Renewing America Series: The History of American Democracy

Thursday, March 3, 2022
Martin Wheeler/Getty Images

Opinion Columnist, New York Times

Curator of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; Author, The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865–1915

Kemper Professor of History, Harvard University; Author, These Truths: A History of the United States

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; @Yascha_Mounk


Presidential Historian and Author; CFR Member

Renewing America and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Panelists discuss historical context and perspective for the current state of democracy in the United States. This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. With its Renewing America initiative, CFR is evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.

BESCHLOSS: Oh, thank you a lot. Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, which is called “The History of American Democracy,” which I hope will not only be history, could not come at a better time this week and perhaps this year. This meeting is part of CFR’s Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy and it’s also part of CFR’s Renewing America Series, which is an initiative that is evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.

I’m Michael Beschloss, historian/author. I am presiding today. I’ll have no opinions on anything that anyone says. I’m just a neutral broker here. And we are thrilled to have with us, as you all know, Yascha Mounk, Jon Grinspan, Jamelle Bouie, and Jill Lepore. And I polled our participants, and I said would you rather me take the first few minutes reading packaged biographies of each of you or actually talking, and unanimously everyone said let’s get right to the talk.

So if I might begin, here we are. It’s 2022. This has been, I think we would all agree, a momentous week in world history, and in American history. And go back to 1989, when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated for president of the United States. In his inaugural address as most of you will remember, he said: The day of the dictator is over. And so let’s begin by saying, given what we’ve seen this month and this week, how do those words look in world terms now? Jill, would you like to begin?

LEPORE: Sure. Well, thanks. It’s a real honor to be with you all today and looking forward to the conversation. You know, every day that ends the rule of a dictator is a day to be celebrated, but there is no last day of dictatorship. There are petty tyrannies and grand tyrannies that are part of the human condition, and the world of the rule of law and international order are forces of great invention and ingenuity in addressing the ability and trying to constrain the ability of dictators to come to power and to hold power. But the announcement in 1989, like many presidential announcements, was wildly premature.

BESCHLOSS: And that was even before the revolutions of the fall of 1989.

LEPORE: Right. It had a perishable stamp date.

BESCHLOSS: Yeah. That’s for sure. And now I’m going to break my rule by having no opinions. I think I’m allowed to least say one sentence, which is during the last week I have thought a number of times that if George H.W. Bush were here and seeing what is happening, he would cry. And that having been said, also Mikhail Gorbachev’s 91st birthday was yesterday. I would love to know what is on his mind.

But, Jamelle, could you come in on this?

BOUIE: Sure. Sure. I agree with Jill very much in the—right, the view that—the idea that there’s ever an end to the age of dictators is just sort of off. That not only is authoritarianism, autocracy something that is going to be with us for a while, but in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were real warning signs that the forces of nationalism, especially, that had helped tear the Soviet Union apart would manifest themselves in ways that were amenable to authoritarianism and autocracy.

There’s a fascinating opinion piece from ’92, I think, that former President Richard Nixon wrote for the New York Times, where he makes the observation that a failure to seriously promote root and branch democratic reform in Russia might result in the emergence of a, you know, hyper-nationalist autocracy, which is more or less what happened. Say what you will about Nixon—(laughs)—as a president, plenty of negative things to say, he in that moment was a very astute foreign policy observer. And I think that you could read that piece and be shocked by its prescience, looking at the events of the last several weeks and, of course, the specific events of the last week.


MOUNK: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting to reflect on this line from, you know, George H.W. Bush. You know, it shows you something about at a certain timescale something can be very prescient, and then in a larger timescale it can be premature. So it’s amazing that he sort of anticipated what was about to happen with the end of all these terrible communist dictatorships. Then so for a while it would have looked very prescient. But from today’s perspective, we see that it was obviously an overstatement.

I mean, I think it’s worth just thinking about the development of democracy and dictatorship over these three decades. You know, there was always dictatorships throughout this period, as there always have been, as Jill and Jamelle have said, throughout human history. But for the first ten or fifteen years after that statement was made, democracy’s domain really was expanding. You really did democracy being on the offensive, many countries becoming democracies, a sort of push of democracy into further and further parts of the world.

But then what we’ve seen since roughly 2005 is not only now sixteen years of democratic recession, sixteen years of dictatorships making more progress than democracies, but also weakening of democratic idea, both because democracies appear much weaker domestically than they have been in the past—they appear much weaker in some of their traditional heartlands, they appear much weaker in North America, and Western Europe, and even some of the East Asian democracies than they were twenty or thirty years ago. And now a sort of lack, as a result, of democratic aspiration.

What was most striking in the latest Freedom House report was not the number of countries that have experienced democratic backsliding, the number of countries where dictators have made advances over the course of 2021—which was significant, but roughly in line with the previous fifteen or so year. But the record low number of countries that have actually made democratic improvements, the record low number of countries that are moving towards democracy. And so I think we have been at a moment in which the case for democracy has seemed weaker than it has in a long time.

And in these horrible days, the one hope is that it actually reminds the world of just how terrible dictatorship is domestically, because it’s the Russian people who are suffering among the most at the moment. Just how dangerous it is internationally, with the terrible things that Russia is doing to Ukraine today. And just how important it is for us to actually stand up for democratic values as a result.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you.


GRINSPAN: Yeah. I’d like to echo that note of hope in this time that seems somewhat hopeless. I mean, I guess the problem with that quote, not to pick on Bush too much, is the idea that you have the day of the democracy, that—or, the day of the dictator. I mean, most of human history—

BESCHLOSS: —of seeing what we’ve seen.

GRINSPAN: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you. What was that?

BESCHLOSS: Oh, I was saying, of course, he didn’t have the benefit of seeing what we’ve seen.

GRINSPAN: Yes. Yeah, and it’s a lovely quote from ’89. But most of human history, some form of dictator, not necessarily a nuclear-armed dictator and a totalitarian power, has run things in most of society. So the idea over the last two hundred years or so that we could have a liberal democracy, that we could pluralistic states is this really hopeful moment. And I think we’re not at the point where we should give up on that. We should see it under fire and under struggle.

And my ancestors were Jews who came from the Ukraine, from Mykolaiv and from Kharkiv. And the idea that there’s a—that Ukraine would be a place that Jews would do anything but flee from, let along, you know, be the president of, fighting for a national cause, it is a hint of what we still have to fight for and to hold onto. And I think we shouldn’t give the autocracies too much credit yet. That obviously they’re on the warpath and they’re the moving force for questioning liberal, Western democracies. But this might be what it takes to revitalize us and give us some momentum. So I don’t want to be too much of a Pollyanna, but the fight for democracy against dictatorship is a long one in the scale of human history. And it’s not—it’s certainly not over yet.

