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Democracy Works: Jamelle Bouie makes the case for more democracy

Jamelle Bouie
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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie's writing spans everything from 19th century American history to 1990s movies, but he's spent a lot of time recently thinking about America's founders, the Constitution, and the still-unfinished work of making America a multi-everything democracy. In that work, he's identified a contradiction that he believes is impeding democratic progress:

"Americans take for granted the idea that our counter-majoritarian Constitution — deliberately written to constrain majorities and keep them from acting outright — has, in fact, preserved the rights and liberties of the people against the tyranny of majority rule, and that any greater majoritarianism would threaten that freedom," Bouie wrote.

In this interview, we discuss that claim and why he's is looking to Reconstruction as a time that could provides lessons for our current political moment. Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times and political analyst for CBS News. He covers U.S. politics, public policy, elections and race.

Episode Transcript
Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy on the campus of Penn State University, I'm Michael Berkman.

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. This week. We are very excited to have as our guest, Jamelle Bouie, a columnist for the New York Times. He visited Penn State at the end of October, and gave a really interesting lecture about the audacity of the founding fathers and some of the anti majoritarian ism he finds in the Constitution. And we recorded this interview before the midterms. And so it's it's interesting, I think, given how the election turned out, this is also the first time that we are together since the midterms, to think about some of these arguments about majoritarian ism, and counter majoritarian ism and support for democracy. In light of what happened in the election, I think that we saw maybe more support for democracy than any of us had anticipated going in.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah, so I mean, the thing about this past midterm is that some people would say that it was the most expensive election for very little to happen. But in the kind of big scheme of things, we saw that Democrats beat historic trends, which would have predicted a major loss of seats in the house, because of the economy because of the President's popularity, but also just kind of midterms as being typical, you know, referenda around the incumbent. The midterms are not technically over Georgia still has to run off. It's an IT seat. But turnout for the midterms was relatively high, particularly for a midterm, almost matching grades at 2018, which was historically high. And in some states 2000. This, this midterm election exceeded turnout for 2018. And people are saying, and I think they're right, and in some ways that this midterm revealed Americans orientation toward democratic values, we typically see that midterms are a great time for conservatives to put conservative leaning measures on ballots, because midterms, tend to have low turnout. But we didn't see that this time, that we saw that young people, people of color, you know, all sorts of people showed up. And in a kind of situation where maybe a majority that mimics what maybe a true American majority would look like. We saw what their preferences were around policies like abortion, and candidates who would or would not be willing to uphold elections in future rounds.

Michael Berkman
You know, I wonder watching this election if we're just in a new era of politics, because we have the certain kind of expectation about midterms that we kept hearing about in the run up to the emitter, that this is what happens in midterms, and the party out of power. But now we're in our second midterm with extremely high turnout relative to where turnout used to be. So there's clearly something that's shifted in that in terms of how midterm elections are the thing that interests me about the turnover, and you alluded to this a bit, and I want to just draw it out a little bit more. It seemed to me, and the data will perhaps bear this out in the weeks to come that were either democracy and abortion or abortion were on the ballot, in effect, turnout was high and it was good for Democrats. And we're wasn't the election seem like what we might have expected. Typical. Yeah, so I look at a state like New York or, or Florida and, or Ohio, pretty bright. This is what we would have expected, you know, because abortion really wasn't on the ballot there. There was no vote that people were making that was going to change the state abortion policy. Now, that wasn't true in Pennsylvania, because if people voted for Mastriano, then abortion policy would have changed. And the same thing in Michigan where there was actually a referendum. And there I think we saw a different kind of election, a high turnout election, in terms of buoy, you know, maybe come around the back a little bit to this idea of democracy being on the ballot because Qantas is seems to be what happened is that in states where election deniers were in a position to influence the election, they were voted down. Right in Arizona, Michigan, we could go on Pennsylvania, a lot of other states. But in other states, election deniers still got elected. Positions of so the house, you know, the House Republican conference right now is close to 50%, if not more people that deny the legitimacy of the last election.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah. So I mean, that seems corrosive

Michael Berkman
To democracy going forward.

