We are now grappling with some of the most serious threats to democracy since our nation’s founding, with many across the political spectrum agreeing that America’s “experiment in democracy” is in trouble. Can we trace at least some of the threat to the Constitution itself? Are there ways CCC and like-minded organizations might help address this threat? On September 13, we invited CCC advisor Martha Minow,, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard Law School, and Ceasar McDowell, CCC associate director and associate head of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, to give their insights Below are excerpts from that discussion.
Are we in a Constitutional crisis? Exactly what kind of “democracy” does the Constitution guarantee?
I have always taught students that the US Constitution is a political document, setting up a political system. However, I’ve always tried to say that despite this, there’s been an aspiration–a set of principles and ideals–that people actually adhere to that are not reducible to American politics. But I’m having trouble making that claim right now.
If you look at the Supreme Court, there is now a super majority so there’s little restraint. So it’s a shocking time. That’s on top of a corrupted political process with money in politics. So you don’t have an electoral democracy, you have a “pay to play” democracy….I’m grateful for federalism but it’s not like the states are going to be bulwarks of liberty.
People have a historical interpretation of the Constitution as a beautiful thing. But despite all the wonderful things it says about possibilities, it was written in a framework of exclusion. Over the years we kept working on our systems to make them more inclusive–to bring more people in–and this harkens back to a particular reading of the Constitution, and to the exclusion. I look at the current politics of the far right, and there is an ideological perspective that people are willing to sacrifice their own self interests in order to see it stand up.
Agreed. Ours is the oldest continuously in-use constitution. It does not reflect World War I, World War II, television, or automobiles. It has no reference to a contemporary world. Among its features was a set of guardrails against democracy, many against actually hearing from the people. This includes real restrictions on modifying the constitution. Among the currently existing written constitutions, ours is the hardest to amend, which means that any process of a new constitutional amendment may have to be extra-constitutional. (And now a majority on the Supreme Court is turning back from interpreting the Constitution as adapting to changing times.) In fact, our earlier constitutional convention was a runaway event that was advertised as doing minor adjustments to the precursor Articles of Confederation, and the self-appointed members said, “Why don’t we rewrite the whole thing?” So we have a tradition–whatever it’s worth–of unauthorized people claiming that they’re going to write a constitution.
Is the current state of the media contributing to this crisis?
I believe so. My most recent book is about the decline of the news industry. We have thousands of communities in this country that have no local news. How can you have an engaged citizenry when there’s no local news? Take for example the news about the lead in the water in Flint, Michigan. In Flint it became a public policy issue because it was debated in local news. Advocates talked to the public health officials, who blew the whistle. There are hundreds of Michigans in the country, but we just don’t have local news coverage.There are layers upon layers upon layers. The same is true for racial reckoning: the George Floyd incident, for example. There was this moment when it looked like corporate America was going to provide the checks and balances, and corporations put a lot of statements on their websites, but I haven’t seen much action. So where are the levers for realizing the dream of inclusion, equity, and liberty in America? I hope it’s still in the hearts of people. Liberty depends on the hearts of people, but a poll that recently came out revealed that nearly half of the US population would prefer a strong unelected leader to a weak elected leader. That’s fascism. That’s tyranny.
My work has always been about how you bring people together. But now I’m at this place where I’m saying, “Okay, I can’t worry about bringing myself together with those folks right now. That’s not very helpful.” What we need to do right now is figure out how to bridge divides between people who, if they were more connected, could be a stabilizing force. But there are certain people who are so defined by the issues that if it stays that way, there’s not going to be enough of a force to build the kind of balance we will need to build back connection. For me, that’s the work that has to be done.
“We need the tools that are going to allow us to stitch together a new public”
We’re in a disruptive space where people aren’t together, and we need the tools that are going to allow us to stitch together a new public. But we don’t have a lot of time. To me, that’s the work that needs to be done. But we don’t know how to talk about this work. We don’t have the language. Right now…we’re in a state of transition where things are shifting and we need to learn how to support people in their meager steps. We’re not looking for the perfect solution. I call this the language of transition–the space where we acknowledge and value incremental progress while we simultaneously push for more fundamental change.