BESCHLOSS: Sure. I think another way of coming at this is—I don’t want to hang everything on poor George H.W. Bush, who, you know, it’s always great to take someone out of history who’s not here. And, you know, we can say with perfect confidence: This is what he would say if he were here. And the person is not here to contradict it. I think—as I say, I think he would be heartsick at what he has seen. But if we were, for instance, having this conversation in the mid-1990s, I think with no cynicism, we might have said, you know, evaluate—Jill, for instance, has written beautifully about Thomas Jefferson and his contradictions. One of the things that Jefferson said was, paraphrasing, the contagion of democracy and freedom will spread around the world. He didn’t say it was inevitable, but that was what he was essentially suggesting.

And if we were in, let’s say, 1995, there’d be reason for hope. Because you’d look at China, you know, compared to the time of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Things were opening, at least they were giving lip service to the idea that some kind of democratic values were their goal. Boris Yeltsin had come to power in Russia because he was so much of a reproach to the time of the Soviet Union and what that philosophy was. And also, you know, wherever any of us were politically in the mid-1990s, I think very few of us would have said there’s a danger, after over two centuries of our small-D democratic tradition, that our presidential elections will ever in be in jeopardy, that the way we choose presidents and local and state officials in the states would be in jeopardy.

And so here we are in 2022. I would not say—I mean, CFR, you know, let a thousand flowers bloom, but not terribly many people are going to say that China is going in a democratic direction at the moment. Would they say, at least at the moment, the same thing about Russia. And people are raising legitimate concerns that some of our democratic rights in the United States are being constricted. So from the standpoint of 2022, is it fair to say that Thomas Jefferson and other who believed as he did, that democracy would be infectious and that despite setbacks that was the fate of the world, was that overly optimistic?

Jill, do you want to start?

LEPORE: I can start, but I sure can’t finish. I mean, that’s an unanswerable question, right? And that’s one that political observers in the United States and around the world have been wrestling within it was first asked, is it possible for us to live—as Hamilton put it in the first Federalist—by reflection and choice? Or are we all, all human societies in all history, condemned in the end to submit to rule by accident and force? And that—the question is fundamentally unanswerable. And how you go about it maybe turns on your view of human nature, it turns on your view of the history of different—of nations.

I think that one of the—I’m really interested in the hopefulness that Frederick Douglass found through the prospect of technological change aiding the possibility of rule by the consent of the people. That there was, for Douglass, you know, writing in the middle and the later decades of the 19th century, an argument to be made that technologies that accelerated communication and transportation, and allowed for more accurate representation of human beings—so, Douglass, as—you know, as people will know, as a real devotee of the world of photography, that representing people accurately through the technology of photography would lead to the sort of unassailable and inevitable acknowledgement of the fundamental equality of all people.


I find that optimism incredibly beautiful, especially in the face of what are just in the last decades of Douglass’ life incredible political decline and decay, the real true rotting of American political institutions, as represented by the last decades of the 19th century. But I also—I find it troubling. I mean, Douglass, in this great speech he gave in 1869, you know, damns people who will take the pessimistic view. He calls them croakers, right? The air is “full of nevers,” people that just say never, upon never, upon never. This speech he gives in ’69, during the ratification debates over the 14th and 15th Amendment.

He says, “It is thought by many, and said by some, that this republic has already seen its best days; that the historian may now write the story of its decline and fall.” Many people are saying the same thing now, not only about the United States but, to Yascha’s point, about democracies all over—all over the world. So I think that fragility is something that we need to be mindful of. It’s something that history teaches us. Where to find hope there, I think people are watching by the day to decide whether they’re optimists or pessimists. It sort of depends on what you see on CNN at the end—at 10 p.m.

BESCHLOSS: Yeah and, Yascha, if I could come in for a second, is it fair to say, you know, given exactly what Jill has said, that America—we have an optimistic view of human nature and the future, and why shouldn’t we because compared to most of the world, our history has been—with monumental exceptions—you know, many cases for optimism and hope and happiness, you know, very different from a lot of other places in the world. Whereas, if I were someone who was Ukrainian today, I would have had a tragic view long before today, and I would see what’s happening there almost as a vindication of the way that many Ukrainians have looked at history for centuries. One conquest and one act of violence after another. So I guess what I’m asking Yascha, and is this—are we too American in saying everything will be great in the end? You know, are we, Americans, the ones who are aberrant, or, you know, does this fit for you?

MOUNK: I think there is certainly an American strain of being overly optimistic, which has held true for much of American history. I think right now in some ways Americans are much more pessimistic than other people, and that’s partly because the state of American democracy I think is much worse than the state of democracy in many European countries, for example. But I find, sort of, the extent of despair and pessimism and self-hatred that I see in the United States today really striking, compared to what we had when I first arrived in this country about fifteen years ago, and really striking compared to how I see the political debate in relatively functional European democracies, like Germany. But even in ones with much greater challenges, like France.

To the broader question, a couple of thoughts. I mean, one is that, you know, in a way democracy has had this amazing triumph through the 19th and 20th century. And one of the striking things about this political moment is that it remains the only really legitimate regime form. And you can see that by the fact that even countries that very much are not democracies claim to be democracies. China claims to be a democracy. The Democratic Republic of Congo claims to be a democracy. And that was not always the case. So in the 19th century, those—you know, monarchy was a real competitor to the idea of democracy. In the 20th century, you had communism and fascism as real competitors to the idea of democracy. And that has basically gone away.

Now, at the same time, we have a sense that a lot of the most influential and powerful democracies in the world, the culturally most dominant ones, are in deep crisis. And so we’re in an odd historically junction at which democracy does rule in the field of legitimation globally to such an extent that everybody sort of pretends to be a democracy. And at the same time, the most powerful democracies are feeling very pessimistic about themselves and dictators who may engage in a sort of pretense of being democratic but who are clearly strongmen are resurgent. And so I think one of the questions is will eventually some other regime form become so self-confident that it actually posits itself as a true alternative to democracy?

And I think until that happens—and it’s not clear to me that it seems to be happening; it’s not obvious what the candidate would be—democracy will remain in some way as dominant as the most hopeful people at the beginning of the 19th century or the end of the 18th century may have surmised.

BESCHLOSS: Great. And, Jon, you’ve done a lot, obviously, early 19th century and other subjects. But how about the people who founded the United States? You know, looking at them with a clinical eye nowadays, would it be fair if someone were to criticize them and say: It’s great to have those ideas, as long as you’re going to have a country of rich White men who are fairly well-educated, and you get out of that bubble, and it may not be as resilient and as inevitable as you think it is? Or was there something larger there?

GRINSPAN: Yeah. I mean, I think it—to look back and point to all the failures of those people—and they were manifold, many of them—is probably not the right way to read history as it unfolds in time. The really stunning thing about these people who built over time not just the structure of our Constitution but the norms of democracy, are that they did so in an era when there was nothing like that anywhere else in the world. That if you look, you can drop in on any place in—or any part of the planet for most of human history, and you will see some form of unfreedom, some form of oppression. And the real interesting story for both the people who built the structure of America and also the movements that fought to reform it is the assumption that you’d have anything other than unfreedom on the planet. That’s really, to me, more bold than anything else.

