- Authoritarian impulses are rising in the United States and around the world.
Today's guest argues that the very ideals of America's founding, including a commitment to the will of the people, can redeem American democracy and keep the light of freedom burning for all the world to see.
He's former senator, Gary Hart, this week on "Story of the Public Square."
(inspiring music) (inspiring music continues) Hello and welcome to "Story in the Public Square" where storytelling meets public affairs.
I'm Jim Ludes from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.
- And I'm G. Wayne Miller, also at Salve.
- This week we're joined by former senator, Gary Hart, who's the author of an important new book, "The American Republic Can Save American Democracy."
He joins us today from Colorado.
Senator, it's so good to be with you.
- My pleasure.
Good to see you again.
- You know, we have been admirers of yours for a long time, and you may remember that 10 years ago you came to Newport and gave a keynote speech for a conference that was the predecessor to this show.
So it's remarkable, and we're grateful to be with you again all these years later.
In the new book, "The American Republic Can Save American Democracy" is, I thought, a powerful and important read.
Why did you write this book?
- Well, out of curiosity, as much as anything, because we describe, almost all Americans, including myself, describe our form of government and our society as a democracy, but we salute the flag of a republic.
So rather late in life, I began to wonder, which one are we?
Are we a republic or a democracy?
And it turns out we are both.
And as you can imagine this issue arose in the founding of our country.
While some of the founders wanted to use the language of a republic and others wanted to call America a democracy, and it was left for Thomas Jefferson, of course, to solve the problem.
He said, "We are a democratic republic."
- You know, I think I've known you now for almost 20 years, and I would never describe you as an alarmist, but you're worried about the health of American democracy, that comes across in the book.
What worries you specifically?
- Well, frankly, I don't know anyone who's not worried, who's intelligent and concerned.
It's the rise in a word of what is called authoritarianism.
The impulse in parts of the country, be blunt about it, the red states, to replace the will of the people through their votes by the will of people in power, state legislatures and vote counters.
And that's the first and giant step to eliminating America as a democracy.
- So Senator, what are some of the factors that have led to this rise in authoritarianism that we've witnessed over the last several years?
What's behind that?
- Well, do we have an hour and a half show?
- [Jim] We'll make sure we do.
(group laughs) - All kinds of factors.
One of these, I think, most astute commentators on this question that you've asked, which is profound, is Tom Edsall of the New York Times.
And he writes lengthy pieces and relies on political theory authorities to bolster his concern.
And most recently, he talks about the alienation of rural voters and the feeling that the government of the United States doesn't care for them and more particularly the loss of the Democratic party of those small town rural voters.
And I grew up in one of those small towns in the Midwest and knew the people in that town very, very well.
And I think the town was out equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.
But there was not this sense of alienation, that no one one cares for me, no one in Washington cares for me.
We're on our own.
So I'm gonna link up with other like-minded people like myself and support people like Donald Trump.
It's much more complicated than that in terms of economics, the shifting of this country from a manufacturing power to a technology power and the movement of the center of economic gravity from Detroit to Silicon Valley.
And it goes on and on from there.
Changing nature of education, international competition, all of these play a role.
- So why is America's status as a democratic republic so sacred and so important?
And obviously it was one of the things that helped drive you right to write this book.
- I think it's pretty self-evident.
We are a democracy because it's represents fairness and equality.
And those are the values that our country has always stood for, almost always, with some variations.
The republic is less well known, but the central feature of republics starting in ancient Rome, 400 BC, was what our founders and the ancient theorists called civic virtue.
And that's the centerpiece of my book and the argument.
Now, what does that mean?
Today we would call it engagement, participation, involvement, and that has fallen off.
People are not as involved.
And though we had in one or two recent elections a higher level of voting percentage, it's still not what it should be.
And we have been preaching democracy throughout the world, certainly since World War II, but not practicing it.
We should have 90+% participation in national and local elections consistently, but it's down around 55%, 60%.
And so when we began not to practice democracy, that our republic whose flag we salute, begins to be eroded.
- Senator, you talk about several essential features in addition to civic virtue.
One of those is the idea of popular sovereignty.
The idea that the people, the power to govern, the power of the authority to govern actually rests with the people.
It doesn't come from God.
It doesn't come from a royal family.
It comes from the people themselves.
