• A Well-Regulated Militia

    When I worked on the Hill, I was initially amused when Senators would submit a statement to the record about a bill that would pass overwhelmingly.  “Why were they spiking the ball?” I wondered to myself.  I eventually asked a more seasoned colleague who explained it wasn’t about vanity, rather it was about documenting legislative intent.  If there was ever a court challenge or controversy about the bill, the legislative intent could be understood by the statements members made at the time of passage.

    I’ve been thinking about that in the context of the second amendment—the right to bear arms—so I went back to read the intent of the founders.  I found the answer in Federalist #29 in which Alexander Hamilton explained the meaning of the phrase “a well-regulated militia.” To understand, however, it helps to put yourself in the context of 1789 America.

    The War of Independence was still a fresh memory—closer in time to 1776 than we are today to 9/11.  The memory of that experience included a well-developed suspicion of standing armies as a tool of tyranny.  Just look at the Declaration of Independence.  Its 27 grievances against King George III included protests over:

    • stationing a standing army among the population in times of peace;
    • rendering military authority superior to civilian authority;
    • seizing private property to house troops;
    • protecting soldiers accused of crimes from trial; and
    • the crown’s prosecution of war, encouragement of insurrection against local authorities, and support for native nations’ attacks on the colonies. 

    There are at least a half-dozen specific examples in our Declaration that warned about the threat to liberty of a standing army.

    So the founders, suspicious that a standing army could become a tool of some future tyrant, created a system of checks and balances to thwart a federal army ever threatening the liberties of American citizens.  Their solution was a well-regulated militia. 

    In 1789, a militia was not a self-appointed force of citizens in camo running around in the woods by themselves.  Militias would be raised by each state government, their loyalty and devotion to the new American republic was assured by the fact that they would be defending their families, their neighbors, and their homes.  Because they might someday have to operate as a combined force, the militias were to be “well-regulated”—meaning trained to standards set by the federal government. 

    There is a myth—or misconception—that the right to bear arms was a guarantee of individual gun ownership.  The Supreme Court didn’t adopt that interpretation until a 5-4 opinion in 2008—219 years after the adoption of the Constitution!

    Again put yourself in the mind of a founder in 1789.  This was a great experiment in liberal democracy and republican government.  As a “republic,” everything the state did was a public thing—including defense.  Liberal democracies rely on free institutions to protect rights.  So you have to see the potential power of the federal government—including a standing army—as offset by the power of a militia under the authority of the states that made up the union.  It wasn’t that one man with a gun would stop tyranny: it was that the free association of citizens organized in state governments would act as a bulwark against the power of the central government.

    In that context, the second amendment wasn’t about an individual’s right to bear arms: it was about preventing the federal government from interfering in the ability of the individual states to establish “well regulated militias” and thereby protect liberty.  Just as the founders created a constitutional system with three co-equal branches of government in opposition and balance with one another, they believed the militia would meet the needs of national defense while also balancing the potential tyrannical power of a standing army.

    The American republic was created to be a deliberative republic.  Reason and debate are supposed to prevail over emotion and cynical assertions of power.  Among the industrialized nations of the world, only the United States tolerates mass violence with guns like we’ve seen this week.  Where others have seen spasms of gun violence in recent decades—as in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere—governments have acted to protect their citizens by restricting access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  In the United States, today, we remain paralyzed—not by fear, not by Constitutional parameters, and not by the intent of the founders.  No, we are paralyzed right now by a Senate leadership that simply refuses to even consider legislation to address this crisis.  It is a willful dereliction of duty, and it must end.

  • It’s Exam Time: Impeachment is the Subject

    I love being a professor.  I teach one class every fall and it is the highlight of my year.  I get 18 to 25 students who I can introduce to my passion for history, energize their critical thinking, stretch their minds and their imaginations, and hopefully inspire them to keep asking questions and looking to history for examples that are relevant to them—no matter what they do in the rest of their lives.

    But occasionally, you get a student who just doesn’t want to do the work.  They don’t read, and they don’t study, but they show up in your office an hour before the final and begin asking you what they should know about the League of Nations or the causes of World War II for the exam.  I always try to be as helpful as I can be, within reason, but the truth is I’ve already told every student what they need to know about those things: it was in my lectures and in the readings I assigned.  The rest is up to them.

    As I watched Robert Mueller testify to Congress, he struck me as the wise, old professor who won’t give you the answers on the exam, because he expects that you have done the reading.