And I guess, in answer to the kind of hope or pessimism today, they did it before. There’s a sense, I think, in American culture, and you can see it’s manipulated by the autocrats upon the planet, that there’s an inevitable momentum to decline, that liberal democracies are just failing in the 21st century, and that’s just the direction we’re going. But the one thing we know about history is there is no inevitable momentum anywhere over time. And you can build a mass movement in one direction or the other. And so I—one of the questions, how do you build a movement that builds on itself over time? And we’ve seen, going back to 1989, periodic movements for expansion of democracy or global order. And the question is, how do you build that without a backlash afterwards?

I mean, if you want to lump all the bad actors today in one bucket—which is a little risky—you can say that backlash drives many of them. Both in America kind of with right-wing movements pushing back against liberal democracy, and Putin is obviously driven by a backlash against the post-Soviet order. So how do you build in democracy? How do you build in a liberal order in way that doesn’t engender the kind of defensiveness that leads to some dangerous backlash? And we can play this game going back through autocracies in—you know, Austrian—you know, through the mid-19th century, all the way to the French Revolution, or whatever, this kind of back and forth of liberal ages and autocracy. Is there a way to build these institutions long-term without engendering the very defensiveness that ultimately breaks them?



BOUIE: You know, I don’t necessarily know that I have a view on that particular question. But I think, you know, one thing this conversation has gotten me thinking of is the extent to which I think even defenders of liberal democracy, you know bourgeoise democracy, whatever you want to call it, underestimate kind of the strength of the passions that can arise when those forms are threatened. I think what’s striking to me about the current situation is the speed with which publics in democratic countries began to demand some kind of response or intervention. Policymakers aside, it’s been very clear that the Western European public, the American public, has become—is stanchly on Ukraine’s side, and likely willing to accept much more aggressive action from their governments, I think, than the government might even be willing to take.

And that, to me, is, like, a—it’s a small sort of representation of the kinds of passions that democracies in the sort of national context can create. And, you know, if you take a broader historical look at this and look at sort of democratic armies of the French Revolution, if you look at the fervency with which formerly enslaved and free Blacks, like, joined the Union Army, you can kind of see this—you can see how commitment to the democratic form can inspire energies that are really quite powerful. And I think we’re kind of getting a reminder of that fact. And that—I think that reminder may be good for democratic prospects, you know, going forward, because it is—you know, I would not be surprised to learn, right, that Putin is a little taken aback by the response from the West, not expecting necessarily the strength of response. And I think that comes from an underestimation of the energy that democracies can still kind of summon in their defense—an energy that has—you know, can be very positive, but can also be, in some regards, kind of frightening.

BESCHLOSS: Yeah, I agree with you. And sometimes you can be too cynical, and cynicism can make you provincial because you are blind and deaf to forces of freedom and the desire to be free and the desire for democracy. So before we go to the American domestic situation, just one more question about this last week in Ukraine. I mean, in an oversimplified extreme way, you can say you can look at this one of two ways.

One would be to be very pessimistic, and say Russia is still run by a tyrant who is amazingly able to do exactly what he wants, given the apparent lack of support for a war against Ukraine among most of the Russian people. And, with that kind of superior force and Putin’s will, there’s a very good chance that we are about to see in the next two weeks something that is horrible in human history in Ukraine, and possibly the crushing of Ukraine and its incorporation into Russia, and maybe even a Russian tyrant who is then going to move into other countries in Eastern Europe. Things I’m saying that none of us—well, I’ll only speak for myself—I couldn’t have imagined saying even six months ago. So that’s the pessimistic way of looking at it.

The optimistic way of looking at it in terms of democracy is a surprise in Russia is that Putin has to be taken aback. He’s not so absolute a dictator that he just can say I don’t care what the oligarchs think, and I don’t care what the people in the streets think. I’ve got the power and I’ll do what I want. That’s largely what Stalin would have said. So I guess that’s a rough kind of progress. And the other thing is that if we were meeting two weeks ago, we might have said: If Ukraine were invaded by Russia, you know, we who love democracy might hope that they would stand up to this, but you never know. You can never predict until it happens. And so for people who love democracy, like the four of us and virtually everyone who’s in on this call, I mean, there’s a lot of reason for hope and optimism.

So before we go to the American domestic scene, how do you—each of you personally react to what you’ve seen in the last seven to ten days in these terms? Jill, do you mind starting?

LEPORE: I’m trying to hold onto that hopeful scenario. And I think the European response and the economic response, especially Germany’s decision-making here, seems really important. There’s—I mean, just there’s a bit—I think there’s been a lot of people sort of seized by the this is a 20th century war in the 21st century. But it is a 21st century war, as many commentators have pointed out. And what kind of information in the end is going to be available to the Russian people is really different than what as available in the 1930s and 1940s. And I think that could make a difference. I also think there are certain moves with regard to—you know, the language of appeasement, say, is not something that we are hearing. I think it’s—I think there are many ways in which we can lay down the measuring tape that tell us this is a very different moment.

But I’m not—I’m not a good pundit because I’m a terrible prophet. (Laughter.) So I’m really—you could say two weeks ago—

BESCHLOSS: That’s a badge of honor.

LEPORE: —that none of us would have expected this. I still don’t expect this. I think, like many people, I’m trying to just get my bearings in this story.



BOUIE: You know, I don’t necessarily think in terms of pessimism and optimism. So I’m mostly just sort of—I am interested to see how this all plays out for Putin domestically. I think that’s a really critical question. But I’m also—I’m also interested in sort of what will be the consequences of this remarkable unity of action amongst the United States and the Western democracies. You know, they have essentially put the Russian Federation under an economic blockade that is—that promises to do quite a bit of damage to Russia’s economy. And that—I don’t think—I don’t think too many observers expected that kind of unity of action and that kind of harshness of response.

And so I am interested to see how other—what this means for sort of, like, relationships among Western countries within Europe and then, of course, the United States. But also how other rival powers, like the Chinese government, begin to response to the prospect of this kind of action against them, right? What kind of steps do other countries take to maybe avoid the position that the Russian Federation finds itself in, which is closed off from the global economy suddenly, in a way that I don’t think anyone within Russia probably anticipated.

BESCHLOSS: For sure.


GRINSPAN: I’m sorry, I’m going to have to be a little pessimistic.


GRINSPAN: I think one of the fundamental powers of democracy is it allows, in a way, a little bit more flexibility for leaders. That being a dictator of a country really builds you into constantly asserting your power and your dominance. A long time ago I worked on a project where we were transcribing Saddam Hussein’s conversations. He had hours and hours of secret tapes. And it was striking, not just his kind of big-level evil, but just how annoying you have to be to be dictator. You always have to get the last word. You always have to be directing people on what they should do. And so I don’t think Putin has put himself in a position where there’s an easy way for him to back down without losing face.

