Higher Education Webinar: Teaching the History of American Democracy
Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown distinguished chair for leadership in global affairs and professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin, leads the conversation on how to teach the history of American democracy.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to CFR’s Higher Education Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for being with us.
Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic, if you would like to share it with your colleagues. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Jeremi Suri with us to discuss teaching the history of American democracy. Dr. Suri is the Mack Brown distinguished chair for leadership in global affairs and professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin. He has received several accolades for his research in teaching, including the Pro Bene Meritis Award for Contributions to the Liberal Arts and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award from the University of Texas at Austin. He writes for major publications and is the author and editor of eleven books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. And his latest book is entitled Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, which was published by PublicAffairs.
So, Jeremi, thanks very much for being with us. I thought we could begin by just diving right in, for you to tell us about what you think about when you’re teaching the history of American democracy, and what it means to you.
SURI: Thank you so much, Irina. It’s really a pleasure to be here with so many fellow educators, CFR members, and various others—even some former students of mine, I think.
And this is a great time to be teaching American democracy. It’s not necessarily a great time for democracy, but it’s a great time to be teaching American democracy because I think one of the things we do well as scholars is to help people understand and make sense of the confusion in their world. We don’t offer solutions. That’s really the world for policymakers to try to come up with solutions. It’s our job to help people understand the complexity and confusion in their world, to provide narratives. And, what we as historians do most of all, to provide people with an origin, a deeper understanding for what they confront today, which helps people to think about then alternatives for moving forward.
We study the past, not because the past repeats itself—it doesn’t—but because the past opens up other opportunities for thinking about the present. If you don’t understand the past of our democracy, you think we’re stuck with all the problems we have today because they seem unavoidable. But if you go to the past, you can study the choices that our society has made at different moments and how those choices—which might have made sense in their own time—can be rethought today. So you’re not playing Monday morning quarterback, but you’re rerunning what Stephen Jay Gould calls the tape of evolution. And you’re rerunning that tape to see how there are alternatives in the past that can be alternatives for our present as well.
So you study the past to look forward. And this is a great moment to teach the history of American democracy, because our students—and I mean students broadly defined, not just our eighteen to twenty-one year old students, our graduate students, our public students, various others—they see democracy as a topic that needs analysis as they might not have thought before. It’s not a topic now that’s prima facie fixed. It’s not a topic that’s prima facie set for us in the world. And what I try to do is begin by making the point to any group I’m talking to, like this group, that democracy in the United States has always been a work in progress.
There was no founding definition of democracy. Different founders thought about it differently. And, yes, they thought we were a democracy. Let me make that absolutely clear. They thought we were a democracy that was also a republic. But they believed that we were a democracy. But they differed on what that meant. There’s no one single totemic document. The Constitution itself is not a totemic document on this. Our democracy’s always been a work in progress. And it has had peaks and valleys in the nature of its development. We’re in one of those valleys now.
I think three questions that I always like to teach and pose that I think are at the core of the historical evolution of our democracy. First, what kind of democracy are we going to be? Back to Jefferson and Adams, of course, there was a debate right there as to whether this would be a democracy that would be built upon the yeomen farmers that Jefferson revered—even though he really wasn’t one himself—or a more deferential democracy as Adams thought about it, with a more Brahmitic—Boston Brahmitic elite that was able to set the standards. That debate, of course, goes on through Jacksonian America.
And, from my recent book, the Civil War is the second American Revolution. I take that term from James McPherson, the great Civil War historian. It’s the second American Revolution, because it’s the moment when initial compromises on what our democracy should be are fundamentally rethought. And the question coming out of the Civil War, that remains unresolved today, is the question of what role should the federal government have versus state governments. Everyone on this call I think knows that coming out of the Civil War the apparent losers, the former Confederates, make a very strong argument for states’ rights. They even try to remake the war into a war over states’ rights. Which it wasn’t. It was a war over slavery, obviously. But the argument against federal power, in fact, grows in some ways. But the reality of federal power grows as the argument against federal power grows.
Welcome to our world today. And one of the things I like to point out to students of all kinds is that this is an ongoing debate that has meant different things in different times. And we can understand both positions today, even if the actors themselves don’t as legacies, as extensions of that debate. And people play into it. The rhetoric that gets used—often horrible rhetoric—seems legitimate because it has been there for a long time. I’ll give you one example. Claims of fraud in elections, especially when the federal government steps in to different states that are not running fair elections, that is an old trope that has been used repeatedly. Used by Democrats, as I show in my book, in the 1870s and 1880s, used, of course, by some Republicans today.
Second question: Democracy for whom? Democracy for whom? And this is a central element of my book, something I became deeply interested in, watching the difficulties of the last five to seven years and our society today. Democracy is, in a sense, the standard discourse of American society, but for whom has not been resolved. And the Civil War leaves that deeply unresolved. As I show in the book, very vividly I think, many figures who were former Confederates come out of the Civil War still believing that democracy is only for certain white men, or other groups. But fundamentally, that certain groups should be excluded.
Ben Tillman is one of many examples. President Andrew Johnson is another example. Many, many figures. I show in the book that there are a lot of figures who never even accept that they lost the war. It’s not even a lost cause. It’s a continued cause. And their argument is a very simple one. That if I’m in a community that has ten white slave owners, or former slave owners, and there are a hundred slaves, and we go to a system of actually single person franchise across races, I, the ten white people, are losing our democracy. We’re losing our say in our community. Or that’s how it’s perceived. That, ladies and gentlemen, of course, is the same argument that’s going on about replacement theory, immigration today. It’s an argument, of course, that continues in the late nineteenth century.
The multiracial argument also grows in strength, of course, after the Civil War. It’s the argument of the then-Republican Party. It’s the argument of Ulysses Grant. And it’s the argument of many communities that come into the United States. But I think it’s important for us to see today that our debate is drawn on exactly those lines, and to see how the exclusionary, non-multiracial democratic argument—although many of us might have thought that was a creature of the past—has resilient power. And you see that in its history across time. We shouldn’t undercount that. Most of us on this call probably lean towards the multiracial democracy argument, but it’s not only crazies who see the exclusionary, non-multiracial argument. And we have to be conscious of that and think about how, from history, we can learn to be better and more persuasive about that.