When I talk to students about this issue, and we talk about the ideas of the enlightenment, it seems to me like there's quite often a lack of knowledge about that era in history and how that applies to the civic life that we live today.
You write very passionately about the need to restore civics education in the United States.
I wonder if you could say a little bit about that.
- It's in the book, and it's in, when I used to give speeches pretty regularly, I always talked about this.
I grew up in a small farming town in eastern Kansas before moving to Colorado.
In the eighth grade, it was mandatory for everybody in the public school to take a course called civics.
And it was built around the Constitution, the history of America and its political leadership and its values.
And it was very, very enlightening, and it's the kind of thing we almost take for granted.
In fact, we do take for granted because I find it very difficult to find a school system in the United States that has a course like that for students.
And it's amazing to me that grownups and including those who are not voting how little they know about our history and the structures of our governments and how it operates.
I think we have elected in recent times presidents who are not very familiar with the Constitution, and we pay a price for that.
- Senator, another one of the essential features that you write about is the commonwealth or the common good.
And, I guess I have a two-part question.
There are a lot of people today in America who do not share the notion that the common good that we're all here together is important.
How did that come to be?
And the second part of the question is, why is the common good so important?
- Well, because it's a fact of life in a democracy or in a republic.
We own things together.
There is always a struggle, even in the days when I was in the United States Senate, between those who believe in the things that we all own in common and those who want to privatize everything.
Now what do we own in common?
Well, from obvious things, our defense.
That doesn't belong to any private organization.
Belongs to the people of the United States.
The army belongs to the people.
The western part of this country including Colorado, particularly, and other western states, have what are called public lands ministered by the Department of the Interior the United States on behalf of all the people of America.
And on those public lands are minerals, natural resources, timber, a lot of our water supplies in the west, and so forth.
Public transportation systems, part of the commonwealth.
Our environment, a big part of the commonwealth.
People are not, this is once again, a problem of education.
Amazing numbers of Americans don't even know what they own with their fellow citizens, but these are things we all own together, and we hold them in trust for future generations.
That must always be remembered.
So in the battles that we've had in the '70s and '80s when I was in office and are still having, for those who wanna privatize, what about our children?
What about their children?
Is our corporations going to own everything in America?
Is there nothing that we all should own together?
So you're absolutely right, the sense of a commonwealth, the sense, and in fact, as you know, some of our states are still called Commonwealth of Virginia, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
So that's built into the system, and it means all the things that we as citizens own together.
- Senator, I know that you are an accomplished author.
I know that you understand the power of words.
And so the very first word, very first sentence in the book really struck me.
It is, "Restoration of the American republic is vital now more than ever."
And it was that choice of the word restoration that really struck me.
And I wonder if you could just, you know, what are we restoring and why do we have to restore it?
It's a powerful word.
- It's a very powerful word and carefully chosen.
I think, for some of the reasons we've already discussed, the erosion of a sense of our history and our values, that weakens our republic, once again, I always have to say, whose flag we salute.
And that word republic means something.
We've talked about popular sovereignty.
The government belongs to the people.
Now that's problematic because, as you know, in Washington, there is something called the revolving door.
People who run for office, hold office, either elective or appoint for a few years, learn the ropes, learn in the doorways, and then go into lobbying and private law practice and make a fortune.
So they're, in effect, building a career on their few years of public service.
I am proud to say, that I have never made 10 cents lobbying the government of the United States, and I never will.
But there are those, and you know them as well as I do, former senators, former house members, former cabinet officers, former ambassadors, who've made small and sometimes not small fortunes by using their years of public service and their contacts in the government.
So we're weakening the republic.
We're weakening popular sovereignty, the ownership of the government by the people, and they know it.
And that's part of the disillusionment that has caused people not to vote and join authoritarian movements because they have a sense that things aren't operating the way they should.
- You know, when I was running the American Security Project and working with you in Washington, you said something to me one day, and I don't think I ever led onto the impact that it had on me.
But we were talking a little bit about some sort of challenge, and I don't remember specifically what it was, but we were talking about a challenge facing the country and about how ultimately this was gonna be settled at the ballot box.
And in that moment you said, "Well, that's the responsibility of the citizen."
Can you talk to us today about the responsibility of the citizen in a republic?
- Well, we've already touched on that.
The first and greatest responsibility is to vote.
But to vote properly, you have to pay attention.