That in American democracy or in world democracy, voters often reward leaders who make big sacrifices, or change course. You can see it with LBJ, you can see it with Lincoln. There’s a benefit to changing your initial and stated prospects. And that is often respected in democracy. In a dictatorship, it usually reads as weakness. And so I think Putin probably doesn’t—Putin would probably rather ground down Ukraine and do horrible damage than admit that this thing he did was such a monumentally stupid thing to do.

BESCHLOSS: And if I could add, especially in a society with a strong historical memory and lingering admiration of Stalin, who did exactly that.


MOUNK: Well, I think you framed it right in the initial question, which is that there’s really two ways of thinking about what’s going on at the moment.

BESCHLOSS: Just a sort of oversimplified two poles.

MOUNK: Just a little bit. And which of this is right depends on what’s going to happen in the next years and depends in part on what we all collectively do. So, you know, on one reading this is the end of the illusions that we had in 1989, an illusion that to me, as somebody who was born in 1982, is very personal. I was seven years old when the Berlin Wall fell. You know, as a teenager I got the internet, which was promising to connect people and make everybody more tolerant and understanding.

BESCHLOSS: And now you’re in touch with every conspiracy theory on Earth, right?

MOUNK: Exactly. You know, democracy did really grow until about 2005. So the first twenty-three years of my life, and basically every year the world became more democratic. And so—but since then there’s been this real retrenchment over the last fifteen, sixteen years. And so, you know, we might remember Ukraine as the moment into which dictators really came into their own post-Cold War. Said, here is how we are actually going to push back against the democratic dominance of those decades, build these new empires.

I mean, it’s really interesting to see, we’re talking about U.S. history here, but I think, you know, there is an attempt to build a new version of a Russian empire which is in a historical line of continuity with the tsarist regime and the Soviet Union, and in fact should change our understanding of the Soviet Union as just another incarnation of a series of historical attempts to build Russian empires. And so this can inspire China to do something similar in its sphere. Dictators can really work together to push ack against democracy. That is absolutely one of the readings of what’s going on at the moment. And that may well turn out to be true.

But there’s a second reading, which is that we’ve been asleep at the wheel. That for thirty years democratic publics have said, we don’t have to pay a price for freedom. We don’t actually have to continue to be engaged in the world.

BESCHLOSS: History is over.

MOUNK: History is over. We’re enjoying our holiday from history. And that holiday is going to go on for a long time. Well, that holiday ended a good number of years ago. But we’ve pretended that we’re still at the beach. And this does seem to be the moment in which people realize that.

To Jamelle’s point earlier, one of the things I’ve been moved by is that this isn’t just an about-turn of policymakers. There was a real groundswell of demand for that from the general public. I’m not just struck by how quickly the German government has finally moved, after, you know, months and days but also decades of intransigence—but that there was about two hundred thousand people in the streets of Berlin demanding that Germany actually stand on the right side of this.

And so it may be that after decades in which we allowed dictators to slowly crawl their way back into the game without really recognizing the urgency of this moment, Ukraine will unite us in an understanding of how much work it will take, how much engagement it will take, how much conviction it will take to make sure that, you know, the day of the dictator doesn’t just return, but becomes dominant for the next decades. Now, I don’t know how optimistic I am about that. That takes not only a moment of fascinating and attention and resolve. It’ll take years and decades of resolve.

And we’re still deeply split. We still have people who are trying to use our divisions for their own electoral gain, or their own material gain. There are still a lot of people who just worry about, understandably, about gas prices rather than about what Putin is doing in Russia. And all of that will come flooding back as Ukraine recedes from the headlines and we’re not in this extraordinary moment. But at least I now have a hope of that second scenario. And I’m not sure I would have had that a week or so ago.

BESCHLOSS: Really interesting. We’ve got about ten or fifteen minutes left before we go to the questions from the members, who are in on the call. And I’d like to spend the rest of our time, if we might, talking about democracy inside the United States, in our own system. And I guess maybe the crispest way to get at this is: Is democracy in danger today from within in a way that it has not been for the last two centuries? Hate to throw that one at you, Jill, but if you don’t mind starting.

LEPORE: Well, I do think it is important to recognize that Americans tend to talk about a kind of unbroken tradition of American democracy as if this began in the 1770s and it has been a continuous and building expansion of self-government. And that’s, of course, not the case at all. I don’t think by any modern understanding of democracy there is democracy in the United States before 1965 and the Voting Rights Act.

BESCHLOSS: I agree with you.

LEPORE: And we just need to sort of—if we want to think about and measure the state of American democracy today, it needs to be measured against 1965 and the era since that.


LEPORE: That is our unit of study. I think when we ask about the state of American democracy, you have to have a fully enfranchised citizenry to begin that conversation. And when you do that, then you see that that is the era in which income inequality widened year, after year, after year, and has since about 1968 or so. And political polarization from that same period. So if you were to chart both of those trends on, you know, an X/Y axis, you’d see income inequality and political polarization rise at pretty much the same rate. And that’s in the degree we now get, you know, where political scientists talk about the unsustainability of the American state, in a condition of such dramatic economic inequality and political polarization.

So, I mean, I think that the test is now, right? The test isn’t that larger, longer history. You know, much blood was shed in the years before 1965 to create a pluralist American democracy. And much of it was shed by violence committed by Americans on other Americans. So I just think it’s really important that we reassess what we’re talking about when we talk about the American democratic political tradition. That’s where I would sort of begin any discussion of the crisis of the moment.

BESCHLOSS: And I can recommend a book that makes that point particularly well, by Jill.

Jamelle, I mean, same question as to Jill, but to put a finer point on it. I would say in 2022, American elections, their sanctity and their fairness, and even their existence, I think are more jeopardized than they have ever been since 1965. I think that is happening increasingly. I think what the public opinion surveys suggest is that more Americans are open to practices that I would find authoritarian than they have been for a very long time. So should we feel pessimistic about democracy here? Are these serious worries, or is this more just rhetorical?

BOUIE: Right. I think these are serious worries. So I have a bunch of ideas here, so I’m going to try to put them in a coherent way.

BESCHLOSS: Please take—sure.

BOUIE: To build off of Jill’s point, you know, the 1960s, and the Voting Right Act and the Civil Rights Act in particular, you can think of the moment where the United States essentially tried to set a national standard for political rights, right? Instead of the pre-’60s period, where your ability to exercise political rights really did vary depending on where you lived in the country. The experiences of African Americans are actually really illustrative in this regard. You know, prior to the great migration an after kind of the imposition of Jim Crow in the 1890s, you know, African American political participation in electoral politics virtually disappears. But the migration of Blacks to northern cities kind of activates a whole new electorate that, you know, begins—becomes very influential very quickly.