And then the third point, the one that I really want to underline and that my book tries to underline, is how we’ve never really resolved how change should occur, when we want to change our democracy. The amendment procedure is very difficult. Hardly ever works. Impeachment never works. I talk about this in the book, and we’ve learned that more recently. Elections don’t resolve our differences. I point out in the book that from 1870 to 1900, all of our elections are closer than the last two presidential elections—closer, and unresolved. And that’s one of the reasons we don’t even remember who the presidents were between Grant and William McKinley.
And so these things that we think that we’re taught in civics class that resolve our differences, don’t. Two things resolve differences in our history. One is the force of legislative supermajorities. And I want to remind everyone, and I want to remind all of my students always, that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteen Amendments, three of the most important amendments in our history, right, ending slavery, equal protection under the law, and all that follows from that in the Fourteenth Amendment, at least in theory, and, of course, voting rights—or, prohibition of stopping some voting based on race.
Those three amendments passed with zero Democratic votes. It takes a Republican supermajority to push those through, similar to FDR’s supermajorities during a New Deal, and similar to Lyndon Johnson’s supermajority in 1964 and 1965 to get us the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We have this vision that there was this bipartisan moment when people came together. This is the Cold War narrative, the Cold War myth that many of us, as Cold War historians, bought into for a long time. Change doesn’t happen that way in our system.
Change happens with supermajorities or change happens through violence. And we are a very, very violent democracy. Gun ownership is only one version of that. Recently when—I forget the name of the gentleman who broke into Nancy Pelosi’s house and attacked Paul Pelosi—when he was—when he was discussing why he did what he did with the FBI, the affidavit’s available online, he said—he used words that were exactly the same, exactly the same, as the words I quoted, before he did this, by Ben Tillman in my book. Ben Tillman was a South Carolina white supremacist.
And what the man who broke into Nancy Pelosi’s house said was: I wanted to break her knees and wheel her into Congress so that the Democrats would see the results of their action, and act differently. Ben Tillman said in 1870 in South Carolina that he wanted to cut off the arms of all the Republicans and Black men who voted so that they would show other Black men and Republicans what happens if they try to vote. Bullying, and of course lynching, is the semi-institutionalized way this goes on until the 1960s in our country, and one could argue might still go on within some elements of criminal justice today. Bullying and violence is, unfortunately, another way that change happens in our society. Sometimes, as in the Civil War and the Union Army, violence is somewhat necessary. But the nonstate violence, the non-Weberian violence in our society.
So supermajorities and violence are two parts of our history. We should today, as we’re looking at our democracy, not be surprised that we see problems with both, and that both are elements of what’s happening. I think many of us believe that we need supermajorities to get things changed in many parts of our society. Certainly, if we want to have voting rights we’re going to deal with the gerrymandering. And we also have seen an uptick in violence. And we shouldn’t be surprised by that. We need to be ready. I would say I think our democracy will survive, but we’re going to see more violence, I think. The historical record would lead us to think, not less.
The last point I want to close on, because I know people have so many more smart things to say and ask about, but the last thing I want to close on, it’s a statement I make in the book toward the end. And I really believe this, and it’s strange for me to quote myself but I want to make sure I get the words right. (Laughs.) I think the historical record shows that democracies do not come together when they glorify their past. That’s an easy way to become a cheerleader, but they don’t come together that way. They come together when they strive to repair their past.
I’m an American patriot. I’m the child of immigrants. I couldn’t do what I do if the United States had not taken in my immigrant parents and grandparents from Russia and from India. So I love this country, but I kind of approach it, and I think historians should help us to approach it, as good parents approach parenting. Which is you love your country and your kids, you support them, but you hold them accountable. And you say, because I love you, I want you to reach the values we believe in. I love my country. It’s the role of historians to point out the good things we’ve done—reconstruction of Germany and Japan that I’ve written about myself after World War II—but also the things, the places where we’ve not done well, and how we can do better. Not because we want to trash our country, but because want us to live up to our values.
I think that’s crucial for our foreign policy. And I’ll close it on this point. In my study and my writing on the Cold War, and I’ve written a lot on U.S. foreign policy for prior books and articles, it seems to me we’ve been at our best, just as George Kennan predicted, when we’re setting an example for the world rather than running the world. And if we want to have the influence and want to return to a democracy agenda internationally, which I hope we return to at some point, we got to get our own democracy doing better. Our work in progress has to improve, learning from this history, if we want to have that influence in Ukraine, and elsewhere, going forward.
So thank you for listening to my opening. That’s all I have to say for now. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: Jeremi, that was fantastic. Now let’s go to all of you for your questions, comments.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Which we have our first question from Todd Barry, who’s an adjunct professor at Hudson County Community College.
In light of the fact that many of America’s founding fathers were slaveowners, how can we encourage our students to still feel patriotic?
SURI: Great question, Todd. And I get that question a lot, especially as, I’m sure many of you do, when Thomas Jefferson comes up. And it’s not just that they’re slaveholders. They’re hypocrites, right? And we can find for any figure—(laughs)—certainly ourselves—but certainly any figure who deserves more reverence than us, we can certainly find evidence of a gap, a big gap, between ideals and behavior in our history. And so I don’t think we should apologize for the slavery of Thomas Jefferson and others, but I think what we should do is, first of all, we should show how many Americans struggled with this, as probably some of us struggle with environmental issues today.
My kids think I don’t do enough to deal with climate change. They’re probably right. They don’t like the fact that I fly on planes too often to go and give talks places because it’s bad for the environment, right? They want me to do more through Zoom. I don’t think they want me more at home, they just want me to not fly. (Laughs.) Not fly as much, because it’s bad for the environment. And I think we struggle with that. I feel guilty sometimes, right, about some of our wasteful habits.
