MMITM Ep 29 - Are We Watching American Democracy Die? With Constitutional Scholar Bruce Ackerman

 

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Announcer: From CurtCo  Media.

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Bruce Ackerman: What  we  need  is  elections  in  which  citizens  come  and  say, " Look,  we're  going  down  a  disastrous  course,  the  same  course  that  is  being  pursued  in  Turkey,  in  Japan,  in  Brazil.  We're  going  down  the  path  to  dictatorship.  We  cannot  do  that.  This  is not  the  America  we  had."

 

00:00:30
Bill Curtis: That  was  the  renowned  Yale  law  professor,  Bruce  Ackerman.  In  today's  episode  of  Politics:  Meet  Me  in  the  Middle,  we  bring  Professor  Ackerman  back,  because  the  events  occurring  in  cities  across  America  today  have  made  his  observations  even  more  prophetic  than  when  we  first  featured  his  interview  back  in  May.  He  says, " Not  to  become  complacent  or  to  take  our  constitutional  rights  for  granted,  and  that  the  only  insurance  we  have  against  excess  executive  power  is  to  hold  our  leaders  accountable  through  our  ballot."  Frederick  Douglass  wrote,  eternal  vigilance  is  the  price  of  liberty.  This  week's  events  show  us  that  those  words  are  as  true  today  as  when  they  were  written  back  in  1888.  In  this  episode,  Professor  Ackerman  reminds  us  that  in  order  to  protect  our  freedoms,  we  must  always  be  on  guard  against  all  enemies,  both  foreign  and  domestic.  I'm  Bill  Curtis.  Allow  me  to  introduce  our  panel.  Firstly,  connecting  through  Zoom,  our  cohost  Pulitzer  prize- winning  historian,  bestselling  author,  and  worldwide  lecturer,  Professor  Ed  Larson.  Nice  to  see  you  again,  Ed.

 

00:01:41
Ed Larson: Nice  to  see  you,  Bill.  I'm  still  looking  forward  to  talking  with  Bruce,  one  of the  great  names  in  legal  academics.

 

00:01:48
Bill Curtis: Also  Zooming  in,  Jane  Albrecht,  an  international  trade  attorney  who  has  represented  U. S.  interests  to  high  level  government  officials  all  over  the  world.  She's  also  been  involved  with  several  U. S.  presidential  campaigns.  Jane,  nice  to  remotely  see  you  as  well.

 

00:02:03
Jane Albrecht: Always  good  to  see  you,  Bill,  Ed.  Delighted  to  be  here  with  Bruce  Ackerman.

 

00:02:07
Bill Curtis: Well,  joining  by  Zoom,  our  special  guest  today,  as  you  may  have  heard,  Bruce  Ackerman.  He  is  a  sterling  professor  of  law  and  political  science  at  Yale  Law  School.  He's  an  American  constitutional  law  scholar  and  the  author  of  19  books  in  political  philosophy,  constitutional  law  and  public  policy.  His  most  recent  book  published  by  Harvard  University  Press  is  called  Revolutionary  Constitutions,  which  takes  us  on  a  world  tour  of  constitutional  crises  while  examining  today's  assault  on  one  of  our  favorite  discussion  topics  here  at  Meet  Me  in  the  Middle,  checks  and  balances.  Welcome  Bruce.  Nice  to  see  you  Zoom  in.

 

00:02:45
Bruce Ackerman: It's  a  pleasure.

 

00:02:46
Bill Curtis: Bruce.  You  don't  describe  yourself  as  a  political  scientist.  You  are  described  as  a  political  philosopher.  What  is  that  exactly?

 

00:02:53
Bruce Ackerman: What  I've  done  is  to  actually  spend  the  time  to  go  through  the  American  constitutional  tradition  and  try  to  understand  how  the  participants  themselves  understood  things.  There's  this  constant  temptation  to  look  back  and  say, " Oh,  well,  this  is  how  it  turned  out,  but  it's  not  clear  to  them  that  this  is  how  it's  going  to  turn  out."  Not  at  all.  It's  just  as  obscure  as  it  is  to  us.  We  don't  know  how  it's  going  to  turn  out  10  years  from  now.  We  know  we  have  to  struggle  to  try  to  solve  the  problems  of  the  21st  century  and  our  government  as  they  reveal  themselves  to  us.  Well,  that's  just  the  situation  the  founders  were  in.  The  idea  that  this  crisis  which  is  real,  is  unique  in  American  history  is  simply  false.  The  crises  of the  1960s  in  which  millions  of  racist  people,  not  only  in  the  South,  but  in  the  United  States  mobilized  Brown  against  Board  of  Education.  The  millions  in  the  White  Citizens'  Councils  were  just  as  mobilized  and  numerous  as  the  movements  led  by  Martin  Luther  King  for  civil  rights.