And so that’s just an example of how, like, moving over state borders essentially kind of turn a group of Americans from non-actors in electoral politics to actually very critical actors. And so the danger I kind of sense in the present isn’t so much an unspooling of, you know, electoral democracy, or an unspooling of, you know, the entire American democratic heritage, but the reversion to the pre-1960s status quo, where the extent of the rights you can exercise vary from state to state. Sort of there will be some laboratories of democracy. There will be some laboratories of autocracy. And it’s up to you, the system, to figure out where you are and what you can do about that, which I think is a bad outcome, right?

I think that—I think that our aspiration should be a kind of political equality across the country where every vote and every American counts equally. And that is the thing that I think is jeopardized, not just from kind of, you know, recent, they call them innovations, of hyper-partisans on the right, but of American political institutions which are just not set up for that kind of political equality. The Senate, the Electoral College, even our methods of apportionment for the House are all kind of premised on the idea that some Americans are going to count more than others in terms of the electorate.

And I think that one thing that folks should consider is, you know, if material processes generate ideologies, right, then I think institutions can generate ideologies as well. And that the extent to which the counter-majoritarian institutions of American democracy have become all the more visible over the last twenty years, and all the more important to the operation of our politics, I think it’s generating kind of a justification for those kind of majoritarian institutions that is a bit, like, untethered from their actual history. And mostly, I think most—those justifications mostly just exist to sort of serve immediate partisan self-interest. But nonetheless, they’re still very powerful justifications and can become obstacles to any kind of meaningful reform to bring American institutions and American democracy in line with ideals of political equality.

And I think maybe a long way of saying—a short way of saying this is that, you know, Americans have these democratic aspirations that have always been quite a bit wider than what our institutions have allowed for. And I think what we’re maybe experiencing now is our—those democratic aspirations and assumptions diverging ever more sharply from what our institutions allowed, and what our institutions condone.

BESCHLOSS: Great. Thank you, Jamelle. We’ve got a couple of more minutes before we come to our members for, I hope and expect, trenchant questions. So I’ll come to Jon and Yascha, and then we’ll open it up.

Jon, let me phrase it a different way. If you have a possibility that in the next few years, you know, various states of the union, and maybe even many states of the union, will say: The person who will decide whether, you know, Donald Trump or DeSantis or Joe Biden or someone else won the electoral votes of our state will be, you know, a secretary of state who’s a Republican or a Democratic partisan. And we’ll just say, I don’t care, you know, what people say happened in the election. I think this person won the election and therefore we’re going to send those electors to the Electoral College.

There are even people saying that the Constitution does not have an explicit requirement that there be a presidential election where voters cast ballots and those determine electors from various states. You know, in early America, as we know, electors were often chosen by state legislatures. And, you know, why not go back to that? I’m hearing things that we have not heard for a very long time in American history. If that kind of thing happens, if the building block of democracy—which to my mind at least one of the central ones is fair and free effective elections—if we begin to break those apart in the next couple of years, is this still a democracy or should we call it something else, Jon?

GRINSPAN: Well, that’s a tricky question. I guess the first step to answering this is to realize that we have not driven off the road into the end of history, but we have really useful precedents for understanding moments like this. That when we—when we set up our norms as basically post-’65—1965, we are leaving out all the relevant—all the most relevant and useful periods in our history. That if you want a political system—to understand a political system that’s partisan, that is regressive, that is kind of high tribalism and also high turnout at the same time, going back one hundred years further is much more helpful, to look at how elections looked in the 19th century.

And you do have many elections, mostly on the state level, where people refused to accept the outcome of an election, where you have multiple governors of South Carolina, or Arkansas, or Louisiana running at the same—or, leading at the same time. We have a secessionary movement that succeeds for a big of American history. We do have a lot of precedent here. And I think one thing that you come to is that they manage to ramp this up and ramp it down also. We built into the long history of American history, it’s not obviously a progressive arc, solid progress from 1776 on. We have building moment violence, of partisanship in our history, and we have periods of calming down too. And sometimes there are sacrifices along the way, like turnout.

But I think if we—if we want to understand usefully our past right now, it’s to ask how did they manage ever to turn down the volume on this? If you have a political system where violence, where fraud, where vote-rigging, these kind of things are acceptable, how do you get people to stop playing that game? I mean, that’s, to me, the biggest question we can ask of our past right now. Is, how did they ever end a moment like this, you know? So to me, that’s the greatest use of history, is to try to explore periods of anxiety similar to our own, just to kind of calm ourselves a little about today, also to reverse-engineer maybe some of their moves and their tricks for building a political culture that was more restrained, that was calmer. That, to me, is the first step to getting to a 1965. That all the reforms of the 20th century are predicated on a different style of electoral democracy than you would see in 1865.

BESCHLOSS: Great. Before we go to members, I want to come to Yascha and ask the question a slightly different way. And you’ll understand why I’m asking it this way. The number of people who say the United States today in terms of democracy has unnerving similarities to Weimar 1935, what do you think?

MOUNK: Well, I think that sort of the 1920s are an obvious parallel to go to when you’re trying to think about—

BESCHLOSS: Forgive me, Weimar 1925.

MOUNK: Right, right. But I actually, I think, prefer a more contemporary parallel, which is that a lot of what we’ve seen with the rise of Donald Trump, for example, is what we’ve seen with authoritarian populists today around the world. I don’t think that Trump is a fascist. I don’t think that Putin is a fascist either. I think we have to get out of the habit of thinking that every person that I personally worry about deeply or that you maybe dislike is the F-word. There are very specific historical things about fascist movements and the open hostility to democracy that they had, which made the situation in Weimar very different from what we’re facing today, in which many of the people who I do think of as real enemies of democracy claim to be the true democrats, claim to be the people who are truly fighting for what the people want against elites and corrupt institutions, and so on, that are supposedly keeping the people in check.

And that may not be true about what the impact of the rule would be, but it is true that that is how they perceive the situation. So that, I think is a very different situation. But for me, the question is: Could the United States be captured by the rise of an authoritarian populist in the way that Turkey has been over the last decades, in the way that India may be in the process of being, in the way in which (some may say ?) Bolsonaro in Brazil has tried to capture the Brazilian political system but seems to be failing at doing that. And here I would say that there’s one optimistic and one pessimistic thing buried in some of the things that Jamelle and Jill and Jon have just said.

And I think the optimistic thing is that some of the most screwed up things about American elections also happen to be a strength when you look at them in—from a (power politics ?) perspective, which is to say that a lot of the way that Viktor Orbán has been able to concentrate power in his hands in Hungary is because it’s a very unified electoral system. And once he managed to replace the members of the electoral commission and the members of the Supreme Court, he could basically have tremendous control over how elections are run, in a way that allowed him to make it very hard to push him out of power.