That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the environment. It doesn’t mean that Thomas Jefferson didn’t care about human rights and civil rights. But it means he himself was dependent upon the slaves on his farm. He was trying to work his way through that. That does not apologize for his behavior, but I think it shows the humanity of the individual. And I think we have to avoid trying to create men of marble, but we also have to avoid trashing men of marble also. We have to treat them as human beings.
And so I try to avoid getting people to say he’s a slaveholder and horrible or we should excuse his slaveholding because of the times he’s in, and more to understand the struggles of the individual. And then for us to think about, and as a scholar of leadership what all leaders struggle with, which is your ideals and your reality. I don’t think we should hold people in condemnation because they live short of their ideals. We should judge them on how well they try to reconcile their ideals with the world they’re in.
And here, then I would stand with Annette Gordon-Reed, and Peter Onuf, and others. I think figures like Jefferson deserve our reverence for the thoughtfulness with which they approached these problems. But they also deserve our criticism for the moments where they fall into exploitive behavior that they don’t need. That’s the whole Sally Hemings story, right? That was not economically necessary for Jefferson. So I want people to be patriotic by seeing good people struggling even when they do bad things, believing in our ideals, and giving us models how we can struggle today.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Jennifer McCoy, who has raised her hand. Jennifer, if you can give your affiliation that would be great.
Q: Hi. I’m a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Thanks, Jeremi, for that great overview. When I talk to groups or to students about, you know, how we can get out of this current situation that we’re in, you know, we face the chicken and egg thing. How can we make the changes when the institutions are so rigid and our polarization is so rigid. So I wanted to ask your two solutions of violence and supermajorities, to get supermajorities, again, would require a realignment, it seems. But it seems there may be a third one. I wanted to ask you about this as well. What about bottom-up pressure? Although, I believe most of our problems are elite-driven, I’m thinking back to the Progressive Era, when bottom-up organization could be effective. So I wondered how you view that and how you kind of teach that. What I’m trying to do is give people hope that they can do something, empower them basically. (Laughs.)
SURI: I have hope. And I’m a hopeful person. And I think—I often tell people, I’m hopeful most of all because I think the last few years have unmasked deep problems that many of us didn’t pay—myself, I didn’t pay enough attention to. Even as someone who’s paid to do it, even as a historian, I didn’t pay as much attention to these—to some of these issues. So I think that’s the gift of the last few years.
I think—let me just go through your points here, which were so well-said, Jennifer. Our institutions are rigid. They’re designed, in a sense, to be rigid and hard to change. And then people double down in power that’s organized around that. But they are changeable, still. And that’s the thing about democracy, unlike an authoritarian or autocratic system. They are changeable. And, first of all, I think we have to be deft at finding the ways where we can make changes. And often that occurs, and maybe this connects to your bottom-up point, by starting local, starting within cities, and states, and places like that. And that is the progressive tradition, right, to use the city and the state as the laboratory.
Now, that’s not going to work in the state of Texas, where I am. But it does work, to some extent, in the city of Austin. And it can work in other communities. So I often tell young people to really double down on learning about these issues at the local level, because you can start to make change there that can have a huge effect upon people. And that is one of the strengths of our system, of a federalist system. And it’s also a strength of learning the details, learning procedure, learning political science, learning actually how institutions operate, taking that seriously. It’s not good enough to just be right. You’ve got to figure out how to work through the institutions, what Rudi Dutschke called two generations ago, right, the long march through the institutions.
I think when I talk about violence, there I’m obviously not advocating violence. I’m not even advocating peaceful revolution. What I am advocating, though, is the use of state power and, when necessary, with controlled violence in the Weberian sense, to control those who break the law, and to recognize how violence is being used by those who want to prevent change and want to harm our institutions, and to use law enforcement, true law and order, in that way. One of the best things I think we’ve done since January 6 is actually prosecute those who broke the law on January 6 as part of an insurrection. And we need to do more of that.
And let me state very clearly, I think the historical record shows that if we want law-abiding behavior, we have to hold everyone accountable. And so if the evidence rises higher, as it might, we need to hold other individuals accountable. And those who have information must be required to share their information with regard to criminal behavior. So I’m getting a little—I don’t want to get lost in this. But I do want to say, the former Vice President Mike Pence will be in Austin on Friday. And if I have a chance, when I’m at an event with him, I intend to ask him this. Why will he not testify as a patriot about what happened? I’m sure I know the answer, but I think we need to press people to be part of the law enforcement process, because that’s how you deal with violence. And that is the legitimate use of the force of the state to protect our institutions and to protect against the bullying.
I am for bottom-up change. I wrote a book about this years ago, actually, on the 1960s. I revere a lot of the bottom-up work that was done by civil rights activists in the U.S., activists in Germany, and France, and elsewhere, activists in the Czech Republic, or it was Czechoslovakia, that led to such important change. So I revere that. But I think that has to work by also getting into the institutions. And that’s what I mean by supermajorities. By getting into the institutions, by getting elected to office, by taking ownership of our institutions. What worries me, even though I’m optimistic, is when I hear young people say: Well, we’re disillusioned. You can’t do this through our institutions. No, I think we have to work through the institutions. We have to be supportive of that in one way or another.
And I actually don’t think we’re that far from supermajorities on certain issues. Certainly where we stand as a citizenry, right? On many issues, there’s 75 percent agreement in our country, for example, that if a woman is raped that she should have the choice over whether to give birth or not. Seventy-five percent think that eighteen year olds shouldn’t be able to buy AR-15s, right? There are places where we have a supermajority of opinion. We have to force that in, and—this is the last point I’ll make, Jennifer—I think a lot of that comes through generational change. A lot of that comes through generational change. And that’s where our students have to be the next set of bottom-up leaders who get in and make a difference.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. We’ll take the next question from Muhammad Kabir, who is a faculty member at Queens College.
What do you think of the idea that political parties are gatekeepers in American democracy?
