Teaching – And Defending – American Democracy

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.

In rebuttal, I offer a quick refresher course in U.S. history: The 1789 Constitution had the enslavement of African-Americans written into it in both the “three-fifths” and “fugitive slave” clauses. It delegated the power to determine who could vote to states, where the franchise was generally restricted to white men of property—or about 6% of the entire U.S. population. It created a federal government in which only one part of one of the three branches (the House of Representatives) was elected directly by this tiny electorate; the President, the Senate and the Supreme Court were all to be chosen by intermediary bodies. In Federalist Paper 68, Alexander Hamilton made an argument for having an Electoral College choose the President and Vice President, which was generally applicable to all of the systems of indirect election in the 1789 Constitution: the Electoral College would be populated by the nation’s elite, who would be “most likely to have the information and discernment” to avoid the election of a President “not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Ordinary Americans, even propertied white men, were not to be trusted with these tasks. Reading these passages today, it is hard to miss the irony that it was precisely this method of indirect election by the Electoral College that gave the United States a President who is a reckless demagogue and manifestly unfit for the office, when the popular vote would have spared us this result. That irony appears lost on Finn.

The reasoning found in Federalist Paper 10, incorrectly rendered in Finn’s commentary, is at the heart of a number of the anti-democratic features of the 1789 Constitution. Madison’s argument against factions was actually focused on one particular faction—the economic strata of small farmers, mechanics and craftsmen—which he saw as a threat to the wealthy. Looming behind this argument is a late 18th century version of the clash between the 99% and 1%, with Madison taking the side of the 1%. Since majority rule is a fundamental element of democracy, Madison was worried that the working classes, which constituted the majority, might be able to exercise political power on behalf of their economic interests. Organized as a faction, they could impose “an abolition of debts, an equal division of property, or any other improper or wicked project.” The solution, Madison argued, was to make it difficult for a majority to pass legislation in this vein by dividing up the power of government: the different branches of the federal government would check and balance each other and the national government could counter state governments. Limits on the franchise and the indirect election of the President, the Senate and the Supreme Court would also keep the working classes at bay, ensuring the hegemony of the small class of very wealthy property owners.

The story of American democracy is, in no small measure, the tale of reforming the anti-democratic features of the 1789 Constitution. It is, for example, the story of the struggle of abolitionists and of a bloody Civil War to end slavery, a struggle that concluded with passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These were the amendments that excised the “three-fifths” and “fugitive slave” clauses from the Constitution and overturned the infamous Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which had used those clauses to declare that African-Americans “had no rights a white man was bound to respect.”

But this is an ongoing story, with defeats as well as victories. The right of all American men to vote, which was won in the 15th Amendment, was whittled away in the states through poll taxes, literacy tests and Grandfather clauses. Universal suffrage, expanded and reestablished through the 19th and 24th Amendments, as well as the Voting Rights Act, is now subject to a new series of assaults from voter suppression measures. The birthright citizenship rights of the 13th Amendment that overturned the Dred Scott decision are under attack by a Trumpian argument that is an analogue of Chief Justice Taney‘s majority opinion. The struggle for American democracy is never complete, never fully attained; this is an essential lesson in civics education that all young people should learn.

In their New York Times op-ed, the two Jacobin editors argue that American politics would be far more democratic if we had a “strong federal government powered by a proportionally elected unicameral legislature.” Finn can hardly contain himself at such a suggestion: it is anti-democratic, ahistorical “madness.” Yes, Checker, if the United States government had a single house legislature with representatives apportioned on the principle of one person, one vote, it might resemble those “dictatorial regimes” in Denmark, Norway and Sweden and the “tyrannies” of Canada and the United Kingdom.* 

Or even worse, it might look that home-grown, red state version of ‘authoritarian rule,’ the Nebraska state legislature. It might even be akin to the United States Congress, minus the gerrymandering of House districts and a Senate in which a voter in Wyoming has 68 times the weight of a voter in California in terms of representation.