In the United States, one of the reasons why we have such blatant injustices in how elections are carried out is that so many decisions about how they happen are made at the state level, and even at the county level. And that leads to the real disenfranchisement of a lot of Americans in ways that we should be outraged by. It also makes it, paradoxically, much harder for a president to say, hey, I’m going to replace the members of the electoral commission, and this way I just decide how the elections are run nationwide, and you can’t really do anything about that. So that, I think is a real source of resilience, which helps to explain why it was possible to remove somebody like Donald Trump from office in democratic elections.

Very quickly, the pessimistic thing, I would go further than Jon, look, the absolutely fundamental principle of democracy is that you decide through elections who gets to rule for a limited period of time. And if we have an election in which by the current rules, fair or not as they may be, the Democratic Party, let’s say, wins the Electoral College, but, you know, the state of Arizona decides that they’ll actually send electors for the Republican candidate, even though the Republican candidate did not win a majority of the vote in their state, that would be a fundamental break of the basic principle of democracy, which lacks for precedent in the 20th century in the United States, or the 21st, and which lacks for precedent in functioning democracies around the world.

And so I do think that that constitutional crisis we would face in that case would either result in basically the end of democracy, if the wrong president is installed, or a constitutional crisis which could lead to forms of civic violence which we have not experienced in 150 years in the United States. So I don’t think that’s the likely outcome of 2024. I don’t think it’s the likely outcome of 2028. But it is a realistic outcome. And that, in itself, is a shocking statement about the state of our country today.

BESCHLOSS: Totally agree. So we now have, I think, twenty-five minutes for questions from members. Kayla, do you want to pick this up, our operator?

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Joseph Nye.

Q: I thought this was a terrific discussion.

And I guess the question I want to ask you, will history repeat itself? Jill correctly pointed out that our democratic institutions were pretty rotten during the Gilded Age, but we recovered from that. And Bob Putnam’s book, The Upswing, argues that the key thing was generational change, that the Progressive Era through the Great Generation we saw a restoration of democratic attitudes. He says that by the late ’60s, this turns down, and the polarization that’s led us today increases and we’re now at a nadir. However, Putnam, our colleague, Jill, says that there will be—we’ll be saved by the next generation, because we’re about to see generational change. So my question is, what credibility is there that this longer cycle of history would repeat itself? Or, putting it in simpler terms, is there any prospect that generation Z will save us?

LEPORE: I’m happy to jump in. Thanks for the question.

You know, to Jon’s point obviously, like, all of American history is illustrative and helpful as we think about these questions. There will, of course, be generational change. Generations will change. Each new generation has a different view. I don’t think that relieves any of us of the responsibility to do our utmost. And I mean, everybody on this call, everyone in the country. And so I worry a little about the—you know, the next generation will also save the environment, while they’re also saving democracy, while they’re also trying to get by and lead their lives. Yes, it’s sort of obviously true, but the deeper implication of that is not clear to me.

And when I think about moments, to Yascha’s point of, you know, where do we look for moments when people got through challenges like this, and I think about the 1930s when Americans, you know, watched what was going on in Europe and found themselves deeply divided and also suffering in the long-tail aftermath of the First World War, of the Spanish Flu pandemic, and of their own economic decline. And I think of the institutions that strengthened democracy in the 1930s. Very few of them are intact now. So that’s what would concern me. Look, a generation needs institutions to be handed to them in some kind of good working order. And they can be repaired, they can be improved, they can invent their own new institutions.

But if you think about, you know, the way—the way the broadcast networks, especially NBC, the Blue Network in the 1930s, deployed radio to try to bring people together into public conversations over political differences. I could talk for ever about America’s town meeting of the air that started in 1935. And the way it worked was, you know, there were—there was a political debate on a stage somewhere that was recorded by NBC. Usually, it was at Columbia. They had a communist, a fascist and an American democrat pretty much in every debate. And said, all right, just go at it. We’ll broadcast this. And people were so fascinated by these arguments that were full-throated and decorous, from our vantage, in terms of the language. But real vast political differences.

And the way people listened to them was not even by their own—at their kitchen table, which would have been fantastic enough, but in the nation’s public schools and public libraries that were empty in the evenings, where people got together to listen to these debates and then continue them after the radio program ended. There’s just not a kind of media environment, communications environment, federal broadcast licensing environment that makes that an inevitable institution. I mean, it was a good idea, but it was also somewhat inevitable when thinking about everyone involved in creating news, reporting new from Europe was really concerned to make sure that the newspaper they worked for, or the magazine.

You know, the New Republic ran this series called “The Future of Democracy.” Every magazine, every newspaper published repeated columns asking people what they thought was necessary to preserve democracy in the face of the rise of totalitarianism. I’m not sure I see how that is happening now. There will be different institutions that make that possible, but I would feel better if we were handing off those institutions intact to a younger generation.

GRINSPAN: Can I add something briefly to that?

BESCHLOSS: Please, please.

GRINSPAN: In agreement with everything about American institutions and the state of them. One of the—I did a book once on young people in politics. And one of the hallmarks of those generations that really make change—like the Progressive Era—is that they’re not overly optimistic coming not things. The generations that are beaming with optimism about the future say that they—you know, some reformers in the north in the 1860s, or Baby Boomers, often that optimism is a little brittle. And when things go badly, they turn dark. The generations that really make change are those that are coming out of an already dark era, like the Gilded Age, when their expectations are pretty low to begin with.

That’s how people often find a versatile and long-lasting way to engage and make reforms, trying to end a previously dark era. Those people who come in with too much optimism, often they burn out really quickly. So if you—this is—this is trying to put something happy on something negative—but if you look at Gen Z—

BESCHLOSS: It’s very welcome.

GRINSPAN: I know, right? If you look at Gen Z today, their engagement, their turnout, their participation in volunteer organizations is all pretty good. And much of it is motivated by this sense that things are broken, and they need to fix them. Which, long term, is often better for turnout and engagement than believing you live in a shining city on a hill. So I try to be optimistic about that.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you.

Jamelle or Yascha?

BOUIE: I guess the only thought that I have on this, and this gets to the point about institutions that Jill made, which is that, you know, during the New Deal, the New Deal era, part of the revitalization of democracy was the expansion of democratic participation and democratic forums to outside of electoral politics, to the workplace, to communities, right? That I think one story you can tell about the weakening of democracy in the United States is the extent to which the past fifty years have seen the decline of unions, the decline of anything like, again, workplace democracy, and decline of institutions that inculcate democratic values through actually getting people to participate in doing things, right? That you’ll learn democracy by doing democracy. And if there—if, looking to the future, there is going to be any hope, I think it’s going to have to lie in rebuilding and recreating institutions that can actually inculcate democratic values into people.


Kayla, next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mora McLean.

Q: Yes. Thank you.

I’ve appreciated the discussion of the fragility of voting rights, but I’d like the speakers’ thoughts on something that both Professor Lepore and Jamelle Bouie have alluded to. And that is the gaping income inequality and lack of health care and material wellbeing that so many Americans are experiencing, and that we saw grossly exhibited during the pandemic. That people were essential workers only insofar as they, you know, maintained the system for the rest of us to consume and to stay safe in our homes.