 In the  1930s,  we  had  dramatic  polarization  in  the  crucial  election  between  Franklin  Roosevelt,  in  1936,  and  Alf  Landon.  Roosevelt  makes  a  famous  speech  just  before  the  election  condemning  these  malefactors  of  great  wealth  and  asserting  that,  We  the  people  will  not  tolerate  this."  The  idea  was  that  the  1930s  was  anything  less  than  this  profound  confrontation  between  two  polarized  ideals  of  what  America  should  look  like  resolved  by  repeated  elections.  But,  the  notion  that  America  is  just  in  the  good  old  days,  we  adjust  a  spoke  in  a  civilized  manner  to  one  another.  No,  we  have  constructed  and  reconstructed  the  foundations  of  our  democracy  time  and  again,  with  a  good  deal  of  success.  The  question  is,  of  course,  whether  we  will  manage  to  do  it  this  time.  This  is  a  challenge  for  every  generation,  we  have  as  it  were,  a  revolutionary  tradition.

 

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Bill Curtis: Were  people  more  interested  in  fully  knowing  the  facts  at  that  time?  Or,  were  they  just  as  partisan  then  and  heard  everything  through  the  filter  of  their  own  opinion?

 

00:05:41
Bruce Ackerman: The  American  people  of  today  are  by  far  the  most  educated  population  in  the  history  of  the  world.  99%  of  Americans  have  high  school  degrees  to  be  sure.  Many  college  degrees,  many  high  school  degrees  are  not  very  good.  That's  qualitatively  different  from  not  having  any  serious  education,  which  was  our  condition  only  50  or  75  years  ago.  We  have  two  sides  of  this  equation.  One  side  is,  we  have  the  most  educated,  capable  population  for  seeing  through  and  analyzing  the  news.  On  the  other  side,  what  we  have  is  as  a  crisis  of  serious  journalism.  The  number  of  serious  journalists  in  the  United  States  who  are  covering  state  capitals  is  virtually  nonexistent.

 

00:06:37
Bill Curtis: Why  do  you  feel  that's  happened,  why  the  seriousness  of  the  journalism  research  has  fallen  by  the  wayside?

 

00:06:43
Bruce Ackerman: Simple  economics.  Before  the  rise  of  the  internet,  newspapers  around  the  country  were  basically  financed  by [inaudible 00:06: 49].  Today,  they've  lost  their  (inaudible)   and  so  the  serious  journalists,  let's  say  something  like  the  St.  Louis  Post- Dispatch,  which  was  a  great  newspaper.  They  have  been  wiped  out  by  the  internet  revolution.

 

00:07:05
Bill Curtis: I'd  like  to  dive  in  a  little  bit  and  define  a  couple  of  things.  Ed  and  Jane,  is  it  reasonable  for  a  chief  executive  during  a  pandemic  to  describe  himself  as  a wartime  president?

 

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Ed Larson: The  constitution  gives  particular  powers  to  a  president  in  war  time  because  the  constitution  makes  the  president  and  only  the  president,  commander  in  chief  of  the  army.  That's  a  unique  distinction  that's  in  cradled  into  the  constitution.  In  contrast,  the  constitution,  doesn't  give  the  president  any  particular  power  whatsoever  in  a  healthcare  crisis  because  the  constitution  created  a  Federal  Republic.  When  they  created  that  Federal  Republic  certain  areas  like  education  and  health  and  safety  were  primarily  afforded  to  the  States.
 But,  when  you're  dealing  with  individual  healthcare,  that  is  historically  been  a  state  issue.  You  don't  really  have  the  same  sort  of  idea,  but  commander  in  chief,  because  as  we're  finding  with  this  pandemic,  but  it  could  go  back  to  any  other  one  like  the  Spanish  flu  of  1918,  it's  different  in  different  places.  Therefore,  one  reaction  might  be  appropriate  in  Alaska  or  North  Dakota,  and  another  reaction  might  be  appropriate  in  Georgia  or  California.  Therefore,  it's  a  classic  issue  of  federalism.  But,  when  you  have  a  war  effort,  you  don't  say  that  New  York  should  handle  world  war  two,  one  way  and  California  should  have  it  in  another  way.  Everyone  would  immediately  see  that,  just  absolutely  ridiculous.

