Monthly Archives: February 2016

every Republican president since 1901 has insisted that the US is a democracy

Anyone who works on civic education or grassroots civic engagement will sooner or later encounter critics who say, “The US is not a democracy–it is a republic” as if that were a profound objection to teaching or practicing democratic values. In a longer post, I analyzed the terms “democracy” and “republic” in the language of the Framers and subsequent authors. I argued that: (1) populist Framers like Jefferson used the word “republic” to mean what can also accurately be called a democracy, and (2) the original Constitution did include undemocratic elements, but they have been deliberately removed by the 15th, 17th, 19th, and 24th amendments to the Constitution. That means that although the Framers would call the United States a republic, it is now a democracy, at least in aspiration.

Here I would like to emphasize a related point. During the 20th century, almost all American political leaders asserted that the US was a democracy. Conservatives tended to be more sanguine about how much of a democracy we actually had. Left-liberals were the ones who argued that America was not authentically democratic because of persistent injustices. It is only in the last decade that it has become a talking-point for some conservatives that the US is (and ought to be) a republic and not a democracy.

I have quickly found one quotation from each GOP president since McKinley in which the president called the US a democracy. This was the result of 30 minutes of web searching; many more examples could be found:

[*It’s been noted that I accidentally omitted William Howard Taft, and it’s not easy to find a positive statement by him about democracy. He was, indeed, an opponent of the direct-democracy reforms of his era. So Taft may be an exception.]

  • Teddy Roosevelt, “A Charter of Democracy” (1912): “I believe in pure democracy. With Lincoln, I hold that ‘this country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it.'”
  • Warren Harding, Inauguration Address (1921): “Because we cherish ideals of justice and peace, because we appraise international comity and helpful relationship no less highly than any people of the world, we aspire to a high place in the moral leadership of civilization, and we hold a maintained America, the proven Republic, the unshaken temple of representative democracy, to be not only an inspiration and example, but the highest agency of strengthening good will and promoting accord on both continents.”
  • Calvin Coolidge’s Address at the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (1926) is probably the most interesting, because it is an explicit and rather scholarly argument that the Framers had created a democracy. “Placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government. This was their theory of democracy. In those days such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country. This was the purpose which the fathers cherished.” Coolidge quotes Thomas Jefferson saying that his “‘best ideas of democracy’ had been secured at church meetings.” Coolidge says that Jefferson was influenced by John Wise, who had written, “Democracy is Christ’s government in church and state.”
  • Herbert Hoover, in a Challenge to Liberty (193o) argued that the New Deal had repudiated democracy, leaving “the Republican Party alone the guardian of the Ark of the Covenant with its charter of freedom.” He added, “You might think that reform and change to meet new conditions of life are discoveries of the New Deal. Free men have always applied reform. We have been reforming and changing ever since George Washington. Democracy is not static. It is a living force. Every new idea, every new invention offers opportunity for both good and evil.”
  • President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address as president (1961): “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. … We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
  • Richard Nixon, State of the Union Address (1970): “In the majesty of this great Chamber we hear the echoes of America’s history, of debates that rocked the Union and those that repaired it, of the summons to war and the search for peace, of the uniting of the people, the building of a nation. Those echoes of history remind us of our roots and our strengths. They remind us also of that special genius of American democracy, which at one critical turning point after another has led us to spot the new road to the future and given us the wisdom and the courage to take it.”
  • Ronald Reagan, Normandy, June 6, 1984: “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”
  • George H.W. Bush, Inaugural Address (1989): “We meet on democracy’s front porch. … Our children are watching in schools throughout our great land. And to them I say, Thank you for watching democracy’s big day. For democracy belongs to us all, and freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze. And to all I say, No matter what your circumstances or where you are, you are part of this day, you are part of the life of our great nation.”
  • George W. Bush at the National Endowment for Democracy (2005) “The roots of our democracy can be traced to England, and to its Parliament — and so can the roots of this organization. … Working democracies always need time to develop — as did our own. We’ve taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice — and this makes us patient and understanding as other nations are at different stages of this journey.”

For more than a century, both Democrats and Republicans vigorously claimed that the US was a democracy as well as a republic. It’s possible that the names of the two major parties have recently encouraged some people to view the words “republic” and “democracy” as partisan labels. That is both an etymological error and an unfortunate barrier to what used to be shared aspirations. I happen to be confident that the language of democracy will regain its consensus appeal for Americans, thus inspiring us to honor our democratic ideals. But we are sailing through a rough patch right now, and virtually no political word seems able to unite rather than divide.

Association for Moral Education 2016 conference theme is civic engagement

(Arlington, VA) Tisch College is a cosponsor of the Association for Moral Education’s 42nd Annual Conference: 8–11th December, 2016 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, USA

Conference Theme: Civic engagement: a cultural revolution? The expanding definitions of ‘civic’ participation, their intersections with ethics, and the implications for education

The challenges and innovations in civic engagement in and beyond formal education are gaining worldwide attention. There are interesting links, synergies and dialogues among civics, ethics and moral development, including the significance of new media.