You have to read newspapers as flawed as sometimes they are and distracting.
You have to listen to the news.
You have to participate in public forums.
If an elected official is holding a town meeting, you have to go to that town meeting.
You have to ask questions, why did you vote this way?
Why did Congress vote this way?
So one of the greatest duties of citizenship is to challenge the people that they elect from president on down.
Why do we have inflation?
Who's causing it?
Why do we have recessions?
Who's causing it?
My son pointed out to me recently that the technology industry, broadly defined, is laying off tens of thousands of people on the fear there's going to be a recession.
Well, this is self-fulfilling.
If you have millions of people out of work, guess what?
You have a recession.
So in anticipation of a recession, they're firing people.
This is nonsense.
So pay attention, educate yourself, participate.
And, you know, mostly what we're talking about is nationally, but at the state level, at the community level, go to town meetings, go to meetings of commissioners, go to county meetings.
(laughs) Oscar Wilde, the humorist, was asked how he felt about socialism.
He said, "Too many evenings."
(group laughs) - [Jim] Oh, that's funny.
- He put his finger on that.
I don't think it's, I think it's the opposite of socialism for citizens to go to public meetings, including campaign meetings, by the way.
- So Senator, you write in your book that another essential feature of restoration is resistance to corruption, obviously a critical, critical piece of this.
Can you explain in a little more detail what you mean when you say that?
- Well, it's interesting, and I'm glad you brought it up because it is one of the factors of a republic, starting again 400 BC, but also up to and including the founding of America.
We, if you ask 10 Americans to define corruption, they'll say bribery, money under the table.
That's not what early political theorists in Rome and Athens and all the way forward to America meant when they used that word.
Corruption to them was just what we were talking about, is the use of public access to the public governmental systems for personal wealth.
And that's why the revolving door that I discussed is corruption.
It is corruption on a massive scale.
And articles are written about people going out of office into the private sector, going from the private sector into office with almost demented insistence on that's a way to get wealthy.
And that, as the founders of republics for the last 2,500 years have witnessed is the way republics are destroyed.
It erodes public confidence in the government that the public owns.
So that's corruption.
So you add all that together, and that defines a republic.
Ownership of the government by the people.
Sense of the commonwealth, the things we own together and preserve for future generations.
Resistance to corruption, and most of all, civic virtue, participation.
- You know, Senator, when you spoke to us 10 years ago, your speech, there's keynote remarks that focused on the power of storytelling in public life.
One of the things that we've spent a lot of time talking about here and that we work on at the Pell Center is the idea of the American story.
What's the story that stitches this fractious, diverse republic together in the 21st century?
And I remember at the end of your speech you had said that storytelling is important because stories bring us home.
They lead us back to our north star.
Do you have any thoughts about what the story of the American Republic should be in the 21st century?
- Well, using the meaning of a republic which is what we've been discussing, it is the miracle out of 2.5 to 3 million people at our founding to have raised up a generation of men and too few women at that time who had a sense of how to create a republic on a large scale.
Now what had characterized republics from ancient Rome up until the American Republic was that republics had to be small.
Because if people are going to participate, very hard to participate in a country of 250 million people.
Emphasize local and state as well as national.
National, at least vote.
But local and state, you can personally get involved.
So the miracle of America is the first, and to some degree, not the only, but almost the only republic on a mass scale.
And that is what makes us special.
- You know, Senator, we've got less than a minute left here.
One of the threats that we've talked about at length and that you make reference to in the book is the insurrection of January 6th.
And I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about whether we as a society, as a republic, have responded forcefully enough to the events of that day and its perpetrators, and we got about 30 seconds left.
- We are responding, and it's being the Department of Justice who is bringing this insurrectionist to justice, and that's the way it should be.
And the authoritarians that are trying to take over want to get rid of the Department of Justice for that very reason, and they must be resisted.
- Well, Senator, this is an important book and one well worth folks' time.
The title is "The American Republic Can Save American Democracy."
He's Senator Gary Hart.
Sir, thank you so much for being with us today.
- My great pleasure.
- That is all the time we have this week, but if you wanna know more about "Story in the Public Square," you can find us on social media or visit pellcenter.org where you can always catch up on previous episodes.
For G. Wayne Miller, I'm Jim Lewis, asking you to join us again next time for more "Story in the Public Square."
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