Seriously, one could have a pragmatic argument about whether it would be most efficacious to focus the democratic reform of American government on a one-house legislature with one-person-one vote representation; I would concentrate instead on the role of unlimited, dark money in the political process. But the implication that it is a wild, revolutionary scheme says more about the commentator’s misapprehensions about the different forms of democratic governance in the world than about the proposal itself.

Finn’s horror at the emergence of democratic socialist politics in the United States betrays a similar ignorance. Across the globe, parties that that describe themselves, somewhat interchangeably, as democratic socialist, social democratic and labor have been integral parts of democratic politics for a century or more, and have often participated in and led democratic governments. In the Nordic countries, for example, there are well-established, long-lasting models of social democracy built by such parties. These countries are characterized by low rates of poverty, unemployment and income inequality, high rates of unionization, strong protections for the rights of workers and consumers and egalitarian wage policies. The Nordic model provides a comprehensive social welfare safety net, with publicly provided free and universal education (pre-K-university), health care, day care, elder care and pensions. It is also typified by higher rates of voter participation and citizen satisfaction than in the United States.

One can reasonably debate the virtues of such a social democratic system versus the laissez-faire market system that has dominated the United States since the Reagan years. But what is indisputable is that the alarmist rhetoric of Finn that socialism brings “repression, famine, political prisoners, and a more or less total collapse of human rights” along with “corruption and tyranny” has no conceivable basis in the historical record of democratic socialism in government. Instead, this evidence-free rhetorical association disingenuously imputes the despotism of regimes such as Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China to the democratic socialists who have been among Communism’s strongest political opponents. Throughout American history, democratic socialists have been both the strongest champions of social justice and the strongest foes of authoritarianism, from A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Ella Baker and Dolores Huerta to John Dewey, Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington, and Walter Reuther. That roster includes a long line of presidents of the American Federation of Teachers, including Charlie Cogen, Dave Selden, Sandy Feldman and Al Shanker, after whom this blog is named.

In his younger years, Checker Finn knew many a democratic socialist, and worked closely with a number of them. The historical record of democratic socialist opposition to authoritarianism, both abroad and amongst America’s leading democratic socialists, is not exactly news to him. That is why it is beyond odd that Finn, who never tires of insisting on the primacy of teaching civic knowledge over civic skills, would make an argument that so egregiously misrepresents basic information about democratic governance and democratic socialism.

While advancing years can lead to forgetfulness, it’s doubtful that age provides an explanation for Finn’s political amnesia. Something else is at work here. In his essay, Finn calls out by name three elected officials—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—as if their social democratic calls for an economy that serves the many, and not just the few, constitutes a clear and present danger to American democracy. By contrast, the name of Donald Trump never appears in Finn’s essay, and the names of Trump’s enablers in the U.S. Congress and on the Supreme Court are also nowhere mentioned. One finds only the mildest of allusions to Trump as “the occasional bad apple (who) might slip into the governmental barrel, even get elected to high office.” A reader might be excused for missing this reference altogether, since it is embedded in the argument that one cannot concede the anti-democratic features of the 1789 Constitution, as that document provided “the surest hedge against this happening very often—and to limiting the damage when it did.”

But without an educated and politically active citizenry prepared to defend democracy and freedom, a constitution is nothing but script on a piece of parchment. No matter how many times universal suffrage is written into our Constitution and law, it becomes a ‘dead letter’ when states engage in voter suppression measures, racial gerrymandering and extreme partisan gerrymandering, and when the Supreme Court allows these practices, as it did in its most recent session. In the face of the evisceration of bedrock democratic principles and practices such as universal suffrage, silence is tantamount to consent. And I fear that the current and growing assault on the foundations of democracy—along with the silence and inaction in the face of these attacks by too many conservatives who have made their quiet peace with Trump and Trumpism—constitutes the clear and present danger to American democracy.

To be a credible teacher of democracy, one must be willing to defend it, openly and without apology.


* Denmark, Norway and Sweden have pure unicameral legislatures. Great Britain and Canada have vestigial Houses of Lords, but unlike the American Senate that was modeled after the British House of Lords, these houses no longer have a meaningful role in actual governance: both nations are governed by their House of Commons.