SURI: Great question, Muhammad. Of course, they are. It’s a very learned and accurate question. They have always been gatekeepers. They still are gatekeepers. But they gatekeep in different kinds of ways. Right now, I think they’re gatekeeping more for those who can raise the most money. There was a time they were gatekeeping for certain ideological positions or certain various other interests, often related to money. It’s not unique to this—to this moment. But there’s no doubt that parties play a gatekeeping role.
And some gatekeeping is good. Some gatekeeping is good, I think. We have to have a debate over what that gatekeeping should look like. I think the problem now, I’m going to say the obvious, is that for both parties, but particularly for the Republican Party, a very, very small group of people do the gatekeeping deciding in primaries. The primary system, as everyone knows, was created to open up parties, to get rid of the smoke-filled room. And I, as a historian, am not nostalgic for the smoke-filled room. If we went back to the smoke-filled room, we’d have an even less representative group of people. So I don’t want to go back to the smoke-filled room in choosing candidates for parties. But the primary system has turned out to actually be a pathological way to prevent representative figures from becoming party nominees.
Let me just give you the numbers on Texas, which are extraordinary, right? So, in Texas, there are about thirty million citizens. About one million people—one million, probably a little less, decide who the nominee—the Republican nominee—for governor is. So one million people chose Greg Abbott in a state of thirty million people. That’s a real problem. That’s a real, real problem. That’s not democracy. Again, the smoke-filled room’s not better, because that’s going to be five hundred people choosing someone. (Laughs.) We need to have a system that’s more inclusive. And the parties need to be gatekeeping in a way that’s more representative—not purely majoritarian—but representative of our society.
So what would I do? I would change the way our primaries work. I would open it up in ways that make it much easier for people to participate in the choosing of who leads the parties. I would require that the person running in the primary get enough votes that they’re actually representative of something like a large proportion of those in the state. And we could go on and on. We could take the gatekeeping process and make the gatekeeping process more inclusive, to still be gatekeeping.
We’ve all learned to do this, right? We all are on search committees. And it used to be a search committee was run by three men who looked the same, and they chose someone who went to the same graduate school who they knew. Now we have procedures to make sure—it's not perfect—to make sure we have representative search committees. They’re still gatekeeping. But they’re doing a job that’s designed to be more representative. And we need to have that conversation about our primaries. This is an ongoing debate, back to the history, that’s been going on in our history for a long time.
FASKIANOS: OK. Going next to Jin In, who has a raised hand.
Q: Thanks, Jeremi. My name is Jin. I’m the assistance vice president for diversity and inclusion at Boston University.
And I say that actually diversity and inclusion is the twenty-first century repackaged version of e pluribus unum. And that’s—and so as far as democracy is concerned, this isn’t just about political party. How do you address this to a whole group of diverse group where they don’t feel that they’re part of democracy?
SURI: Great question, Jin. And thank you for all the work you’re doing. And I get that question from lots of students, actually, and lots of activists. It’s obviously probably the most important question. So I’m glad you put it so succinctly and so eloquently for us.
Diverse—we have to begin by recognizing diversity’s hard. Diversity’s very hard, because of what Richard Hofstadter wrote about seventy years ago, one of the truly great historians of the twentieth century. That people, no matter who they are, don’t like to give up status and power, right? And the challenge with diversity is that those—there are those who have power, and there are those who are coming into our society and have gained and merit access for all kinds of reasons. And those with power don’t want to share power. Many call this—and you know this literature better than I do, I’m sure—the hording of privilege, right?
And I’ll tell you, I feel this personally. I mean, as much as I pontificate about this, you know, my wife and I intentionally lived in a part of Austin where our kids would be able to go to good schools. And our daughter’s in college, our son just got admitted to college. And, you know, we’ve done all the things to get them access to go to privileged institutions, right? So we can pontificate about this all we want. We have to take a deep, hard look at ourselves.
And so I think that to get people involved in this issue, to get them to see there’s a chance is, first, for them to recognize that this is a long-term struggle. That we’ve been in this struggle for a long, long time. And that should not make us despondent. It should make us to see that our time horizon has to be a broad one. Doesn’t excuse problems today, but we have to see ourselves as part of a long time horizon. And then, second, we have to be smart about finding the things we can do, the institutional levers we can push and pull that can have a disproportionately positive effect opening up access to people.
That things that will help—and I’ll give you a few examples of things I think a lot from my historical work. It’s a central part of this—of my new book is voting. There are a lot of things we do that make it hard for people of color to vote. I’m Asian American myself. My father’s an immigrant from India. And I see Asian communities in Texas that have actually lower voter turnout not only than white communities, but than Black communities. And in Texas, Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing populations, but their turnout percentage is actually lower than African Americans, which is, of course, lower than white Americans. And I think this is true in many parts of the United States.
And I think there are things that the state of Texas does, if you look closely, that actually make it harder for Asian immigrants, particularly immigrants from Southeast Asia and elsewhere—to feel comfortable registering to vote, to feel comfortable going to vote. And Filipino nurses, for example, in Houston, there’s been a lot written about this, they tend to work shifts that make it hard for them on one day to go vote. And the state makes it harder for them not to vote if they don’t vote on the Tuesday in Houston, right, during the day. They had twenty-four voting two years ago. The state is now not allowing twenty-four-hour voting in Houston. Who doesn’t get to vote?
So we have to be conscious of those things that sometimes don’t look like barriers, in addition to the obvious barriers, and push to change those. Make the case to change those. And work piece by piece. And how I try to get my students and others to be optimistic and engaged is to show them places where we have made progress and where we can continue to make progress in that way. States that have eliminated onerous registration requirements. States that have—and places that have made it easier to vote.
It was a victory for us at the University of Texas in the midterm election. We added voting booths, and we intentionally put them in the parts of campus where we had more minority students. We didn’t put them in the places where the faculty were. We put them where our students were, and things of that sort. So we can do those things. We can start at home. And we can start to build upon that. But we should be realistic. We’re not going to fix this in one year, or two years, or five years.