 

00:08:39
Bruce Ackerman: Jane,  we  understand  that  commander  in  chief  of  our  armed  forces,  that's  a  concept  we  can  wrap  our  arms  around,  but  domestically,  what  is  contemplated  as  a  chief  executive  power  at  a  time  like  a  pandemic

 

00:08:52
Jane Albrecht: Essentially,  when  Trump  calls  himself  a  war  time  president,  it  is  to  a  certain  degree  and  to  a  great  degree,  symbolic.  The  degree  to  which  wartime  powers  in  the  constitution  will  kick  in  is  questionable.  There  are  certain  areas  in  the  constitution  where  the  president's  given  certain  powers  in  terms  of  foreign  relations.  The  power  to  declare  war  is  really  in  the  hands  of  the  Congress.  To  me,  when  he  says  he's  a  wartime  president,  it's  mostly  symbolic

 

00:09:20
Bill Curtis: President  Trump  declared  that  when  somebody  is  the  president  of  the  United  States,  their  authority  is  total.  They  have  total  power.

 

00:09:28
Bruce Ackerman: Yes.

 

00:09:29
Bill Curtis: How  do  you  feel  about  that  in  this  particular  circumstances  of  managing  a  pandemic?

 

00:09:34
Bruce Ackerman: The  bugs  are  not  a  war.

 

00:09:36
Bill Curtis: You  don't  think  so,  it  seems  like  a  war.

 

00:09:38
Bruce Ackerman: Listen,  a  war  is  human  beings  attacking  other  human  beings.  This  is  as  Ed  pointed  out  a  public  health  emergency.  We  want  to  look  beyond  Trump.  Unless  we  do  something  constructive  on  this  front,  some  future  president,  two  presidents  down  the  line,  he  will  feel  himself  free  to  intervene  in  one  or  another  conflict  that  he  thinks  is  of  great  importance,  which  is  deeply  controversial  in  the  country  and  use  the  equivalent  of  Trump  as  a  great  precedent  justifying  this.

 

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Bill Curtis: You're  hoping  for  a  more  benevolent  law  abiding  president.  But  how  does  the  system,  in  fact,  ensure  that  we're  protected  against  such  things?

 

00:10:18
Bruce Ackerman: There's  no  insurance.  There  was  no  insurance,  that  the  new  deal  would  be  relatively  successful.  There  was  no  insurance  that  the  civil  rights  revolution  was  going  to  occur.  There  is  no  insurance  at  all.  However,  there  is  an  opportunity  Trump  dramatized  to  the  American  people,  the  danger  of  this  kind  of  unilateral  executive  power  and  the  next  president  or  the  president  after  that  will  have  the  opportunity  to  have  to  use  a  metaphor  that  Ronald  Reagan  used  and  Franklin  Roosevelt  used,  the  first  hundred  days.  What  should  the  first  hundred  days  be?  What  are  the  really  crucial  initiatives  which  we  should  adopt  immediately,  so  as  to  assure  that  another  set  of  abuses,  like  those  of  Trump  will  not  occur?

 

00:11:17
Bill Curtis: In  this  case,  what  is  Congress's  ability  to  actually  make  change,  that  allows  anyone  who  comes  into  office  and  assumes  the  role  of  King  or  dictator?  What  allows  us  to  control  that  environment?  We're  going  to  talk  about  that  when  we  come  back  from  this  break,  because  I've  got  to  go  call  my  doctor  and  see  if  putting  Clorox  in  my  coffee  is  appropriate.  We'll  be  right  back

 

00:11:51
Speaker 2: On  medicine.  We're  still  practicing.  Join  Dr.  Steven  Tabak  and  Bill  Curtis,  for  real  conversations  with  the  medical  professionals  who  have  their  finger  on  the  pulse  of  healthcare  in  the  modern  world  available  on  all  your  favorite  podcasting  platforms  produced  by  CurtCo  Media.

 

00:12:12
Bill Curtis: We're  back  with  Ed,  Jane  and  Bruce.  Bruce,  you  said  the  primary  number  one  responsibility  is  to  cast  your  ballot,  knowing  what  the  issues  are  and  choosing  a  representative  on  the  basis  that  they  are  pursuing  the  right  direction  for  the  future.  That  is  how  you  would  describe  that  responsibility  that  we  have  as  citizens?

