antidote to every generation’s illusion that its own problems are uniquely oppressive… Knowledge of the past should inoculate against hysteria but should not instill complacency.”

According to Schlesinger, survival alone is not enough. We have to resist the complacency of thinking we will always survive future tests. Even after inoculation, we have to do our part to prepare for challenges yet to come.

To that end, President Biden combined the past, present, and future in his remarks by quoting the lyrics of a song, “American Anthem.

First, he explained, “We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era.” He invited everyone to “add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our nation.”

The President provided the lyrics between his proposition and that invitation:

“The work and prayers
of centuries have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?…
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you.”

The song has charted its own course through time. With the Clintons in attendance, opera singer Denyce Graves first performed the song at the Smithsonian Institution in 1998. Graves also made the song part of celebrating George W. Bush’s Second Inauguration on television. Most recently, she performed the song at Justice Ginsburg’s memorial in the U.S. Capitol.

Then Ken Burns asked Norah Jones to record the song for his documentary series, The War. That version transcends time. Jones described the song’s message as one that “honors the past and commits to the work we have to do going forward.”

“American Anthem” reminds us that we can survive, battered and bruised. Resilience requires that we also accept a shared responsibility to recover.

This understanding of who we are is what we saw when a young poet took to the stage. She distilled all of this—and all of us—into a few words:

“Somehow we weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time.”

On a day that connects us solidly with our past and everyone that has come before us, the 22-year-old Amanda Gorman used her poetry to call on us to “put our future first.” That sounds like the kind of ancestors we want to be.

Let’s give it our best,

Shellee

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Questions of Civic Proportions

“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a persistently stubborn illusion.”

—Albert Einstein, physicist

Will the new Congress pass legislation that never stood a chance in previous sessions?

Ari Berman wrote the book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in 2015. So, when he posts data visualizations on social media, I pay attention. This week, he posted this stat, “By 2040, 30% of America will elect 70 senators. 70% of America will elect only 30,” and linked to the article “The Insurrection was Put Down. The GOP Plan for Minority Rule Marches On.

In the article, Berman writes:

“Biden won by far the most votes of any candidate in history and beat Donald Trump by one of the largest margins in recent decades. Yet he’ll be handcuffed from the start. Fifty Republican senators will be able to thwart most of his legislative agenda, even though Democratic senators represent 41 million more Americans.”

It’s an essential read for right-sizing your expectations of the U.S. Senate. At Vox, Li Zhou offers a rundown of all the ways the story of a 50-50 Senate will continue to be about obstruction.

The Atlantic offers useful historical perspectives on obstruction and white supremacy. Read Jane Chong, “This Is Not the Senate the Framers Imagined” and David Litt, “The Senate Filibuster Is Another Monument to White Supremacy.

This 2019 Explainer video from Vox, “How the Filibuster Broke the U.S. Senate” also makes it easy to see how these rules change the math on who has representation and who does not. There’s an excellent list of additional reading provided there too.

For democracy in the United States, is it all downhill from here?

Writing in the Indiana Law Journal, Jack Balkin borrows a Southern euphemism for the Civil War, attempting to use constitutional time to address the “recent unpleasantness.”

He clarifies that he does not want to suggest we are on the verge of another Civil War. Quite the contrary, he argues that the moment is temporary. He uses the euphemism as a way to call to mind another moment when we had a “widespread feeling that something has gone seriously wrong with constitutional democracy in the United States.”

To reach this conclusion, Balkin challenges originalism, an approach to constitutional interpretation that operates in linear time. Instead, he imagines there are “political cycles that interact with each other and create remarkable—and dark—times.” Democratic decline is possible, but it is not inevitable:

 

“Whatever happens, the agendas of politics ten years in the future are likely to look very different from the politics that we are suffering through now. That is the message with which I will leave you: constitutional development doesn’t move in straight lines. It goes in cycles. And there are multiple cycles at work. There is a cycle of constitutional rot and renewal. There is a cycle of polarization and depolarization. And there is the cycle of the rise and fall of political regimes.

When all of these cycles line up in a particularly unhappy way, the country moves into political darkness, an eclipse of democracy. But just like the eclipse on August 21, 2017, the darkness does not last forever. In fact, it lasts only a few minutes in the larger scheme of things. You may not see that now, but I promise you, this eclipse is purely temporary.”

 

The Recent Unpleasantness: Understanding the Cycles of Constitutional Time” by Jack Balkin (Indiana Law Journal: Vol. 94 : Iss. 1 , Article 6.)

Good Work: Make America Smart Again

MASA describes its mission as empowering “individuals to use their brains and their voices.” Founding the organization, Amanda and Shepard Fairey wanted to counter apathy and the spread of misinformation.

While much of their website focuses on being an informed voter, MASA also offers downloadable posters with messages like the one above.

At the top of a page of anti-racism resources, the banner claims the work “involves knowledge sharing at its core.” The page provides a list of action items that include shopping at Black-owned businesses and supporting important initiatives even after an outrage has passed. They follow through with lists of organizations to help and resources for finding Black-owned businesses.

The message that resonates today is on another page: “Only you know what issues matter most to you.” Their resources page presents a directory of organizations listed by issue.

MASA is a non-partisan effort but has a particular focus, listing issues like climate change, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, and gun control. That shouldn’t diminish this effort by Amanda and Shepard Fairey to lend their skill, talent, and artwork to promoting a healthier democracy.

On the About page, the couple explains that they have been outspoken in their beliefs. They still wanted to make this a non-partisan project.

Their mission is to inform, not to preach:

 

“There are always lingering concerns for the future of our country, its people, and the planet. MASA empowers citizens to stay engaged, know the facts, and hold each other to higher standards. The future is unwritten, and it’s ours to write.”

 

Their website has one more call-to-action that I imagine we can all support, “Education is a lifelong commitment and improving our country should be a goal for every American.”

That’s one more reminder that we’re the ones who need to repair it.

(TBH It was their art that got my attention; follow them on Instagram)

 

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