Q: Well, thank you. I’ll just say hook ’em, ’Horns.
SURI: (Laughs.) Thank you.
FASKIANOS: All right. So I’m going next to a written question. Trelaine Jackson, who’s the disability services coordinator for Fort Valley State University.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing debate about critical race theory (CRT)?
SURI: Thank you for asking that question, Trelaine. I hope I’m pronouncing your name correctly. I get this question a lot. I do a lot of work with teachers through the Gilder Lehrman Institute. I’m sure many of you work with Glider Lehrman, and through various humanities councils, including the one in Texas. This comes up all the time. And I give that background because I think on an average year, through workshops and things of that sort, I probably work with about five thousand different teachers. And I am yet to find one who teaches or knows what critical race theory is. History teachers are not teaching critical race theory. This is—this is a total made-up issue. It’s a total—it’s like fraud in elections, right? (Laughs.) It’s a total made-up issue, right?
History teachers—I can’t comment on law professors. It might be different, right? But, again, law professors are not teaching undergraduates or high school students, right? (Laughs.) Among history teachers at the high school and college level, I don’t know anyone who’s teaching critical race theory. And I really don’t know anyone who could identify and tell you what it is. This is a made-up boogeyman. You know, once there were reds under the bed and communists everywhere. Now there seem to be critical race theory proponents everywhere. What most teachers are trying to do, even at the collegiate level, is get students to sit on their butts, turn off their phones, and listen, and read. (Laughs.) That’s what they’re trying to do.
And they’re not indoctrinating. They’re not indoctrinating. Of course, everyone has biases. I have biases. Everyone has biases. But that’s actually not what’s driving any of the issues that people care about, really. All it is is a boogeyman to scare people one way or another. If you want more points of view to be taught, here is what I think should be done. If you want more points of view, create more opportunities for students to hear other points of view, but don’t try to cut off the legitimate teaching. And don’t disrespect teachers, who are every day doing their best. What teachers need—and this is why I work through Gilder Lehrman and Humanities Texas, they need exposure outside the classroom to material they don’t have time to learn because they don’t have the privilege I have of being a tenured professor who gets paid to sit and read and do research.
They’re so busy. They have a harder job than me. Teachers, especially in the high school, or at a college where they have a four-four load, have so much more work to do than I do. They are in the classroom all day. They’re dealing with all kinds of student problems that I don’t see at a research one institution. What I try to do is to offer them workshops where they actually get paid to show up, and they can hear from me and other scholars about new research that then can then bring into the classroom. If you care about getting a more set—a diverse set of viewpoints offered, invest in that. Invest in the teachers. Educate the teachers. Do not attack the teachers. Do not make things up.
And I’ll say what I’m sure Trelaine and others know really well, which is that the challenge we face—in part because of the CRT attacks—is lots of teachers are leaving the profession. And that’s a real problem. That’s a real problem. We need more talented teachers, not fewer. And we don’t need to attack them. So the CRT stuff, it’s a boogeyman.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Karl Inderfurth of St. Johns—actually, I don’t know—he’s with—let me get this. OK, he’s at George Washington University.
St. John’s College is known for its great books curriculum. What would be your short great books list for teaching American democracy? He is just finishing up Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln, and just finished a chapter entitled “America -Whither.” Still asking that question today. (Laughs.)
SURI: Great question, Karl. And I am a believer in great books. I think our great books can be old and new. If we weren’t talking just in an American context, right, there’s no reason we can’t go Plato to Toni Morrison, right? We can have great books, they don’t all just have to be from people of another age. So I’ll give you my four that I think are essential. And this is in addition to reading the Constitution and reading—(laughs)—the Declaration of Independence.
The first is also a primary document, The Federalist Papers. I think everyone should read The Federalist Papers and grapple. They are great for discussions because there’s so much meat in them, and they don’t agree all the time, even internally. Even the ones Hamilton wrote himself, or Madison wrote himself. So The Federalist Papers. Then I really like the classic book by Edmund Morgan, American Freedom, American Slavery. And that book makes the point, focusing on Virginia—written, I think, in the 1960s or 1970s—focusing on Virginia. Makes the point that American—the definition of freedom in the United States was connected to slavery. That Virginians thought they were free because they held slaves. And these are not contradictions. And that’s so important in thinking about how we think about race going forward.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which captures so many concepts. It’s empirical in the time, but also captures concepts about social capital, associationalism that are so important to us going forward. And then I would—I’m going to actually give you five. I already had three, I have two more I want to—(laughs)—two more I want to mention here. I think it’s absolutely crucial that students get a sense of what happened in the Civil War and the Civil War’s legacies. I wrote a book on this, but I think the best book for anyone to read is James McPherson’s Battle Cry Freedom, which captures the politics of the war, the nature of the war, and the legacy of the war, as such.
And then I really love the classic book that was written years ago by William Leuchtenburg on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, which just gives you a basic—I think it’s from the 1950s—it was a classic book that gives you a basic overview of what the New Deal was about. There’s a more recent version, not quite as detailed, by Eric Rauchway, I think called What the New Deal Did [sic: Why the New Deal Matters], something along those lines. David Kennedy’s also written a book, Freedom from Fear. But one of those New Deal books I think is really, really important. And, you know, I gave you five, I’m now thinking of another eight I want I want to say, but we’ll stop there for now. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: That’s great. All right. There’s a raised hand. Stan Gacek.
Q: Yes, thank you, Professor Suri. Absolutely an enlightening discussion. I am the senior advisor for global strategies of a—we argue that we are the largest union of workers in the private sector, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
My question is the following, Professor Suri. From a historian’s point of view, you have mentioned, quite insightfully, you know, what the role of supermajorities, and how supermajorities have been necessary in order to get things changed. But how would you, from a historian’s point of view, how do you assess now what are really anti-majoritarian institutions in our constitutional system, most notably the Electoral College? And from a historian’s point of view, why is it that we, as the American people, have not been able to change this system over time?