Candis Watts Smith 
There is something that um, I just kind of heard this sound, this kind of soundbite ate. And I don't remember who exactly I think it was maybe someone from Kansas, who said, I can't remember where exactly they came from. But, you know, they're like, you know, this business of the public voting on, you know, on initiatives and referenda is like, like a perversion of democracy because they are circumventing the legislature. And, you know, I thought that was really fascinating. And so far as when we have the opportunity for to see the actual public's sentiments. And so, you know, the initiatives and referenda, right, circumvent those possibilities. In some cases, right. There's sometimes that these are just kind of made to the advise advisement of the legislatures. But, you know, I thought it was really fascinating for people to kind of suggest that asking the public what they want it directly was antithetical, yes, way that politics is supposed to work in this country.

Michael Berkman
Yeah. Well, that just goes back to the old expression were Republican out of democracy and mean that something you hear from well, in our mood of the nation, Paul, we hear it from older conservatives. With some frequency Jamelle Bouie talked about it a good deal. He, he's given that he's given that phrase, quite a bit of thought and has written some columns on it. It clearly represents an anti majoritarian attitude among many. And what you see, I mean, what's so crystal clear, I thought it was really made crystal clear in Kansas over the summer. But

Candis Watts Smith 
I do think that it's really important to emphasize the pluralistic part of that sentence, because we've also had a history of where the majority was not pluralistic. In fact, it was homogenous, by race, by gender by property ownership. And in those situations, the kind of suspicion around majoritarian is, my my red flags go up, my spidey senses go up. But perhaps in a moment, where we see an expansion of the folks who are participating and able to participate, that maybe we should rethink our kind of suspicions around your majority rule?

Jenna Spinelle
Well, you know, I'll just put in a quick shameless plug, I made a whole series on one that people decide. So if you find this interesting, I talk about Medicaid expansion and voting rights and all kinds of other things. So you can go check that out. But in the meantime, I think this is a good place to go to the interview with Jamelle Bouie

Jenna Spinelle
Jamelle Bouie, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks for joining us today.

Jamelle Bouie
Thank you for having me.

Jenna Spinelle
So you've been writing a lot lately about the idea of majoritarian ism. But I wonder if we could just start with where does this notion about counter majoritarian systems, constraining majorities, like, Where does where does this come from? And why do we take it for granted?

Jamelle Bouie
So I think that within the American context, it comes from a suspicion dating back to the framing of the Constitution, not necessarily the American Revolution, but specifically the framing of the Constitution and the events leading up to that, that really saw popular passions, popular energy as being threatening to people's individual rights and liberties. And I think as I say, in my column there, that is not untrue, right? There is a great Tocqueville quote, where he just like makes the observation that a majority, Alexis de Tocqueville, to be specific, that a majority acting unrestrained, can be as much of a tyrant as a prince or an autocrat, or whatever you want to call them. And so that's a real observation about the nature of political power that a sovereign, any kind of sovereign has the potential to oppress people's liberties. And so that insight, I think colors are colored. How the framers designed the American system of government, which was very deliberately to prevent majorities, national majorities from easily forming, and then acting easily, right. Think about an AR System, if you want to pass when Republicans wanted to pass a big tax bill back in 2017. What they needed to do was essentially win three sets of elections over the course of like a half decade, in order to even be in a position to do this. One thing that that is a that is sort of an example of how our system works to constrain big majorities from just forming in the first place and then acting. The problem, I think, with this insight as well. Actually, as its applied to our system of government, is that it? It misses the extent to which majorities when they're large and diverse majorities especially, can act in ways that do actually preserve the liberties of everyone within them that these that a large, pluralistic majority, because it's comprised of many different kinds of groups. Is it possible for it to act in ways that seek to preserve a minimum level of security for everyone in the group? And I think that if you look at American history, you see that actually happening quite often you see, big pluralistic majority is when they're able to form trying to do things to preserve, like a baseline of political rights for everyone involved in it isn't. It isn't our counter majoritarian ism that protects that, in that that protects people at the mercy of you know, I think I said in that piece, local bullies and bosses, right, it ends up being majorities trying to act that that attempts to do it, and it's our counter majoritarian system by empowering you know, what the framers may have called factional minorities by empowering those factions on the local level on the state level, on the federal level, to some extent, that stymies the ability to protect vulnerable minorities within the political system. And I think that, that is just like, not how Americans are accustomed to thinking, I think, for a variety of reasons from from sort of Cold War era civics education, right, where we have to, we have to hype up the American political system as like the best of all possible worlds, to sort of like the residual sense that like, you know, states are a your state identity as soon as paramount political identity, and you got to protect it, like for all these reasons, Americans have come many Americans have come into this idea that if we let majorities act, something terrible is gonna happen. And I just don't I don't think the evidence really supports that within the American system. Right?