Submissions are welcome from scholars, students and practitioners across the many disciplines that contribute to the study and practice of moral and civic education, including psychology, education, sociology, philosophy, interdisciplinary, cultural studies, among others.

Submission deadline: March 14, 2016.

For submission details, and/or to register or the conference, please go to the conference website.

Korsgaard on animals and ethics

(Northern Virginia) I made some comments about animal rights and welfare at one of the Tisch Talks in the Humanities last week. I have contributed no original scholarship on this topic, nor even followed the vast literature closely. But in the course of a quick lit. review, I came across the line of argument that Christine Korsgaard has developed, and it struck me as persuasive. I’d put a central point like this:

  1. There are two kinds of beings, those that have wants and those that don’t.
  2. There are two kinds of beings, those that can “reason” and those that cannot (where to reason is to have reflexive thoughts, or the ability to assess wants, desires, etc. critically).

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Inert objects like rocks and stars neither have wants nor can they reason. It follows that nothing is good or bad for them. All members of the animal kingdom, including human beings, have wants. That implies that some things are good and bad for each of them. Perhaps we alone are rational, in the Kantian sense. In that case, we and not animals have moral duties. But our moral duties are not only to those who are rational, but to those who have wants, which includes animals.

(I put God in the space for “can reason,” but “has [no] wants,” because I’ve been reading Spinoza this winter, and that’s his view. It’s theologically plausible that if there’s a God, God has wants. In that case, God would be in the same zone with us.)

Kant wrote:

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.

Korsgaard is a major Kantian, but in her Tanner Lectures on “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals” (2004) and subsequent work, she disagrees with Kant’s reasoning here. What is wrong with shooting the dog is not that the man somehow neglects his duties to other humans. He has done wrong by mistreating the dog. Just like the man, the dog has desires, and there are things that are good for the dog. The man has negated the dog’s good in his own interest.

It is likely that dogs do not have the capacity to reflect on or change what they want. Therefore a dog does not have the right or obligation to participate in creating moral norms that are binding on itself or the man. It “cannot judge” in the way that a person can. We don’t blame it (or genuinely esteem it) for acting like a dog; that is simply its nature. But the man’s duty to reflect on his own desires is precisely the duty to take others’ desires into account. It doesn’t matter whether the others can judge; it matters whether they have desires and goods. Likewise, our duties to other human beings are not contingent on their acting like Kantian rational subjects.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare and my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfare.

what the Sanders youth phenomenon means for the future

(En route from NYC to DC) Early reports from the New Hampshire exit polls suggest that Sen. Sanders won about 8 in 10 voters under 30. Follow CIRCLE tomorrow for exclusive estimates of the size of the youth turnout. That will be important for helping to sort out whether Sen. Sanders’ dominance so far is a sign of his appeal–or of Hillary Clinton’s weakness.

I drew the latter conclusion while talking about Iowa last week on WGBH’s Greater Boston show with Jim Braude. Here’s the video clip. He and the other guests were very excited about Sen. Sanders’ large lead among young voters, both in the Iowa results and the Nrw Hampshire polls. Although I should try to avoid the role of the graying curmudgeon, I drew attention to Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Iowa. Less than 5,000 young people caucused for her in the whole state, which seems to me an alarming sign both for Democrats in November and for anyone who cares about youth participation.

Just to put my comments in a broader context, I do think that Sanders’ youthful following is important. True, only about 35,000 youth voted for Sanders in Iowa. That is about one percent of the state’s population, and it was favorable terrain for him. Still, thousands of young people are having formative experiences as activists on the American left through his campaign (even as others come up through Black Lives Matter or the Dreamers’ or Marriage Equality campaigns). We know from extensive research that such experiences leave lasting imprints. A classic work is Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer. It’s amazing how many leading figures of the left went to Mississippi in 1964, and McAdam shows how that summer shaped them for decades to come. I suspect when we read the biographies of leading progressive activists in 2030, many will say they worked for the Vermont senator in the winter and spring of 2016.

In the short term, the American left will struggle if Hillary Clinton is elected president (as I expect her to, unless a Republican beats her in November). While a centrist Democrat holds the ramparts against a Republican House, Republican statehouses, and a conservative judiciary, people to the president’s left will face constant pressure to pipe down. Concretely, the organized left may face a shortage of money, paid positions, media attention, technological innovation, and other forms of capacity–much as I recall from the Bill Clinton years, when I myself was young.

This is not ground for despair. Young activists can find solutions. For some of them, experiences with the Sanders Campaign will prepare them for the next four or eight years. Their activism will help President Hillary Clinton to do a good job, because (as FDR said) leadership is deciding who to cave to. She’ll need some pressure from that side.

All of which is to say that the youth support for Sanders is a real phenomenon that is worth following and caring about. But if one is interested in who will win the 2016 presidential election, I am afraid the Sanders phenomenon is likely to be something of a footnote as the primary campaign moves to larger and more diverse states. In that context, the important question is whether Senator Clinton can improve her showing with youth, whom she will absolutely need to win in November.