SURI: Great question, Stan. And I struggle with this myself. So the Electoral College is a—is a really interesting phenomenon. First of all, almost no one understands it. I always ask my students, who have taken AP history before they come into my class, where the Electoral College meets. They think there’s, like, some college of cardinals somewhere that—I mean, people don’t understand how this thing works. People don’t understand who electors are. Most of us don’t really understand it. And it’s never been popular. It wasn’t even popular among the founding fathers.
I wrote about this in an earlier book, and many of you know this, the Electoral College was a last-minute compromise. They couldn’t figure out how to elect a president. The founders believed that Virginia would always put up someone, Massachusetts would always put up someone, New York would—and how would they—how would they come to an agreement? And so they created this jerry-rigged system that they never thought would last. They actually expected that most elections would work the way the 1824 election worked, where things went to Congress. They actually thought that you were going to have multiple candidates, no one would have a majority, and Congress would have to decide. Which has only happened a few times in our history. Most famously, again, 1824, 1800 to some extent too, though that’s a more complicated example.
So this is something that shouldn’t exist. The problem is, we can’t agree on what to replace it with. So this is a classic case of suboptimality, where we’re stuck with something because we can’t agree on what to do in place of it. That is something I tell another generation they’ve got to work on that. Every student I met thinks it’s silly we have an Electoral College. It’s time that we actually put work into something that would replace it, and building support for that.
Now, that’s a long-term issue. That’s not going to happen overnight. But there are anti-majoritarian elements that have been misused recently that we can use history to help us un-misuse. (Laughs.) And one of them is the filibuster. And I’m sure you know this, Stan. The filibuster exists because Aaron Burr changes the rules of the Senate. But for the most part, the filibuster is rarely used and, when used, the barrier to use it is pretty high. Until the late twentieth century. It is consistently used on race issues, which is interesting. It’s consistently used to protect slavery and then to go against civil rights.
But the barrier to use it is high. And it is rarely invoked. We have gone to a system in the last thirty years where on every issue if you don’t have sixty votes you can’t go forward. And so that means in the Senate that basically forty-one senators can stop anything from happening. And you can actually have forty-one Senators who represent less than 40 percent of the population. So thirty-some-odd percent of the population is holding things hostage, such as voting rights. I am a firm believer, as a historian, that the filibuster should not work that way. No one intended it to work that way. It is not good for our democracy.
And that can be changed tomorrow. It can be changed in 2025 if one party has enough people who just change the rules. All you need is fifty-one, or fifty-plus-one, with the vice president’s vote. And I’m a believer that that should be changed. It’s already been changed for Supreme Court nominations, right? You got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. Let’s just get rid of it for everything. Let’s go to reality and say if you have fifty-one votes you have a majority, and forty-one people don’t get to stop us.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Patrick Duddy at Duke University.
The immense flow of undocumented migrants over our southern border and recently over our northern border have alarmed many and aggravated certain nativist elements in African—I’m sorry—American society. The numbers are startling. More undocumented migrants have crossed our border in the last year than there are citizens in a dozen U.S. states. But we are a nation shaped by immigration. How do you approach the history of immigration in the U.S. in view of the current political discourse on the subject?
SURI: Great question, Patrick. And also thank you for being fact-based, because a lot of people talk about this without being fact-based. And I think you clearly know the details, probably know them better than I do. Look, the first thing a historian would say is that immigration has always been a problematic issue in our country. We are a nation of immigrants. I proudly stand by that, as a child of immigrants myself. But we’ve always been a country that has had strong nativist impulses, as you point out, and done a lot to restrict immigration.
The most infamous example being the 1924 Immigration Act, that actually, between 1924 and 1965, created a quota system that made it very difficult for people like my father to come into the country. My father came into the country from India in 1965, after Lyndon Johnson passed the reform act of 1965 that actually allowed Indians, South Asians, to come into the U.S. in any significant number for the first time. And it changed everything, right? Silicon Valley, Austin, look at the South Asian communities. So this is a long-term problem. It’s not new to today.
But what I will say is what has been not necessarily new but been striking about the last thirty years is our inability to pass any legislation. So the challenge that we have, particularly on the southern border, is we don’t have effective legislation to deal with exactly what you pointed to, which is the processing of people who want to come and deciding who gets to come in and who doesn’t. As much as I, in theory, would like an open border, we can’t have one, for what you implied. But we have to let people in. We need them economically.
The Austin miracle—Austin’s the fastest-growing city in the U.S., right—is because of immigrants. There was a shortage of computer programmers every day in Austin, Texas, and we’re hiring educated people from India and Mexico. There’s a brain drain from those countries to Austin. We need immigrants, as our country does. You know, our demographics also. We don’t have the replacement rate population. And if you want to look at the country that doesn’t bring in immigration, what happens, look at Japan and the economic stagnation they have faced.
So we need immigrants, as well as wanting immigrants ideologically. But we don’t have a process—an effective process that helps us to have the resources and to have fair laws that are actively applied to determine who comes in and who doesn’t. I believe that we should not allow families to come in, I think we should do more for political refugees—those who can prove they’re political refugees. We should do more also for skilled workers. And we can have various other categories—DREAMers and others. Some of my best students, by the way, every semester, are DREAMers, in my classes at the University of Texas.
But that’s not to say we’re letting everyone in. And we should hold people accountable to the law. But right now we have a system of laws that are outdated. The last legislation was in the Reagan administration. We have poorly funded and mis-funded institutions. We have states like Texas and Florida that are sending ill-trained forces down to the border to do things that are intentionally not matched up with the federal government. And then, it has to be said, we are creating not only hateful rhetoric but misallocating resources in building walls, or pieces of walls, that don’t keep anyone out of anywhere.