Jenna Spinelle
I mean, is it is it fair to say that the founders would not have even conceived of or could not have conceived of the pluralistic majority you were just describing?

Jamelle Bouie
Right? I think that's exactly right, that the founders Republic, the framers, Republic, whatever you want to call, it was a very different thing than even the kind of American society that would emerge 3030 years later, it's sort of like B. B, the Republic they created was one for landed moneyed, propertied, elites, with large swaths of the existing public kind of cut out of political representation. There's in the French Revolution, the French revolutionaries made a distinction between active citizens and passive citizens, an active citizen was a citizen who had political rights and could act politically within the system. And a passive citizen was a system but a citizen who had was entitled to protections, right, like they were entitled to the protections that are the, you know, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, entitled to protections within it, and within the French constitutional order. But we're not entitled to act on the constitutional order. And our framers had sort of a similar view, right, that certain citizens were active, and they were property owning, they were male, they pretended to be white, mostly because like, there just wasn't very many other people in a position to be property owning and landed. And then there are passive citizens, women, and slave people, many free blacks, natives, and cetera, et cetera. And so that's kind of the world they imagined. And what's interesting, in my view, is that within 20 years, but then 30 years, the actual American people come to have a much more expansive view of who can be an active citizen. And so, you know, by 1824, we're already moving towards universal white male and franchise meant, which is like another thing that anyone considered 30 years earlier, and this is still within, like, the lives of some of the sort of the framers, by by 1868 Obviously, we have slavery doesn't exist anymore. We're beginning to get to blackmail enfranchisement sort of within 100 years. And so the, the expanding sense of how Americans think of active citizenship, you might say, cuts directly against how the system is actually structured, but just not structured to facilitate that kind of broad base mass participation, in fact, is structured to throw like a jaundiced eye towards it to make it difficult to translate a democratic culture and democratic assumptions into actual political action.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah. So how do you think about like layering federalism over top of this, because I don't I don't know if you read the comments on on your pieces, but I read the comments on this particular piece. And the most common argument I heard that was, you know, trying To have a majoritarian system in the US would mean that, you know, we'd be ruled by New York and California, basically. And I guess, what, what do you make of that? Or how would you respond to that?

Jamelle Bouie
Yeah, there are like two responses to that I don't have like, I don't have like to as much as I have to respond to this. I had a professor in college, who we it was it was sort of a 20 person seminar for a year, like you read lots of great books kind of thing. And the structure of the seminars, you'd read a book, you read a paper, and you come to talk about it. And it wasn't like a debate, it was terrific discussion. But sometimes it might become a debate. And a thing he would do is if you said the words like I did, I have like this point. Or if you said, I feel he would like bang his shoe like Nikita Khrushchev or something and say, No, you have the point. And you think, and so it's just sort of drilled into my head,

Jenna Spinelle
Oh, man, I would have been out of that class. From day one, I think