 

00:12:32
Bruce Ackerman: You  see,  there  are  two  different  dimensions.  We  have  the  fundamental  responsibility  to  train,  to  educate  people,  to  be  good  citizens  by  understanding  and  talking  to  the  other  side  in  your  classrooms.  Civics  is  no  longer  a  central  element  in  the  curriculum.  This  is  a  tragedy.  American  history  is  no  longer  at  the  core  of  our  education.  At  the  present  time,  we  have  the  homeschooling  movement,  which  makes  it  virtually  impossible  to  have  the  child  hear  the  other  sides  because  their  parents  are  teaching  them.

 

00:13:16
Bill Curtis: Are  you  saying  that  a  primary  responsibility  of  the  citizen  is  to  educate  each  other  or  to  insist  that  we  ourselves  get  educated?

 

00:13:26
Bruce Ackerman: The  fundamental  obligation  of  the  older  generation  to  the  younger  generation  of  citizens  is  to  educate  the  younger  generation  to  be  citizens  in  the  way  that  I'm  describing  it.  Then  when  these  people  grow  up,  they  have  another  fundamental  obligation,  which  is  the  ballot.

 

00:13:48
Bill Curtis: You are  saying  that  a  requirement  is  to  educate  ourselves  on  the  issue  and  cast  a  ballot  accordingly?

 

00:13:54
Bruce Ackerman: That's  right.  And,  everybody  realizes  that.  If  they  didn't,  they  wouldn't  show  up  at  the  polls  at  all.  The  minimal  requirement  of  citizenship  is  to  cast  informed  vote.  The  second  one  is  community  service.  In  The  Second  World  War,  It  took  the  extraordinary  form  of  the  draft.  One  of  the  most  significant  things  that  has  changed  over  the  last  50  years  is  the  1973  decision  to  eliminate  the  draft.  The  question  is  whether  there's  another  form  of  community  service  that  is  more  appropriate  in  the  21st  century.  It's  those  three  requirements  to  educate  the  next  generation  for  citizenship,  to  cast  an  informed  ballot,  and  to  recognize  your  debt  to  the  community  in  a  way  that's  meaningful  in  the  21st  century.  Those  are  the  three  fundamental  elements  that  we  need  to  reconstruct  in  a  world  where  journalism  has  fallen  apart,  where  the  public  school  system  is  in  disarray  and  where  we  don't  have  a  structure  of  recognizing  in  a  constructive  way,  how  much  we  owe  to  being  an  American.

 

00:15:25
Bill Curtis: Bruce,  yesterday  in  our  discussion,  you  were  talking  about  your  feeling  that  there  was  a  disintegration  of  the  constitutional  tradition.  Tell  us  what  you  meant  by  that.

 

00:15:35
Bruce Ackerman: Well,  the  question  is,  are  we  a  democracy  or  are  we  a  plutocracy?  Is  our  politics  so  dominated  by  big  money  that  this  fundamental  right  of  the  citizen  to  cast  his  ballot  for  a  change  or  not  change,  been  profoundly  undermined  by  the  power  of  big  money?  After  all,  we  just  see  Bloomberg  spend  a  billion  dollars  of  his  own  money.  And,  the  courts  have  said,  you  have  a  constitutional  right  to  spend  your  own  money.  We  have  not  only  big  money,  but  we  have  the  courts  supporting  the  power  of  big  money.  Is  there  anything  we  can  do?  Well,  there  is.  Working  with  Congressman  RO  Khanna  K- H- A- N- N- A,  he  and  I  have  worked  out  a  statute,  which  is  now  been,  he  submitted  to  for  consideration  by  Congress.  What  we  argue  for  is  this,  every  registered  voter  gets  50  democracy  dollars  to  spend  in  presidential  elections.  So,  each  registered  voter  starts  talking  to  his  friends  and  neighbors,  who  should  I  spend  this  money  for?  You  can't  spend  for  anything  else.

 

00:16:55
Bill Curtis: You're  still  making  it  a  popularity  contest.

 

00:16:58
Bruce Ackerman: We're  making  it  into  an  election,  each  citizen  is  going  to  go  to  the  polls  and  cast  his  ballot,  and  now  he  has  an  effective  way  of  changing  the  conversation.  The  only  people  who'll  get  this  money  are  people  who  say, " I'm  not  going  to  use  my  own  path,  I'm  not  going  to  ask  people  to  cash.  I'm  only  going  to  finance  my  campaign  with  democracy  dollars."