Ceasar, I’m very moved by what you say. I love the image of stitching together a new quilt. The one we have now is designed structurally to make sure that a minority governs. That’s how the Electoral College is. We now have a majority of the Supreme Court that was appointed by presidents who did not receive a majority of the popular votes and confirmed by a Senate that did not receive a majority of the votes, and I can’t say that’s against the Constitution. It’s set up that way. So on the one hand I think, sure let’s start over. It’s so very broken. On the other hand, people have gone door-to-door asking people if they would sign a petition that is literally the Bill of Rights. The majority of the people wouldn’t sign it. They said it’s a Communist document, so I think that we have a gap–maybe it’s unprecedented, but certainly it’s very large–between the stated ideals of the country–the institutions that we actually have, but also, even the belief in those ideals.
Where do we go from here?
I don’t know any place to start other than encouraging conversations among people who are mourning the loss of the dream and want to pursue it. I’ve been kind of absorbed in the historical narratives about the 1840s through the 1920s–the period I think is critical to understand. We are bombing ourselves back to the 1840s right now and imagining that we did not have a Civil War; we did not come up with amendments to the Constitution to try to bring equity. What happened in the Supreme Court in the 1870s, ‘80s, and ‘90s eviscerated the amendments. And how did that come to happen? How did the country come to accept it? That’s a lot of what I’ve been trying to understand. But the fact is it’s now illegal in a third of the states to teach about that–about the sentences I just said. That’s the bigger gap that I’m worried about: by not even having the conversations, people are shutting out the possibility of understanding.
I got a hate letter yesterday handwritten by a woman in Minnesota saying “You and your culture–your people–are taking away my way of life….” Sadly the intensity of disagreements has moved beyond issues to attributing threats by people who are assumed to disagree. How do we lower the temperature and imagine having a conversation about garbage pick up or how you can get your booster shot? These are all the things that people actually live with. Let’s see if we can build some commonality there before we start talking about renovating a system that actually never really realized its promise.
“Let’s see if we can build some commonality there before we start talking about renovating a system that actually never really realized its promise.”
I think part of the current problem is that we’re not very strategic in what we do. If you look at the current state of our democracy and say, okay, what’s going on right now in this country? I recently heard someone call it a “cold civil war.” One side is being very strategic in what they’re doing, and the other side is not. For me, the question is: “What would be the set of strategic conversations we would have to set up to start the conversation? What can we do to actually start to shift something?” And we need to be willing to say it’s not going to work for everyone, and that’s okay.
We have an ideal. We should be living in a society where everyone has a voice to share their lived experiences, and that should be recognized and valued. That’s what we want. But we know we can’t start there. We have to start thinking about finding the right paths that will actually open more opportunities for more people, so let’s do that.
As far as the Constitution, there have been talks among people in the civil rights movement for a long time about changing the Constitution. But we need partners. There are things we do really well, but we need some courageous partners in other areas. Some of that would be the media. Nothing moves really significantly in this country without that. That’s where we need to start building.
What, if anything, gives you hope?
I decided to revive a course that I taught 20 years ago on non-profit organizations. I’m doing it because civil society is the ground from which democratic values are possible.
The fall of the Soviet Union led to a period of constitution writing, and most of these countries are no longer constitutional democracies because a democracy doesn’t come into being, and certainly does not endure, simply from writing a constitution. You have to build a culture. And critical to the culture, I believe, is civil society: its non-profits, its religious groups, its educational organizations, its media. The number of students who wanted to attend the seminar is what overwhelmed me. Students–young people–that’s what keeps me hopeful. People do see there’s a path; there are other things you can do. If it doesn’t exist, if you don’t see it, you build it, or you grow it, or you nurture it, or you support it. I do spend a lot of time in that sector and am very moved by the work people are doing.
I’ve mentioned before that I am very unhappy about the decline of the media ecosystem, where people can actually get trustworthy information and not be harassed. But there are these little shoots of exciting things–very local organizations. It’s not as though the old media hierarchy was so great. It blocked out a lot of voices. When people ask me what I’m hopeful about, I talk about CCC; I talk about Cortico. I say that there are people who are actually marrying community organizing with smart thinking about tech. There are ways we can be better about how we communicate, how we can frame conversations, how we can prepare for a mayoral election, so we actually get a good result. So for me this is a no–brainer. It does give me some hope.
I had a friend who lived in South Africa before the fall of apartheid. I said “You are an academic, why are you still there?” And he said “There needs to be seed crystals for the future.” And I am thinking about all of that right now.