Jamelle Bouie
I always catch myself when I do it. Anyway, I have two points. The first relates it's sort of a practical one. And this is a comment like that is referring to say, the electoral college or whatnot. And just just I encourage people to actually sit down and do the math here, just like count up the numbers. There are not that many people in New York and California, just like straight up period, California, I think accounts for maybe one to nine Americans, which is a lot of people, but not enough to sort of control the entire direction of national elections. And in fact, when you think about the actual distribution, if we're if we're imagining everything breaks along a two party binary, it's just assumed that's the case. And you look at the distribution of votes and voters in the kind of world where maybe the president is elected through like a straightforward, usually straightforward, popular vote, Republicans would net huge shares of their votes from California the same way Democrats would consider so many people. And more broadly, no state no locality, no, no anything is like a singular political community. Everywhere in the terms of a partisan community, almost everywhere, with very few exceptions, there is a mixed distribution of partisan affiliation, even in places that you think of as being overwhelmingly one way or another, no one thinks of Mississippi as being a particularly you know, purple state. But 55%, in terms of people who go out to vote 55% tend to vote for Republicans and 45% tend to vote for Democrats. That's not some sort of yawning gap. And that's how things look, in most places, it's 556473, which is to say that, in a kind of national popular vote, kind of system, it's not going to be the case that a block of every single New York vote and every single California Voter is going to control the outcome of the election. Even if that was possible, it's going to be that voters everywhere control the outcome of the election, the state boundaries won't even matter that much. Because what counts are the votes until there are votes for one candidate in one place, it's going to count as much as it vote for another candidate and other place. And I think that state thinking really constrains Americans ability to think about their political system and maybe broader and expansive ways which gets gets to my next point, which is I think the fatal flaw of the US Constitution is this sort of divided sovereignty between the federal government and the state governments, which was not I wouldn't say controversial at the frame at the founding. But there are questions about it, you know, plenty of people. Madison, James Wilson, made the point that, you know, this, this government acts on individuals, so we should, why do states have so much authority within it, and for a variety of reasons, the system we have is where states have got a bit of a good bit of authority in it. And my suggestion, maybe like, among my more controversial ones is that maybe they shouldn't, that the experiment with giving states so much authority. If the point of it is to preserve the people's liberties, I have a hard time seeing how that's actually worked in practice. And that national authority has been a much more reliable guarantee of people's liberties and freedoms than state authority has been that's not to say you need to eliminate the state's like eliminate state boundaries. I think for reasons of history and path dependency, we're just gonna have states, but the idea that they ought to have so much constitutional authority is I think, when people should question especially if we're thinking, if you buy my idea that a more majoritarian political system would probably be for the better.

Jenna Spinelle
But you've also been writing a lot recently about reconstruction. And maybe that that's another time when people were asking Yeah, what do we want this thing to be? So can you say more about, you know, how you're thinking about that era versus where we are now?

Jamelle Bouie
It's interesting to me, because it is this period of just incredible democratic experimentation because you have to think about what is actually happening. In a period of five years, the United States freed 4 million enslaved people and didn't, didn't deport them to another country, which is sort of like the prior to the war that was the mainstream view is that we'll forget to do this just kind of like we can't have them here. There is no new colonization movement. There is no attempt to sort of like, claim land out in the west and shut them over there, which is another thing that people talked about doing. There was no, at least from the federal government, there was no sense that oh, I guess we just make these people a permanent, kind of like a servile class, not slaves, but like not full citizens, either. What happened is 4 million people were enslaved, and then they were freed or they achieve their freedom. And then they were integrated into the political system within like, within like five years of, of emancipation, which is, which is, which is just a world historical level, just an incredible thing to think about never happened before. Right? That's just frankly, never happened before. And so naturally, as of this got as this happening, as the newly freed people are beginning to engage in politics, beginning to engage in the political system, as lawmakers in Washington and other places are beginning to deal with all the implications of this just a wide amount of democratic experimentation. There is obviously a great deal of backlash, lots of fervent and conflict and all these things. And I think that in this period, Americans are grappling with these extremely basic systems about the system and what's the basic questions about the system in which they live? And that, to me is what makes them periods so interesting. There's nothing really there's nothing else really like it in American history of of Foner calls reconstruction, a second founding, I think that's right, sort of essentially refounding the country on a new basis. And there's a lot to take from that in terms of not just analogies, but in terms of looking at the questions people asked me whether this questing if those questions are relevant to us, and trying to provide our own answers to them