 

00:17:23
Bill Curtis: Well,  so  that  seems  like  a  reasonable  concept  in  this  situation  where  you  have  to  bring  that  to  a  body  of  people  to  vote  on,  who  are  in  power.  And,  those  people  are  in  power,  perhaps  for  the  wrong  reason.  Maybe  they  got  their  money  through  special  interests  or  otherwise.  How  do  you  convince  them  to  actually  vote  in  a  new  concept  that  makes  their  position  weaker?

 

00:17:48
Bruce Ackerman: You  see,  you're  simply  believing  that  the  status  quo  is  invincible.  Let's  shake  the  green  movement.  Environmentalist,  they'd  love  this.  They  believe  in  grassroots  participation,  all  the  environs  would  latch  on,  so  will  people  who  think  that  the  right  to  bear  arms  is  really  fundamental,  because  they  think  that  they  will  be  financed  by  democracy  dollars  by  their  true  believers.

 

00:18:17
Jane Albrecht: But,  if  they've  chosen,  as  many  of  them  have  done  already,  not  to  participate  in  the  public  campaign  finance  system,  because  it  will  limit  their  fundraising  and  other  respects.  In  other  words,  they've  made  the  calculation.  They  think  they  can  raise  more  without  it.

 

00:18:29
Bruce Ackerman: What  I'm  talking  about  is  something  that looks like big  money,  compared  to  what  was  done  before. $ 50  for  every  American  voter  is  after  all $ 7  billion.

 

00:18:42
Bill Curtis: It  would  be  substantial,  no  doubt.  But  the  question  is  that  the  people  who  are  in  power  got  there  through  being  empowered  with  their  own  financing  methods,  and  we're  asking  them  to  make  a  change  based  on  the  greater  good.  Generally  we  haven't  seen  a  lot  of  politicians  looking  to  make  changes  and  for  the  greater  good  in  these  days.

 

00:19:03
Bruce Ackerman: Well,  that's  what  happened  in the  1960s, the  1930s  with  Ronald  Reagan.  You're  just  freezing  this  moment  of  status  quo  as  if  it  were  eternal.  If  it  is  then  American  democracy  dies.

 

00:19:19
Bill Curtis: Totally  agree,  and  frankly,  I  would  like  to  see  all  forms  of  campaigning  with  advertising,  be  eliminated  the  way  cigarettes  and  tobacco  has  been  eliminated.  I  don't  think  that-

 

00:19:32
Bruce Ackerman: Absolutely  not.  You  want  ignorant  voters.

 

00:19:34
Bill Curtis: No.  What  I  want  is  a  press  that  has  obligations  to  do  town  halls  and  debates  and  constructive  education  as  you  described  before.

 

00:19:45
Bruce Ackerman: You  cannot  obligate  media,  there's  freedom  of  speech  in  this  country.

 

00:19:51
Bill Curtis: We  used to be able  to  obligate  media  because  they  had  licenses  bestowed  upon  them  by  the  FCC,  and  they  could  obligate  them  to  a  lot  of  things.

 

00:20:00
Bruce Ackerman: That  system  died  in  1984.  What  you  now  certainly,  and  I  applaud  you,  certainly  you're  saying, " Aha,  there's  hope,"  what  we  need  is  elections  in  which  citizens  come  and  say, " look,  we're  going  down  a  disastrous  course,  the  same  course  that  is  being  pursued  in  Turkey,  in  Japan and  Brazil.  We're  going  down  the  path  to  dictatorship.  We  cannot  do  that.  This  is  not  the  America  we  had."

 

00:20:36
Bill Curtis: Bruce,  as  long  as  there  are  intelligent  people  like  you  offering  us  ideas  on  how  we  can  adjust  the  status  quo  or  American  democracy,  we'll  no  doubt  stay  on  the  right  path.  Well,  that's  it  for  the  show.  Thank  you,  Bruce  Ackerman  for  joining  us  today  and  giving  us  some  unique  concepts  to  ponder.  And,  of  course,  thanks  to  our  co- host  Ed  Larson  and  Jane  Albrecht.  And,  thank  you  for  listening.  We'll  see you  next  time  on  politics,  Meet  Me  in  the  Middle.  I'm  Bill  Curtis.  Stay  safe,  everyone.

 

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00:21:35
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