It is long time that members of Congress sit down and work toward the passage of legislation. There was a majority that agreed to a legislative package during the Obama administration. And it was filibustered, back to that—back to that point. So the best way to deal with this issue is to update our laws based on our values. That won’t solve the problem, but that can do a lot better. And I am deeply frustrated that we haven’t had the historical will or the political will in the last thirty years. That has to change.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Jennifer Brinkerhoff at GWU.
Do you think Supreme Court reform is needed to keep our democracy strong?
SURI: Yes. And I have a strong historical argument for that, Jennifer. Thank you for asking that excellent question.
Here is the thing about both the Supreme Court and Congress. I think most people know this, but it’s worth resaying. From the late eighteenth century until the early twentieth century, we expanded Congress every ten years. So we need more members of Congress for more representation. And we brought in more states. We need to bring in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, as states. And we changed the composition and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. I point this out in my book, the Supreme Court numbers, the number and jurisdiction of the court, the actual operation of the court was changed by Congress three times between 1861 and 1872. To change the number of justices—for a time there were ten, then there were eight—to change their jurisdiction.
And this was what everyone assumed was Congress’ role. Congress doesn’t get to decide the cases, but Congress sets the framework within which the Supreme Court operates. Since the late nineteenth century have we not only kept Congress at about the same size—so we now have 750,000-800,000 people per member of Congress in the House—but we’ve also—we’ve also kept the Supreme Court at the same size. We all know that the legal structure of the United States has multiplied in its complexity and scale since the late nineteenth century. And why we think that nine cardinals is still the appropriate number, and the jurisdictional demarcations make the same sense, it doesn’t fit with our world. We need to update that.
And we could do something that would be very fair. We could follow the model of our appellate courts where, let’s say, we created nineteen, eighteen Supreme Court justices. And they rotated randomly in groups of nine to hear cases? So that way, you couldn’t also game who your Supreme Court judges were for the cases you were bringing. There’s no reason we couldn’t do that. We could give every president a guaranteed number to appoint, and then have others that are appointed when people pass away or retire. We could do this in a way that initially might give one side an advantage, but would set up a fair system, a fair rotational system, which is what we do for our appellate courts. And I think it’s long time we do that.
I think something like this was recommended, Jennifer, you probably know more details, but by the committee that was brought together to advise on this. I think this was recommended. And let me say one other thing. That’s not packing the court, what I just described. What FDR was trying to do with the alleged packing of the court was actually trying to change the judges in real time so he’d get the outcome he wanted at that moment. I’m not talking about doing that. I’m talking about creating a long-term process that would make for a court that would be less political, because you couldn’t choose exactly which justice, and because every president would get to appoint. And a court that would be able to cover more issues more appropriately.
FASKIANOS: Jeremi, just as a follow up, do you think that there should be term limits, both in terms of the Supreme Court and in Congress? And is there any historical evidence that that might make a difference?
SURI: Well, I think the term limits on the court might make sense, because I will say, as a historian, the founders and most who have written about this through the twentieth century never assumed people would serve on the court as long as they have, right? Because life expectancies were not the same. People were actually not appointed as young, chosen by the Federalist Society or things like that. So I do think there’s an argument to be made. It think it would be a long term limit you would want. But I think you could say you’re dealing with the historical intent by assuming people don’t get to be Supreme Court justice for fifty, sixty, seventy years. That does seem like a very, very long time, in a sense. So I would—I’m not saying I’m advocating that, but I think one could make a historical argument for that.
My problem with term limits at the congressional level is one that’s always been the historical objection, which is that in some ways further empowers parties and further empowers lobbyists, right, because if you’re constantly rotating, the new person who wants to run is dependent upon the party and dependent upon people who raise the money. So I’m not sure that’s the best way to deal with things, although I do think there is at some point enough time that someone has been in office. But I’d like to make it easier for people to run, and easier for people through primaries, as well as through general elections, to vote someone else in.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Damian Odunze. I hope I pronounced that correctly. Assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Delta State University in Mississippi.
How can we address the structural problems that confront the criminal justice system, for instance police use of excessive force? Do we have a problem of a few rotten apples, or do we need to address institutional inadequacies?
SURI: So this is a great question, Damian. A question my students are asking all the time. And this is one I’m actually optimistic on. I think we’ve made progress since George Floyd, or in the aftermath, or around this period, despite what recently happened in Memphis and what happens in Austin quite often here. We’ve made progress, because people are much more aware of these issues. I think we start by understanding the very severe problems of the criminal justice system by talking about precisely the history we’ve been talking about today. Our criminal justice system is not entirely, but is in part, an extension—an extension of a slave system, slave enforcement system, and even more so a post-Civil War system of protecting white supremacy in our society. And that’s incontrovertible when you look at the evidence.
Let me make this as clear as I can. I show this in the book, and I could have shown it even more. There’s only so much about this you can write about in one book. But most of the violence that occurs in major areas after the Civil War, which involves rioting and violence to prevent people from voting, to prevent African American and Jewish communities, and immigrant communities living places. The Memphis riot in 1866, New Orleans, Colfax, 1873. Almost all of this involves local policing not simply allowing this to happen, being responsible for much of it. Almost every one of these police forces are involved with the violence.
Now, current police officers are not those people. Many of my students have become police officers. My cousin just retired from, I think, twenty-eight years on the New York City Police Department, where he survived. I’m so—he’s one of the best public servants I know. Richard Mack is his name. I have a deep respect for police officers. That’s not the problem. The problem is the structure of policing, the attitudes that are encouraged, the practice and behavior, the violence that is used and now has gone upscale with new weapons that are acquired.
It’s a classic case of what you call, Damian, right, structural or institutional racism. Doesn’t make the individuals racist. But we need to understand that—I’ll give a very concrete example of this. My wife happens to be on the city council here in Austin. And she looked at the curriculum for cadets. And the curriculum for cadets was not teaching them to understand the communities they were dealing with. In fact, just the opposite. They were taught a civics course that did not mention slavery in Austin, Texas. And how can you understand that—in Austin 1924, there was forced segregation. Entire community of African Americans were forced to move from one part of town to another. Police officers are not taught that history. Now they are, because my wife got involved.