Jenna Spinelle
that that gets to another, I don't know, maybe kind of semantic issue on this idea of of civil war. You were recently on the argument podcast talking about this question of are we heading for a new civil war, which again, a lot of ink has been spilled a lot of, you know, podcast minutes have been devoted, I apologize. We're going to add to that just a little bit here. But it seemed to me listening to that, and we'll link it for folks who haven't heard it. But it seemed like that it was maybe an on some level of a semantic discussion about Civil War versus other types of civil complex civil violence. And I guess, I wonder, by just putting this this sort of laser focus on the idea of civil war, and are we going to have that, again, if we kind of miss the forest through the trees, or we sort of, say, we we might like overlook, you know, other other things that are happening or, you know, other instances of civil violence? Because we're thinking, Okay, well, it's not this not a civil war yet. But that doesn't mean that, you know, things are fine.

Jamelle Bouie
Right. I think that's sort of where I, I ended up in that conversation. I think that's where I stand that I'm very skeptical of sort of this whole sort of we're in we're in for another civil wars header. I just think that's really overheated. I think that scares people unnecessarily. And I do think it obscures a lot of more salient things about American society, I think that we're probably gonna see a this is phrases, see a return to more quote unquote, normal levels of like a civil conflict. One of my ideas that I've never really kind of written about, and probably should, at some point, is that Americans, basically, since 1980, have been living through an unusual period of just sort of like low levels of civil and political violence, like there's been some, you know, the Oklahoma City bombing is not nothing. There were a bunch of white supremacist killings in the 80s. I mean, that's not the nothing, but relative to the preceding decades, when you had right in the beginning of 20th century, like mass riots that burned down like not people, you know, we all BLM riots burned down. Minneapolis, East St. Louis was like actually destroyed in 1917. And there were hundreds of people who were killed. And that kind of thing was not uncommon. It wasn't sort of a it wasn't a thing that it may happen multiple times in the decade. Obviously, assassinations were much more common. I mean, there's just there's just much more political violence in the United States before civil violence and civil conflict. We don't think about Klan violence as being civil conflict, but that's what it was. And we just haven't had that much of that over the last 40 years. And so I do think think that we're probably infer more of that. And I think what makes people uncomfortable to think about, and this is, again, why reconstruction as a touchstone for me, is that civil and political violence can coexist quite easily with normal mechanisms of democratic life. That there's, there's no sharp distinction here at all kind of happening on a continuum. And we are on one end of that continuum versus another one. And that doesn't mean we're headed towards, you know, all that kind of all out war between two well defined sides. But it may mean that there are people out there it's a greater percentage of people random people who turn to violence to settle political dispute than they were previously which was, should be within like the norm of American with Native American life. The same goes with polarization. With all these things that delivers a partisan polarization there are high but they're not I mean, they've been higher. We've had we've had higher levels of polarization in this country, higher levels of division, all these things. American society, I think there's this idea of in American society was any point other than the Civil War, like more united or something, and it never has been, this has always been a big factitious country. And I don't just mean that in the kind of Fatah that's how democracy works. I mean, that like, in a scary way, like in the way that they're, you know, for some groups of Americans, the whole reason is the country just didn't go to because they were dangerous for you. And that is, I don't know if like we're returning to that. But I do think that recognizing that that is that is actually the experience of the United States can maybe help you put our current troubles in perspective.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah. And, you know, I've been thinking too, about how the violence looks different today. For example, in the the the abolitionist press, you know, publishers have their printing presses burned, literally, right. But today, your reporters are Doc's online, and, and that kind of thing. So I just I wonder how you think about that distinction and thinking about, you know, civil, civil violence conflict in the online realm?