    Back in April, after we actually could read the Mueller report, these four things were clear:

    1. Russia attacked the U.S. political system in 2016.
    2. Trump’s team knew and hoped to benefit from it, coordinated messaging with what was coming out of Wikileaks, and told no one of their contacts with Russians.
    3. Obstruction of justice by a sitting president—of which there are multiple cases with substantial evidence documented in the report—has only a constitutional remedy while he is in office: impeachment.
    4. Barr’s four page summary letter of the Mueller report was a master-class in spin.

    This—shocking criminality and betrayal of country for personal gain—is all in the Mueller report.  It is documented.  The evidence is substantial.  Listen to what the Republicans did in defending the president: they didn’t argue the facts of the case, they tried to impugn the honor, integrity, and professionalism of Robert Mueller—a Marine war hero who has dedicated his life to public service, and that of his team.

    The fact that the public discussion of this isn’t one-sided is a testament to party discipline in the GOP and the effectiveness of the information machine run by the Trump camp.  In the aftermath of a day of damning testimony, Politico reported that the feeling in the White House was jubilant.  The President tweeted, “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE.”  Like Barr’s four page letter—this isn’t the truth, it’s narrative—and it is designed to politically insulate the president from being held to account for his misdeeds as a candidate and as the chief executive of the United States.

    The truth of the matter is that the president was likely to claim complete exoneration for anything short of Mueller looking in the camera and saying, “impeach him.”  That is the nature of weaponized narrative, and the Trump White House wields that weapon with great discipline and sophistication.

    The only option for those who believe in the rule of law and that even the President of the United States is not above the law, is to begin impeachment proceedings.  The evidence is stark.  It is overwhelming.  And it is Congress’ duty—as well as that of every citizen—to follow the evidence wherever it leads us.

    Some commentators put their faith in Robert Mueller’s investigation.  But our founders created free institutions—and enshrined their power into our Constitution—because free institutions, and not individuals, are the best means to preserve our liberties and our constitutional system. 

    It’s final exam time.  Robert Mueller wasn’t going to tell us any answers in that hearing beyond what he already said in his report.  It is time for Speaker Pelosi to show she’s done the homework; read the readings; and is ready for the test. It’s time to begin an impeachment investigation.

  • The Opportunity Costs of Today’s Politics

    I like Ike. 

    On April 16, 1953, five weeks after the death of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, Eisenhower delivered the “Chance for Peace” speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.  It is a classic of cold war political warfare with the Soviet Union—but it’s also a beautiful exposition of the concept of “opportunity cost.”

    Eisenhower described in the most human terms how the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States had material costs that affected everyone.  He noted that the cost of one modern heavy bomber was a modern school in 30 American cities; two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000; or 2 fully equipped hospitals. A fighter aircraft cost a half-million bushels of wheat, Eisenhower said.  A destroyer for the Navy cost the same as new homes for 8,000 people.

    I was reminded of all of this, watching President Trump’s rally in North Carolina because his preference for injecting controversy and chaos into American politics may be good for him politically, but it’s a painful opportunity cost for anyone who thinks campaigns should be a battle of ideas.

    Every time the president tweets something offensive, reporters are going to ask Democratic candidates what they think of it.  We saw that with the “send them back” tweets over the weekend.  He doubled down on that argument at the North Carolina rally—and that coverage will squeeze time away from the meaningful debate Democrats are having about whether “Medicare for All” is better policy than adding a “public option” to Obamacare.

    Every time the press flocks to a lie the president tells about a Congresswoman’s record to suggest she loves al Qaeda is a moment where Democrats won’t be able to have a meaningful conversation about climate change.

    And every time the media reports (even without endorsement) the president’s rant that “Democrats don’t love America” is a moment where we lose sight of the border patrol officer who asked a 3 year old Honduran girl to choose which parent—her mother or her father—would be separated from her and sent to Mexico.

    That’s the point.  In flooding the information-space with so much provocation—even material that is offensive, made-up, or completely fanciful—the president effectively controls the narrative, the story the press covers and we discuss.  It is no coincidence that the July 17 rally in North Carolina was scheduled for the same day Robert Mueller was originally scheduled to testify to Congress. 

    There are some who think Democrats should fight fire with fire.  I’m not sure what that actually means, but I am certain that to do so would make worse the dysfunction and dangerously super-heated nature of our politics. 

    But recognizing the president’s tactics for what they are—and calling them out—is an essential first step.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi was right this week to call the president’s efforts an attempt to distract the public from the questions of criminality plaguing his presidency; the ethical failings of his cabinet; and the disconnect between the administration’s policies and American values. 