BOUIE: I mean, I very much agree that the extreme income inequality of the present is something that has to be considered when we’re thinking about democratic deterioration, both because it kind of builds on itself, right? Like, the super-rich are unleashed to influence politics in their favor which, you know, creates a political environment that allows them to do even more of that. And the sense that the super-rich and the powerful have—are always and permanently in the driver’s seat, I think it ends up leading people in the general public to feel that it just doesn’t matter whether they participate or not.

But also, to go back to what I said just a few minutes ago, I don’t think we should—I think we need to understand democracy as being just bigger than electoral democracy. It is—there are democratic cultures, there are democratic ways of being. And I think that critical to sustaining those is the expansion of democracy to the relevance of our lives. And that, I think, especially means the workplace. And the decline of unions and the extent to which most Americans, once they—you know, once they clock in for their job, whether it’s a salaried job or a waged job, or a nine-to-five, whatever—once they begin working, they immediately more or less come under the domination of private actors who have no obligation to the public, who have no real obligation to their workers beyond what’s imposed by law.

I think we underestimate the extent to which that reality can discourage a sense of democratic efficacy, right? Like if you do not experience it at any point in your day-to-day life, why would you think that it even matters when it comes to actual elections? And I think this—I think this is, again, underrated. And I think sort of you can see kind of the flip case just looking at those groups of Americans who are highly engaged. And they tend to be people who are regular church attendees. And the reason why I think that’s relevant is sort because sort of, you know, conservative Evangelicals, African Americans tend to attend churches that are very lay focused, right? That do provide various outlets for the laity to involve and kind of practice democracy in one way or another in their everyday lives. And I think that can encourage a sense of efficacy that then translates to politics. And so, you know, income inequality, its connection to the decline of labor and its connection to the decline of democracy, I think we all have to kind of keep those together.

MOUNK: I’d like to talk a little bit about this, if I may. I think it’s intuitive that there is a connection between rising income inequality and the stability of democracy. And it’s a thought that’s very old in the history of political thought. Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the first theorists not really of autocracy but, more importantly, of self-governing Republics, emphasized the importance of having, you know, polities in which nobody was really rich or really poor. I think when you try to figure out what the mechanisms are or what the ways are in which income inequality actually undermines democracy, it becomes a little bit more complicated.

So the traditional way is simply to say, look, if you have an extremely unequal country in which, you know, a lot of people are pissed off that they’re not getting a fair shake, and other people are very affluent, they’re going to rebel. And that has happened with certain communist revolutions, it has happened with radical workers’ parties in the 19th and early 20th century. It has sometimes happened in allowing recruiting ground for fascist parties among those socioeconomic classes. But a lot of the time it looks a little bit more complicated. And even today, it’s not at all clear that there is a very clear correlation—(inaudible)—for example, between income and support for tyrant populists of various kinds.

So I think the sort of simplest account of what the connection is doesn’t quite work. I think there’s two ways in which income inequality plays but a little different from how we normally talk about it, though. So one is that I tend to think the striking fact about American history for the last seventy or so years is not so much about income inequality but about growth and levels of income for average citizens or for the median voter, if you want to think of it in political terms. So from 1935 to 1960, the living standard of an average American doubles; from 1960 to 1985, it doubles again. Since 1985, it was stagnant for a long time; it starts to go up a little bit over the last years, actually. And that, I think, just really changed the background conditions of how we think about our democracy. It makes people change their attitude from I don’t like these people in D.C. and I’m a little skeptical of them but something seems to be working—right?—somehow the system seems to be delivering for me, so let’s give it the benefit of the doubt, to saying, well, you know what, these people aren’t really doing anything for me; why should I trust anything they do or anything they say?

The second mechanism, I think, has to do—would locate the problem at perhaps a less comfortable place for all of us who are members of the wonderful Council on Foreign Relations, who are nearly by definition a member of a kind of elite, and that’s why I’m just deeply struck by the distance in life world in United States between the people making decisions in this country and average citizens. And there’s a sort of caricatural, you know, run a big corporation or you’re a billionaire and you don’t really understand what’s going on, just sort of, you know, a cartoon villain kind of version of that, and that may sometimes apply. But there’s a different version of that that, you know, well-meaning professors like me and think tank fellows and journalists and authors and people running, you know, NGOs and foundations and so on also have, and I’m just struck by the extent to which great—you know, a great portion of members of the American elite may come from relatively average backgrounds, may come from underprivileged backgrounds, but at seventeen or eighteen they go off to an elite college in which most of the people around them are privileged. They live in the big cities. And by the time they become influential, by the time they become decision makers, they’ve really lost touch with average people and they start to look down on them; they start to think that the average citizen is perhaps a bad person, that the average citizen is, you know, just has horrible values, that the average citizen cannot be trusted to want good for the world or for their fellow citizens. And that creates a form of disdain that I’ve sometimes seen during the pandemic as well, which I don’t see present in other democracies to the same extent; I don’t see it present today in France or Germany or Sweden to the same extent, which really worries me about the current condition of the United States.

So I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but just briefly at the end: You know, you can’t have a democracy if you think that the average citizen is not to be trusted. You have to have the faith that most of the time most people are capable of making decent decisions; otherwise you don’t have trust in democracy. And on that metric, it is very unclear to me whether even the part of the American elite that I am a part of, that my friends are in, that is my social milieu, actually believes in democracy today.

LEPORE: Just to actually underscore that, to sort of Jamelle’s point about the lack of institutions like unions that inculcate and support democratic behavior and democratic values: It’s not only the lack of those institutions; it’s the presence and dominance of institutions that Yascha’s talking about that are actually spreading anti-democratic values, that I think—you know, I agree that we are all a part of. I don’t mean to put people in an awkward position either, but I think that does distinguish—I mean, if you think about, say, newspaper reporters in the 1930s, it’s a narrow slice of the population, for sure; it’s a bunch of particular kind of guys, but they’re not people who come out of college; they don’t go to college; they’re reporting from the street—right?—they’re celebrating ordinary people. The documentary photography of the 1930s is full of love and longing and yearning for and respect for ordinary people. That’s not part of our Hollywood culture; that’s not part of our television, cable news culture. It is a really insidious and fundamentally anti-democratic set of institutions that does distinguish this moment in history from other eras in the American past.

BESCHLOSS: Great point. And I would also say, if I can get in a sentence of opinion without being fired from my role as presider: Not everyone can be in classes taught by all of you and the result is that I think fewer—a smaller percentage of Americans today understand what democracy is and why it may not be a bad idea.

Kayla, do we have time for two more questions?

OPERATOR: We do. We’ll take the next question from Vivian Derryck. A reminder to please announce your affiliation.