Jamelle Bouie
Yeah, that's a great question. I've never, I've never made that that particular connection. But I think that's a right one to make that, that the the kinds of harassment and abuse and stalking that reporters and members of the press can face are both novel, because they're happening online, this kind of new medium, but also not novel, because targeting the press has just been a part. It's been part of political and civil violence. You know, there's Elijah Lovejoy, infamously murdered, Illinois, anti slavery publisher mob, burned down his publishing house and killed him in the 1898. And the lead up to the Wilmington, Wilmington riot, I don't know what we call that. Now, let me turn Ryan, I think some college calling it a coup, whatever you wanna call it, in Wilmington, North Carolina. One of the precipitating things was a black press that was like, you know, publishing and sent in quote, unquote, incendiary things about white leaders. And that was burned down and that guy had the escape, escape the area should have attacks on press were common during the Civil Rights era. In the south, you know, it was dangerous to be a black reporter, right? Working for the black press, Chicago defenders have been going down there. So part of the same I think continuum, and I think ought to be a recognition that the things that were taught in grade school, about the American political system, about its stability, about the protection to freedom, all these things are to an extent, kind of just like myths, I mean, sort of things or they might be true on paper, but in actual practice, and how American society is actually developed and how Americans have lived for society, it's more myth than not. And if you can kind of see past that myth to see the amount of violence and conflict and factitious pneus that has defined American society from the start, I mean, from the front, if you want to just start it with 1776, right. Like from the beginning, this has happened. This is how this country was George Washington, assembled an army to go march on tax protesters. I mean, it's from the beginning, this is obvious things have gone, you can recognize that, that I think it puts you in a better position to understand what's happening and understand the forces that are driving these things. It's not the mediums might be different, right? Like maybe social people are organizing on social media, which didn't exist, you know, 100 years ago, like things are different. And the same things are the same. But the larger forces may not be all that different. And I think for my part, it's more important to be keyed on keyed into those larger forces than it is to folk Guess on like the the ephemera of like how exactly things are happening.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah. And on that point about forces, I want to bring us back to where we started talking about majoritarian ism and building a pluralistic majority. In some ways. I feel like we're in sort of a golden age of political reform where people are talking about, you know, everything from rank choice voting to universal voting to open primaries, all of these things, I guess, what do you think about like, how do we get to that pluralistic majority? Is it? Is it structural? Is it something that has to happen more in culture, some combination therein?