    Knowing someone is trying to manipulate you and your decision making is an essential first response, but in the longer-term, Democrats and their allies are going to have to find a way to diminish the president’s appeal and his ability to sow chaos and dominate the debate.  Anything else just risks a repeat of 2016.

  • We are Americans, First

    I saw a Tweet this week that made me laugh a little.  Someone had shared a video of the flooding in downtown DC on Monday when that deluge of rain came through.  The National Archives had tweeted the footage and pointed out that you could see their building beyond the waves of the flood waters.  An historian at Georgetown said he hoped the Constitution had been kept dry because “we might need it again, someday.”

    To be sure, this is some gallows humor, but it speaks to a sense of crisis that permeates our politics right now.  Everything feels consequential.  Everything feels dire.  There’s a permanent sense of crisis, daily (sometimes hourly) a new outrage; and a never ceasing media frenzy around the latest scandal—or purported scandal.

    The results are toxic to our constitutional system. 

    Democracy doesn’t operate best in a state of constant crisis.  Democracy requires cool heads and dispassionate compromise. Our republic requires political leaders that put country over their own political interests—whether personal or party.  And it requires leaders and citizens who are able to distinguish between support for a political leader or policy and love of country.

    Those distinctions—as well as those ideals—seem lost, now.  An op-ed contributor in USA Today the day after the President’s July 4th speech alleged that Democrats were “upset” about the speech, “not because it was political or partisan,” but because “it was patriotic, and that is what annoys the left the most.”

    That’s garbage. 

    It would have been garbage if the parties had been reversed.  It would have been garbage if the criticism was about collective intelligence of one party over another.  It would have been garbage if the criticism was about one’s faith in God. We ought to be able to stipulate that none of us have any basis to question the patriotism of others, the intelligence of others, or the reverence of others.

    But that’s where we are at this moment in our politics, and my greatest concern is that I don’t know how to begin to fix this in the absence of some catastrophic event that gets Americans thinking, again, as Americans, first.  If you listen to the way so many of us engage with our political opposites, there’s a “purge this land with blood” mindset in both parties.  But I also hear constitutional scholars and typically cool-headed observers wondering aloud if we are nearing the end of our current constitutional system—that the break down in checks-and-balances is nearly complete; that the co-equal branches of government designed by the founders no longer operate as such.  When the executive branch simply refuses to comply with legitimate congressional oversight; when the Congress is unable because of partisan loyalties to assert its prerogative; and when any president responds to a ruling by the Supreme Court with a threat to act by executive order, we are perilously close to tyranny.

    What’s at stake isn’t Republican or Democratic control of Congress or the White House.  What’s at stake is the American republic—this glorious experiment in democracy and self government, of, by, and for the people. We are Americans, first, before we are Democrats or Republicans, or whatever other label might be hung on us.  We are Americans—and we all need to remember that before it’s too late and we carelessly throw away something we all truly love.

  • Living with Neurological Disease with Lisa Genova

    Air Dates: July 8-14, 2019

    An estimated 5.6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s today. Another 100,000 are living with ALS—or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lisa Genova is a brain scientist whose best-selling novels describe not what it’s like to die from these diseases, but what it means to live with them. 

    Dr. Genova is a Harvard trained neuroscientist who broke into the public’s consciousness with her novel, Still Alice. Likened to Oliver Sacks and Michael Crichton, her fiction combines her mastery of brain science and her insights into the human condition. Her other novels are Left Neglected, Love Anthony, Inside the O’Briens, and, most recently, Every Note Played.

    In 2015, the Pell Center honored Genova with the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. She’s a scientist and a story-teller who sees in the power of story the power to harness empathy to change the world.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Native American History with Philip Deloria

    Air Dates: July 1-7, 2019

    The British colonies in the New World, and later the United States, were built on land taken from native populations. Philip Deloria explores the interplay of Native Americans and the development of America’s national identity.

    Deloria is the first tenured professor of Native American history in the long history of Harvard University. His first book, Playing Indian (1998), explores the tradition of white Americans dressing up as “Indians” from the Boston Tea Party to today. His current book, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract, places Native American artist Mary Sully among the greats of American art.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • The Impact of Technology on Modern Relationships with Helen Schulman

    Air Dates: June 24-30, 2019


    It is almost taken for granted that technology is changing America.  Whether we’re talking about job losses, election meddling, or the role of big-data in healthcare, technology is everywhere.  Helen Schulman, through her remarkable fiction, warns that technology is changing our personal relationships and our families, too. 