Q: Thank you very much, and thanks to the panel. My name is Vivian Lowery Derryck and I’m the founder of the Bridges Institute, which works to strengthen African democracies and now, of course, has moved to the U.S.

My question is about January the 6th. I’m truly worried that that was—the insurrection was one of the most important, profound moments in U.S. history and I’m wondering what the panel thinks about how we as a nation are examining this and how do we get Americans to see the gravity of the situation and to become seized with how we resolve this? Thank you.


MOUNK: Why don’t I say something very brief and controversial and then everybody can denounce me? I actually, in a way, disagree with the importance of the storming of the Capitol as the pivotal moment, which is to say that was, you know, a crowd of people who were deeply hostile to democracy. If our security arrangements had been better, it would have turned into a large and unpleasant and perhaps violent protest but not a hinge point in American history. The fact itself of those ten thousand people on that day who were willing to interrupt the election is not out of the ordinary for American democracy. You have vast numbers of people who believe that any U.S. president is illegitimate going back at least twenty years. What is truly striking and important about January 6th is the invisible part of it, is the fact that there was, in fact, an outgoing president who really tried to undermine the election, was the fact that he has been able to carry the Republican Party along with him. So I’m not worried about, you know, the symbol of it, if that makes sense; I’m worried about what the symbol stands for.

And that brings us back to 2024 and the fact that we may really have attempts to overturn the certification of how particular states voted in a way which may really disrupt the transfer of power. And that doesn’t need to involve anybody storming the Capitol in silly outfits and disgusting t-shirts; that may be done in a decorous manner in some state capitol. And so insofar as January 6th is a symbol of that danger, I think it’s very, very significant, but I think, in a way, you know, we shouldn’t focus on the event itself; we should focus on what it signifies about the unwillingness of Donald Trump and parts of the Republican Party to accept elections as the way to decide who gets to govern.

GRINSPAN: Can I say two things to that? I certainly agree that the moment of January 6th is not maybe where we should focus as much as how it was treated in the year since or afterwards, that the—what’s really interesting with many of the kind of crisis moments we have in our era today is the quick transition from shock and disgust to acceptance among people who are aligned with those who perpetrated it. The way so many people have managed to talk away and excuse January 6th in the last year is actually more striking than the fact of the event itself. And that kind of gets to this larger problem with our period which is I think partisanship is driving more of our concerns and more of the threat to our democracy than autocracy is, that it’s not as much these individuals who stormed the Capitol or the behavior of the former president as the huge mass of people—half the population, or 30 percent of the population in recent studies—who are willing to excuse these and accept them. So I think we—in a way, we have a bigger problem than the individuals who stormed the Capitol or the individuals who sit in the White House; it’s the acceptance, driven by partisanship, driven by tribalism, of those people.

To the question: I don’t think this will alleviate any concerns, but I will say that as a curator at the Smithsonian, one of the things we’re doing that I think might be helpful for the future is trying to collect and preserve this moment, these actions—things like protest signs from the National Mall; a vest that was cut that was worn by a photographer on January 6th; from Charlottesville, we collected tiki torches and riot shields—and I think we need to sit back for a moment and imagine all these things in a museum in a hundred years. And this won’t help resolve our era or calm any of us down today or anything, but it is really important to pause and see ourselves as acting within history and try to figure out how this moment will be memorialized, will be understood going forward. You know, as historians, that’s almost as important as trying to direct the present, is try to frame how we think about the past.


Kayla, do we have time for one more?

OPERATOR: Sure, we can get one more question in.


OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Chip Pitts.

Q: Hi.

In the final time remaining, which is brief, I want to thank these esteemed panelists and one of my favorite authors but also ask them, you know, if you had one or two things that you would suggest as practical words to overcome especially the new aspects that Jim (sp) just referred to and that Jill previously referred to; in other words, the role of the media and social media in amplifying the big lie and allowing the weaponization of identities that has resulted in what I do believe, unlike Yascha, is a status closer to fascism—(inaudible)—then we’ve seen in many, many years. That’s my question. I’d love to hear practical solutions, ranging from a Council task force to cross-media-platform events, debates of the sort she referenced, et cetera.


BOUIE: I mean, my suggestion—my practical suggestion—I mean, who knows how practical they are—but to, I guess, emphasize what I’ve been saying the last couple comments that I think it is important to look for ways to strengthen unions and strengthen labor and encourage democracy in the workplace. And I would—I mean, the second thing, and this is maybe a little less practical, but I would really encourage people to think seriously about how our political institutions actually may not be that conducive to democracy. To kind of go to the January 6th point and to kind of double-back on what Yascha was saying, what is striking about January 6th is the extent to which the various mechanisms of American democracy were basically weaponized against sort of electoral governance. Right? If there comes a point where a bunch of states decide that they’re going to just assign their electoral votes to Donald Trump and cancel the election in their states, that’s totally constitutional. Right? That doesn’t violate the Constitution whatsoever. And so I think the question Americans need to ask themselves is, is our Constitution actually conducive to the kind of democracy we want to have? And if it isn’t, then what do we do about that? I think beginning to talk about that and beginning to talk about the ways in which our Constitution does not actually further our democratic aspirations is something that would be very useful.

LEPORE: I would just second that. The big project I’m working on now is amending the Constitution and how people have imagined amending the Constitution and failed to and why it’s unamendable and what the consequences are and might rekindle our constitutional imagination. I think that is, indeed, essential. But I guess the note that I might end on, thinking about January 6th and Jon’s point about what would be in an exhibit, I actually—you know, it is my hope that it is Amanda Gorman’s poem that we remember from that moment, from that month, that that is what stands out. And I guess I would just put in a plea for the fundamental quality of the way that art can uphold democratic values and the way that that has been done in American history and can still be done. We don’t have an artist on our panel but would be great to have that voice here.


Anyone? Jon? Yascha? No?

OK, Jon?

GRINSPAN: I’ll try.


GRINSPAN: I don’t have anything that will help us if states in 2024 decide to assign electoral votes the wrong way. There’s nothing we can—I mean, there’s nothing I can do about that. Mass protest would, I guess, be the best thing we can do. The only thing I can say, and this might be more for your individual well-being and your soul than saving democracy, is we all know that social media has been harmful for our democracy and harmful for our mental health and state of being, and I think the more—I’m going to sound like a fundamentalist, but the more you can turn it off and read history and study history and expand your sense of perspective in the scale of the world and human experience over human history, you’ll probably feel a little bit better and a little bit more prepared to deal with crises as they come than if you constantly update your Twitter feed. So I know that’s not a big thing and many people probably won’t do it, but I think it will help your mental health.

BESCHLOSS: A great note to end on. I hope everyone is feeling better.

Jill, Jon, Jamelle, and Yascha, thank you so much for doing this. Thank you to all of our members. And despite everything we’ve said, everyone please try to have a great day. Be well. Thanks, everyone.


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