Jamelle Bouie 
And I think it's a combination of both? I mean, I think it's a combination. I mean, there are obviously, there are structural changes you can make, that would make, I think American, political, the American political system much more democratic. I should say, what I mean, specifically by that is that it's not just majorities being able to rule out although I think that is kind of a fundamental part of it. It is this idea that there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers, there's no permanent majority, there's no permanent minority that any given election, that majority is, the majority of that form for any given election may just be different from time to time, and that enable someone on the losing end of that majority, there's no, there's nothing that says they might not be part of the majority the next time around. And that, to me is where the American system falls short, in that it does create the situation where you can have a permanent set of losers. And that's just like not, once you have a permanent set of losers, a group of people who will always be the rules and never part of the rulers, then I think you're in dangerous territory, because I think that leads to, it does two things. First of all, it destabilizes the system, because no one just wants to be ruled all the time. The second thing is on the level of values amongst the people who can lay claim on being the rulers. It inculcates a kind of chauvinism, right, sort of like, oh, well, this is just ours now. And so when there's attempts to say, Well, no, it belongs to all of us, that creates conflict, too. So, you know, for listeners who are like, Oh, you just he just wants his side to win. No, I want it. I want a world where, when the election comes, no one's really sure who's gonna win. That's ideal for me. But there's a great deal of uncertainty in the outcomes. And the FBM certainty is I think, a disciplined everyone. So there are there are, there are structures that can make that happen. But I do think it has to happen in culture, it has to happen in the ways people think about their political system, we treat the Constitution, like, it's scripture, that's not a new point, maybe a little cliche point. But we do we treat it like it's a holy document. And one of the things I've been trying to do with my column, in my writing, is to show that the people who wrote the thing were, you know, set aside the fact that many of them were dead in believing morally dubious things. Like that's, I think that's actually kind of a boring point. They were just guys, they're just people, they're practical politicians, they're merchant, they're farmers. They're practical people trying to solve a set of practical problems within the constraints of their time. And we ought not be beholden to those compromises. Part of part of making that part of sort of our cultural and political discourse is recognizing that if the basis for the Constitution begins with people, blah, blah, blah. It begins with an assertion of popular sovereignty. But Popular Sovereignty cannot be a dead thing. It has to be live, right? Popular sovereignty has to be a thing that can be regenerated across generations. And if we're going to call ourselves a democracy, if we're going to think of ourselves as a democracy, if we're going to think of ourselves as a country based on popular sovereignty, then we there has to be an avenue a real live Avenue, like the amendment process that exists now it's like not it's not it's not live, right? Doesn't nothing's gonna happen. A live avenue for each generation of Americans to really discuss their constitutional settlement and make changes to it doesn't mean it's gonna change. I think that if people do revere the Constitution, which they say they do, it probably won't. But the Constitution is frozen. And I just don't think it's a good thing. I think that a frozen constitution and dynamic people leads to us doing all sorts of clutches to try to make that thing less frozen. That leads to outcomes that I'm not sure a good should. You know, I'm on the left has, in the past, has Supreme Court done things that I was like, Yeah, that's good. Yes. But sort of on a basic level, is it a good thing that like nine unelected people can essentially change the status quo for a country of hundreds of millions? No, not good. shouldn't be allowed. But that's what happens when set when there needs to be change. Change in there's no popular avenue for the change to happen. It has to the pressure goes somewhere else.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, Jamelle, thank you so much for joining us today. This is fascinating. I hope listeners will subscribe to your work if they don't already. And thanks again for your time.

Jamelle Bouie
Thank you.

Michael Berkman
Well, that was a great interview. And, you know, for people that are interested in catching some more Jamelle Bouie, I recommend watching the YouTube of his talk at Penn State. What was particularly fascinating about it was he used the first 10 or 15 minutes or so to riff about the proud boys event here at State College on the Penn State campus a few weeks ago now that many of our listeners I'm sure are familiar with his take on it, which is completely consistent with much of what else he talks about in the interview today was really fascinating. So I recommend that to people. And I mean, the core of that argument and of his argument in general, as I hear it is that the Constitution holds back our democracy. And this is and that it holds back our democracy while the American public has become more and more interested in the democratic rule. And we're in a more democratic system, something which we see in our poll results among younger Americans, in particular, a yearning for a more majoritarian democracy. He's making an argument that I've seen from other people over over the years. I mean, Robert Dahl has a very famous essay from probably 40 years ago now, titled How, oh, actually, a book entitled, how democratic is the constitution and Thurgood Marshall has this wonderful speech, he gave one time about why he wouldn't participate in the constitutional bicentennial. And I mean, common to all of these is discussions about the undemocratic nature of much of the American Constitution. Do we kind of turns this on its head a little bit by saying that it holds back democracy in particular, and that the American people are far more democratic than they're given credit for. So when you think about this idea, Qantas that we should rely less on the courts as I hear it, right. The rely less on the courts protect our rights and more on the American public. It makes it basically spidey sense a little