That’s a classic case, I think, not of the racism of the officers, but of the institutionalized racism. And I’m optimistic, Damian, not because I don’t see resistance to changing that, but because we are all more aware. Every one of my students now has seen a video of something like what happened to George Floyd. And every one of my students recognizes it as a problem. And you can’t solve a problem till you recognize it. And we’re farther along now in recognizing it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Question from Julie Hershenberg from Texas, Collin College in Plano, Texas.
I’m always struggling to find unbiased news sources for my students to help them stay current. What are your suggestions?
SURI: Great, great question on that. I don’t think there’s one. I think what we’re teaching our students to do is to go to real, serious sources that try to be unbiased, even though they are not. And that’s the big difference. Is the source fact-based, as best as it can? And is it self-reflective on its own biases? And is it trying to get beyond those biases? So I’m very predictable on this. I want my students to read the New York Times. I want them to read the Wall Street Journal. I want them to read either the Financial Times or the Economist, particularly on the U.S., how those sites view the U.S. I want them, of course, to read Foreign Affairs on foreign policy, and the Foreign Affairs website. And others as well, right?
But the point is, there’s a difference—this is what I’m trying to get across to my students—there’s a difference between those sites and sites that have not the same elements of fact-checking nor the same effort to be unbiased. Whether you like Fox News or not, Fox News is not trying to be unbiased. That’s now documented. MSNBC I don’t think tries to be unbiased. I like MSNBC. I sometimes go on MSNBC as a guest. But I don’t think MSNBC tries to be unbiased either. So I think it’s a lot better than Fox News personally, but I don’t think it's—that’s as good a source as the others.
And so those are the things. For basic news coverage day to day, especially students who want to follow international affairs not just U.S. affairs, I still think the gold standard is the BBC. You know, I find bbc.com to be the best. If I want to know what’s going on in Turkey, that’s what I look at.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let’s go to—back to Todd Barry, Hudson County Community College.
Is another constitutional convention possible? And would it be meaningful with new constitutional amendments? Or could it be dangerous, with too much change?
SURI: Yeah. I have a colleague, a wonderful, very distinguished colleague, Sanford Levinson, who has been arguing for a new constitutional convention for, like, thirty years. And he’s arguing for it from the left. And then my governor, Greg Abbott, is arguing for a constitutional convention from the right. I think a constitutional convention would be a disaster. The last thing I want us to do is throw away two hundred years of wisdom and try to start again. But I do think we need amendments to the Constitution. And our Constitution makes it hard, but we can rewrite the Constitution.
So I’m for rewriting the Constitution. I’m not for starting over, because I’m a Burkean. I’m not for revolution. I’m for building on the wisdom of the past. And we have a lot of wisdom to build on. My problem is not that we don’t have the wisdom. I mean, I’m a historian so I’m obviously going to say this. It’s not that the problem is the absence of wisdom. It’s whether we’re willing to learn it and use it. So let’s study the Constitution, and then let’s change it. Let’s not try to throw it away and start again.
FASKIANOS: And, Jeremi, I’ll ask you the final question. Do you think, as you’re seeing students come into your university, do you think that there should be more systemized teaching of civics and history across the states? Because each state, as you mentioned with what the officers are studying, their civics didn’t mention slavery. So what does that look like for students, and how it’s being taught in different states—history?
SURI: Yes. I think civics should be taught. I think we should be less prescriptive. I am for empowering teachers. I think we should—in the same way we invest a lot in educating science teachers, and math teachers—we don’t do enough, obviously, but we do a lot in that—we should be doing more to invest in an attractive career path for people to teach civics, to each constitutional and American history, and to teach it across the board, to be supported in doing that, to be given material and then left to their devices to teach. And that should be something supported not just by the federal government financially, it should be encouraged by our country as a whole.
What I have witnessed is actually students are coming into my classrooms from all over the country, from very good high schools. It’s very hard—to get into UT now you have to be in the top 5 percent of your class, at least. It’s really hard to get in. They come from great schools with lots of AP credits. And they haven’t learned basic—they haven’t read the Constitution. They don’t understand basic things. And that shouldn’t be the case. We can do better. I don’t think we’re worse than we were, but we can do better. We can do better. And I think that should be a national mission. But I don’t want that to be civics taught just one way. I want use to actually train teachers to do it, and then let them run, let them do—let them do the teaching.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for this hour. This was fantastic. We really appreciate your insights, and for all your work on this. Again, I commend Jeremi Suri’s book Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy. If you haven’t already read it, you should. And we really appreciate your being with us. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeremisuri.
SURI: And if I might, Irina, I also have a podcast called This is Democracy, where each week we talk about these issues. We bring on people to talk. We just had Jonathan Alter on this week to talk about Jimmy Carter and his legacy, positive and negative, for our democracy. We had John Sipher on last week or the week before talking about the CIA and its role in our democracy. So please listen. It’s called This is Democracy. It’s free.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. And we are going to continue this conversation on the future of democracy with our next webinar with CFR President Richard Haass on Tuesday, March 7 at 3:00 p.m. As many of you know, he’s written a book entitled The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, and feels very strongly about how we need to be training and teaching young adults about their obligations.
SURI: It’s a great book. I just want to—I want to pitch for Richard. He’s a friend, so I’m biased. But it’s a great book, and I hope you all will come and—read my book first, and then read his book. But you should—
FASKIANOS: Oh, OK, but—(laughs)—I won’t tell him you listed it, but I will share your endorsement. (Laughs.)
SURI: Tell Richard—tell Richard I was pushing his book. It is a great book. I highly recommend it. It’s very readable for students also. I’ve actually already given some of it to my students to read.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. So in the meantime, please do follow us at @CFR_Academic, go to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com—Jeremi already mentioned Foreign Affairs—and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. It was great to be with you all, and with you, Jeremi. Wishing you all a good rest of your day.
SURI: Thank you, everyone. Thank you.