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  • Russia-gate Still Matters

    Written on November 11, 2019

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe.

    A majority of Americans support the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. With each witness’s testimony, they learn the extent to which Trump risked America’s national security and betrayed his oath to the Constitution to extort Ukraine’s new leader for his own political benefit. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has described the issue as having “clarity.”

    A narrow focus on “Ukraine-gate,” however, ignores another grave issue. If the U.S. Constitution demands Congressional action to prevent manipulation of a future election by an incumbent president, it similarly demands action against a foreign power’s past manipulation of  a U.S. a presidential election that the incumbent used to gain power in the first place. Oddly, even as evidence has mounted of this original crime against American democracy, the media have generally ignored  a connection with Ukraine-gate. But it is an issue that also has “clarity.”

    Since November 2016, we have known three things: the Russian government interfered in the U.S. presidential elections; Trump and his campaign solicited and used Russian help; and Trump won his Electoral College victory by a total of 77,000 votes in three states while substantially losing the national vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. The response (as I wrote in the Washington Post) was to look away from the inter-connection. Although, in Russia, the consensus was that “Putin has won,” here it was that Trump’s unlikely election was determined by domestic factors.

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  • Citizenship, Rights, And Race

    Written on May 28, 2019

    A week ago, the Departments of Sociology and History at the University of Michigan organized a symposium in honor of Peggy Somers, Theorizing and Historicizing: Political Economy, Rights, and Moral Worth. I have learned much from reading Somers and consider her to be in the first rank of sociologists and theorists of her generation, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to a conference that recognized her work. What follows was adapted from my presentation. – LC 

    As the subtitle of Peggy Somers’ 2008 book, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rightsmakes clear, her subject rests on a conceptual foundation taken from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. That is, the twin ideas that citizenship is the “right to have rights” and that the denial of citizenship takes the form of “statelessness.”The architecture of Somers’ compelling argument – including her powerful analysis of the dialectic of citizenship and race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which unfortunately has proven so prescient for understanding the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico today – is built upon this foundation. To fully appreciate Somers’ use of these concepts, it is important to begin with the understanding that, intertwined in these Arendtian formulations, are political science claims of an analytical nature and political philosophy claims of a normative nature.

    Arendt’s political science claim is rooted in her analysis of the historical experience of Jews under Nazi Germany. She finds the immediate origins of the Holocaust in the post-World War One breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires. Europe was reorganized into nation states defined by distinct ethnic identities, creating national-ethnic minorities that were denied citizenship in a number of cases. As people who had been the historic target of racist tropes that questioned their loyalty to the community as a whole, Jews and Roma were particularly vulnerable in this new European order, too easily made into "stateless" people with no rights.

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  • A Mouse Gives Birth To A Mountain: What The Mueller Report Tells Us

    Written on May 22, 2019

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.

    In the manner of Russian propaganda, where everything is true if it supports the leader, Donald Trump has asserted simultaneously that the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller completely exonerated him (“No collusion, no obstruction, game over”) and that the Special Counsel’s investigation was completely illegitimate (a “Russia hoax,” a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup”). Vladimir Putin has joined Trump in the propaganda denials, declaring that the Mueller investigation, which previously was a reflection of “Russia hysteria,” was now “objective” and cleared not only the U.S. president but also the Russian government of conspiring together to influence the 2016 presidential election. “A mountain gave birth to a mouse,” Putin quipped.

    Robert Mueller’s Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, of course, is hardly a mouse. It is a 448-page mountain of evidence refuting both Putin’s and Trump’s denials. Indeed, the intense focus of politicians and pundits on whether the president obstructed Mueller’s investigation has distracted from the essential findings of the report: first, that the Russian government attacked American democracy and successfully deployed a sophisticated intelligence operation to get the U.S. president it wanted; and second, that the Trump campaign openly and furtively welcomed and used Russia’s help. In the process, Trump promised to improve relations with Russia if he were elected. When one reads the report carefully, even in redacted form, it is hard not to agree with what a Kremlin official e-mailed to a confederate immediately after Hillary Clinton’s concession: “Putin has won.”

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  • Finding Common Ground In Civics Education

    Written on March 22, 2019

    The following post is based on remarks by Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, delivered March 13, 2019 at the ASI conversation, "Civic Education: Is There Common Ground?"

    Ever since the mid-19th century, when the United States adopted a system of universal and free public education in the form of “common schools,” we have debated what should be taught in our schools and how we should teach it. The controversies over the Common Core are only the most recent chapter in a large volume of what one historian of American education has described as the “education wars.” In a democratic and pluralist society, such debate is both inevitable and necessary. Education is the process by which we enculturate and socialize our youth. What we teach and how we teach it is a statement on who we believe we, as a people, are and how we came to that identity. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is an affirmation of who we aspire to be as a people. Education is our declaration on what we believe it means to be an American.