Candis Watts Smith 
I can buy the argument that we should see that we should kind of let majorities have a greater say that counter majority counter majoritarian institutions, the Senate, which then has its own special rules to create even more counter majoritarian protections. The Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and you know, he makes even kind of makes an argument around states is, you know, what if we kind of reduced the constraints that they're allowed to provide, but a lot of things would have to be reimagined at the same time, we would have to imagine a situation where if we still had districts that districts were created fairly, and that they were competitive, we'd have to create situations where the electorate is actually including all people who have to be abiding have to abide by the law, right, so that the majority actually is a reflection of the citizenry. We can have a situation and what we what we have now often are majorities that are not representative of the citizenry. And in those cases, we tend to see bad outcomes. And so then we want to have counter majoritarian institutions to protect. But we also can think of times, even in recent times, I don't pass like 10 1015 years. When there are unpopular lists, I'm kind of I'm putting unpopular in air quotes, majority minorities like lesbian and gay Americans who in my own state when marriage equality went up for a went on, but you know, went for a referendum. 61% of North Carolinians, which there's only a voter turnout of 35% voted that down that, you know, marriage was between a man and a woman. And so I think that if we had that same boat today, it would be totally different.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, I'm thinking I'm glad you brought up some of the LGBTQ issues. I'm reminded that in 2004, didn't call rove wants to put on put on the Ohio ballot, or had Ohio put on its ballot, a referendum about gay marriage, because they were pretty sure that that would help to bring out conservative voters. And indeed, it did. And it wasn't until the court ruled that gay marriage was constitutional right that we saw public opinion really start to shift to where measures like that were put up for a vote now there probably be more support for them. Although the bashing of transgender rights does concern me that maybe there's majorities out there for the abolition of rights more so than then buoy wants to wants to acknowledge right now.

Candis Watts Smith 
So I think that like transgender rights are one of the example where I think that would be, actually, there's no safe haven for transgender rights, I think, in many ways, right. So I, and so far as the, the Supreme Court is not going to save that, you know, help that group. I'm not sure that a majority of Americans would at this moment at this time. So again, this this is what makes it hard. This is what makes this conversation important to have.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, yeah, I want to return to your thought about reimagining the Constitution a little bit, too, because, you know, a point that buoy makes clear in some of his some of his writings in particular, is that the founders did not anticipate the party system and didn't design in consideration of how a two party system was going to develop. And, I mean, I would think that any reimagining of the Constitution has to really take into account, how do you break this two party duopoly to really have any kind of more democratic outcome? It's not simply a matter of I don't know, exactly what kind of reforms he's suggesting, but you know, limiting the power of the courts somehow or something along those lines or putting more things just up for public vote, I think it would be a larger issue, in terms, as you say, in terms of how to promote a more democratic constitution than just shifting some decision making from the courts into public majorities.

Candis Watts Smith 
Yeah, I mean, for me, I think that this kind of, I think that it's important for us to really think hard about the flaws of the Constitution and really think hard about the possibilities of making radical changes, when we know that they are necessary. I think that reconstruction and civil rights, the civil rights era are moments where there are radical changes and for the better, but, you know, we talked a lot about civil rights and kind of a very narrow way. And then we almost never talk about reconstruction, I think, and I'm glad that Jamelle is talking more about them, because I think that it provides an opportunity for people to think about, okay, we could be doing this differently. We could have a situation where we have a more inclusive multiracial democracy, and that that situation, could be better for more people could could lead to the expansion of rights could lead to the protection of rights. And I don't know, I feel like the constraint in our imagination is what gets in our way.

Michael Berkman
And also just his his ability to get us to focus on how the Constitution may be holding back democracy rather than the trap I think a lot of Americans fall into of equating the Constitution with democracy. And they really are two different subjects. Yeah. So fascinating discussion with Jamelle Bouie, Jenna. It was really a privilege to meet him from the recording. It's too for democracy. I'm Michael Berkman.

Candis Watts Smith 
And I'm Candis Watts Smith. Thanks for listening.