    Schulman, a novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and non-fiction author, is the chair of Fiction for the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School in Manhattan, and this spring, she was named a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow for her fiction writing. Her most recent work is the novel, Come with Me.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Democracy is America’s Most Potent Asset

    The next American president should get back to celebrating the moral power of democracy.  This was standard fare for President Ronald Reagan—in fact it was pretty standard throughout the Cold War.  The fact that democracy promotion is little more than a slogan and not a centerpiece of American foreign policy is a mistake. We are leaving our most powerful asset unused in the global competition that will shape the 21st century.

    President Eisenhower came to office in 1953 having campaigned about rolling back communism in Eastern Europe.  The evidence is pretty clear that Eisenhower himself never intended to use armed force to achieve “rollback,” but his administration did launch some sophisticated information campaigns to try to undermine the regimes of Eastern Europe.  Well into the administration, the president ordered an assessment of the efforts. One of the lessons that emerged was remarkable: the United States didn’t need to tell the people of Eastern Europe how bad it was living under Soviet domination.  They already knew—perhaps better than anyone else.  What they needed were examples of and encouragement toward a better way: freedom and democracy.

    The long-term strategy for “cold war” Eisenhower adopted was predicated on the powerful appeal of freedom and democracy to achieve better outcomes for people around the world.  “Rot” would decay the Soviet system from within.  This was the basis for American foreign policy towards Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for the rest of the Cold War.  Ike thought the competition would take 30 years.  The Soviet Union, in fact, collapsed, almost 40 years after he made that comment. 

    Interestingly, when Mikhail Gorbachev was a new member of the Soviet Politburo in the early 1980s, he found himself walking along the shore of the Black Sea with Eduard Shevardnadze, then the Communist party boss in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, who would later become Gorbachev’s foreign minister.  As they walked, Shevardnadze said to Gorbachev, “You know, everything is rotten.”  Gorbachev agreed and when he became premier, tried to democratize Soviet life to breathe vitality back into the Soviet Union.

    It’s remarkable that emerging leaders of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s used the same terminology, “rot,” and saw the same solution, “democracy,” as the leaders of the United States over the preceding 30 years.  It’s not that they had been recipients of American propaganda, it’s that America’s information campaigns were built on enduring values that resonate in the hearts of people everywhere.

    But since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. administration have stopped thinking of democracy as a strategic asset for the United States.  Since 1992, the United States has been locked in a pitched economic battle with the People’s Republic of China.  We care more, now, about trade and economic access than we do about promoting democracy.  Meanwhile, China’s economic might and patient diplomacy are creating a new geo-political alignment across Eurasia, even while the regime puts millions of its own citizens in concentration camps.

    In Russia, we face a resurgent, authoritarian opponent whose leaders are fearful of the popular will of their own citizens.  Over the last decade, Russia has attacked free societies and free elections across the West; they have invaded their neighbors; and they have annexed territory.

    If the United States wants to confront Russian aggression or counter China’s economic and political rise, it doesn’t need to attack those governments or spell out the failings of those societies.  Their citizens are aware.  All we would have to do is speak with conviction about the value of democracy in our own republic—not once, not on special occasions, but as a centerpiece of our foreign policy.

    Unfortunately, democracy promotion is tinged with the legacy of the Iraq War, now; it’s hobbled by elections in 2000 and 2016 when our popular vote did not yield an electoral winner; it’s undermined by so-called “dark” money in American elections; it’s impaired by foreign interventions in 2016 and lingering concerns about electronic voting machines; and it is betrayed by those who diminish our own democracy with gerrymandering and other means intended to obscure the will of American voters.

    But like Eisenhower and Reagan before me, I believe that people around the world know in their hearts the value of freedom and democracy.  Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this—and they can again—and we can reclaim the most powerful weapon in America’s arsenal: the moral authority of a people free to choose the direction of their own country.

  • Mikhail Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War with William Taubman

    Air Dates: June 17-23, 2019

    Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most important figures of the 20th century.  A child of the Soviet Union, and a fast rising star in the Communist Party, Gorbachev was also a democratizer whose reforms led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  William Taubman has authored the definitive biography of the last Soviet leader. 

    William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Amherst College.  A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev, he’s latest book is a biography of former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev titled, simply, Gorbachev.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • Immigration and America’s Dairy Farms with Julie Keller

    Air Dates: June 10-16, 2019

    The super-heated rhetoric over immigration and border security in the United States today is part of a long tradition of anti-immigration hysteria.  Julie Keller puts our recent panic in a sociological context—exploring changes in who works on American dairy farms, and how they traveled from Latin America to farms in the upper-Mid-West. 

    Julie C. Keller is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island. She earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 and is the author of Milking in the Shadows: Migrants and Mobility in America’s Dairyland.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.