    While language arts, mathematics and science all involve different and important aspects of American identity, no subject is more central to American identity than social studies and history, and in particular, than civics. In the United States, civics is education into citizenship in a republic founded on the ideal of rule by its citizens, the ‘we the people’ that announces itself as the ultimate author of the American constitution in its very first words. So civics goes directly to the heart of who is and is not a citizen of the United States, and what rights and duties American citizens possess. It goes directly to the question of the power of ordinary citizens — rather than elites — in determining both how we rule and how we are ruled. It should be a matter of no surprise, then, that the fiercest contests over the content and method of American education have taken place in civics, social studies and history. Our ability to find common ground in the teaching of civics cannot be separated from our ability to find common ground on what it means to be an American — both as a matter of history and as a matter of aspiration — or from our ability to find common ground in how we understand American democracy itself and what we want American democracy to be.

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  • Can American Democracy Survive?

    Written on November 5, 2018

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.

    “Which world is ‘natural’? That which existed before or the world of war? 
    Both are natural if both are within the realm of one’s experience.”
    - Czesław Miłosz​ The Captive Mind, 1953

    It was a political eternity ago.

    In 2016, several political commentators (myself included) warned about the potential consequences of electing a presidential candidate who relied on authoritarian tactics and appeals — mass rallies of adoring crowds, nationalist slogans, race-based electoral strategies, and promises of strong leadership and repressive policies to solve the country’s problems. As the popularity of that candidate, Donald Trump, rose, there was serious alarm that America’s citizenry might choose an outcome damaging to American democracy and world security.*

    Trump’s victory, determined by a close and unpopular outcome, was greeted with both shock and acceptance. According to tradition, it was the only possible reaction. The serving president from the opposition party welcomed Trump to the Oval Office, signaling a peaceful transition to power. The editorial boards of America’s newspapers, nearly all of which had advocated Trump’s defeat, now appealed to readers to accept the electorate's decision. That the “will of the people” in a presidential election was so distorted by its antique Electoral College system — with the “winner” losing by nearly 3 million votes in the national tally — had no bearing on the matter. Nor the fact that the republic’s Founders had established this unusual system to protect against the people selecting an inexperienced, unfit demagogue to national office. Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017.

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  • Teaching – And Defending – American Democracy

    Written on August 27, 2018

    If recent history demonstrates anything, it is the old truth that American democracy is a work in progress, and that it can suffer reversals as well as advances. The teaching of civics in our schools should convey the complex and fluid character of American government, and the concurrent responsibility of citizens to be actively involved in politics in order to defend and expand the rights and freedoms of American democracy. At a moment of great risk for democracy, both in the United States and abroad, it is especially important for young people to understand that the moral arc of history does not bend on its own, but only by the active intervention of ordinary people. We may still have a republic, even in this moment of dangerous turmoil, but—as Benjamin Franklin famously opined—only if the citizenry can keep it.

    Seen in this light, the crash course on how to teach civics offered by the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn is an exemplar of what NOT to do. In an age of the rise of authoritarian and racist populisms of the far right, including that found at the pinnacle of American government, Finn is exercised about the emergence of an embryonic democratic socialist current in American politics. Of particular concern is what he sees as an “appalling” New York Times op-ed by two young editors of the socialist journal Jacobin, which argued that “subversion of democracy was the explicit intent of the framers” of the Constitution, and advocated constitutional reform to make the American system more democratic. 

    The idea that the 1789 Constitution contained significant anti-democratic elements seems to be anathema to Finn. Armed with an exegesis of Federalist Paper 10 which misses the essence of James Madison’s argument, he asserts that the purpose of the Constitution was the promotion and defense of democracy, full stop, and that is how it must be taught in civics courses.

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  • For A More Just And Prosperous America

    Written on January 16, 2018

    Our guest author today is Michael Maccoby, an expert in leadership. His most recent books are The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow and Strategic Intelligence. He is a member of the boards of the National Coalition on Health Care and the Albert Shanker Institute.

    It can be argued that President Donald Trump’s marketing skills accounted for a large part of his electoral success. He fashioned an ideology embracing right-wing values and a vision that connected with his supporters’ anger, fear, resentment and hope. In contrast to Trump’s message, which was weak on facts and policies but strong on emotional appeal, Hillary Clinton’s was strong on facts and policies, but weak on vision and emotional appeal. Although she ended up with the larger popular vote, Clinton failed to connect with key voters in the Midwestern states that gave Trump his electoral college victory.

    Recent polls report 31 percent of voters identify themselves as Democrats, 24 percent as Republicans, and 42 percent as Independents. By appealing to Independents as well as Democratic voters in this year’s congressional election, Democrats might be able to take a large step toward bringing this country closer together.  Given the recent negative messages of the Republican Party, Independents could be especially likely to vote for Democrats who offer an inspiring vision and compelling ideology based on the best of American values and who present their policies in a framework of progressive adaptation to a changing world, emphasizing human values as well as economic growth.

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  • The Importance Of Civil Society And Civic Education: The Bulgarian Example

    Written on November 2, 2017

    Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.

    In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?

    The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.

    I want to speak about this discrepancy.

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  • Democracy Under Siege

    Written on October 19, 2017

    Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.

    But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.

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  • The Authoritarian Challenge: The Concordance Between Trump And Putin

    Written on September 22, 2017

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.

    Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.

    In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.

    One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.[1]

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