Date June 24, 2024
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Political scientist Corey Brettschneider on the promise of ‘We the People’

As the 2024 U.S. presidential election nears, a new book from the Brown University political scientist calls attention to the power of citizens to push back against leaders who threaten democracy.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Is American democracy at risk? In a polarized political moment, scholars, pundits and politicians alike have been raising that question, citing as evidence examples ranging from voter suppression to the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and its aftermath.

In his forthcoming book, “The Presidents and the People: Five Leaders who Threatened Democracy and the Citizens Who Fought to Defend It,” Corey Brettschneider, a Brown professor of political science, places the politics of today in the context of history, describing and analyzing five examples from the past when presidents “pushed the boundaries of the Constitution,” he said.

Drawing on moments from the presidencies of John Adams, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon, Brettschneider argues that citizen movements played an essential role in fighting back against presidential abuses of power and notes that those efforts offer a roadmap for people concerned that the United States has lost its way.

“This isn’t just a book about history,” Brettschneider said. “It’s a book with a point about the fragility of democracy at this point and the need to inspire the country as a whole to stand up and reclaim our democracy as citizens did in the past.”

“The Presidents and the People” will be published on Tuesday, July 2. Brettschneider, the author of several prior books, including 2018’s “The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents,” shared insights about American democracy, the upcoming presidential election, and citizen engagement in the past and present.  

Q: What inspired this particular scholarly focus, and how did you develop the topic for your book?

When Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016, I wrote a piece for Politico titled “Trump vs. the Constitution: A Guide.” It had a simple idea behind it, which was that Trump was proposing things that were obvious violations of the U.S. Constitution — for instance, to torture the families of suspected terrorists, or the total shutdown of Muslim immigration to the U.S.

The main point of my piece was that the Constitution has rights in it, and it has limits based on the rule of law — the president isn’t entitled to do anything he or she wants. As a result of that, I received an offer from a publisher to turn it into a much broader piece about the duties of a Constitution-abiding president, which became the book “The Oath and the Office.” It was meant to be a rebuke to a lot of Trump’s proposals, as well as a guide for future presidents.

When Trump won the presidency, he unfortunately did a lot of things he said he was going to do. What I’m trying to do in this book is ask a different question, which is: What are the real checks that people have used in the past, and that we could use now, to stop a president who disregards the Constitution? I wanted to look not just to the ideals of the Constitution and our future, but to actual examples from the past.

One key takeaway is that, unfortunately, it isn’t the traditional checks on presidential power that we learn about in civics classes that have tended to work. It isn’t the courts, and it isn’t necessarily Congress. Instead, the thing that’s worked is our citizens restoring democracy by organizing around a democratic ideal in the Constitution. We’ve had crisis presidents before, and we’ve recovered as a nation through citizen activism. 

Q: How can Americans look to history to further their understanding of the current political climate? 

History can give us hope that moments of crisis can be overcome. The first example from the book describes when John Adams signs and insists on the implementation of the Sedition Act in 1798, which essentially made it a crime to criticize the president of the United States but allowed for criticism of the vice president, who at the time was Thomas Jefferson. This was really a partisan piece of legislation aimed at shutting down the opposition party. And you would think: Well what about the Supreme Court? They’re supposed to enforce the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, and this is an obvious violation of the right to free speech. But instead, the newspaper editors who were prosecuted under the act used their own trials to try to put Adams on trial. They highlighted the idea that the newly passed First Amendment right to free speech was being trampled on and reclaimed the idea of the First Amendment as a right to criticize a president, or a right to dissent. They turned the election of 1800 into a kind of referendum on democracy.

Q: Donald Trump is the first American president to be convicted of felony crimes, but is there a historical precedent for some of the other concerns you’ve raised about his consideration of the Constitution?

There are parts of the current Trump crisis of democracy that are precedented and some that strike me as unprecedented. As I describe it, the presidency has always been a danger — that’s baked into the system. We’ve seen in the presidencies of James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon attempts to subvert the Constitution in the same way that Trump has. But in some ways those presidents were more sophisticated in their assaults because, unlike him, they offered rationales for what they were doing in terms of law.

What’s unique about Trump in a historical context is that the previous presidents didn’t come back after their crises of democracy. The difference is that on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump directly threatened democracy in an attempt at self-coup, but far from disappearing, he’s running for a reprise of his threat to democracy. And he doesn’t mince words about what he’s trying to do, including the prosecution of his political opponents, which I view as dangerous.

As I write in the book, the 18th-century revolutionary hero Patrick Henry called it out from the beginning, saying there’s a danger of a criminal president undermining the republic. His warning is really frightening because he says that such a president is going to realize that there are few checks on his power. In some quarters, Trump’s recent conviction has only made him grow stronger among his supporters. That seems to be to be a very direct parallel with Nixon in some ways, but more frightening in that Trump didn’t disappear and return to private life like Nixon did.

Q: Stepping back from current events and looking at the bigger picture, how do you define American democracy?

I argue that American democracy is not only about having one’s vote counted. It also requires three pillars: The first is the freedom to dissent from government policy, independently or through an opposition party. The second is equal citizenship — the guarantee that legal and political rights cannot be denied on the basis of race or ethnicity. And the last one is adherence to the rule of law for all, which means that the president cannot be a dictator who is able to commit crimes with impunity.

Q: How might your perspective inform Americans as they consider the upcoming 2024 elections?

One of the main things that I’m arguing is that right now we don’t have a clear Constitutional constituency, or group, nor a clear leadership voice, that’s demanding the restoration of a democratic Constitution. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that in this moment, more than ever, we’re facing the possibility of the collapse of the republic. So it’s incumbent on us to try to find that voice, and to find leaders who are going to tie their leadership to the fundamental democratic ideals.

We have an election in which one candidate is pledging to destroy democracy and another is pledging to restore it. However, we have to think not just about this current election, but about what it means to restore democracy in a broad sense. For example, I would love to see President Biden talk about the idea that we need another independent-prosecutor law, like the one that President Carter signed and that existed until President Clinton saw to it that it expired, where an independent prosecutor is not subject to firing by the president. That would help ensure that presidents, regardless of party, can be held to account if they violate the law.

Q: In U.S. history, when presidents “pushed the boundaries of the Constitution” as you describe it, what did citizens do to help protect democracy?

When we look to the past, what people did over and over in these moments of crisis was to organize into groups that fought for the restoration of democracy, and to speak out together in favor of these ideals. They criticized those who threatened democracy directly — in places like meetings, conventions and in newspapers. And they sought to defend democracy by invoking the Constitution, reclaiming it from authoritarian presidents. Our media landscape has changed a lot over the course of American history, but today people can do that on social media. They can also speak to their family and friends and make the idea of the restoration and defense of democracy the central thing we’re talking about for the next few months, and not see this as a normal election.