On October 25, Boston Foundation President and CEO Lee Pelton sat down for a virtual conversation with Lepore as a special event honoring donors to TBF’s Annual Campaign for Civic Leadership. Using history as a way of discussing the “deep divide in our nation,” Pelton asked Lepore to place our current politics in the context of other times.
“It’s not that these are not difficult times,” she answered. “But to me as a historian, there were centuries in our past when hundreds of thousands of people—by the end a million people—were held in chattel slavery. Those are dark times.” She added, “Before 1920, women can’t vote, right? So, if women have opinions and political views that … in any significant way differ from the rest of the electorate, we can’t see that before 1920. And they’re not represented in Congress before the 1970s in any meaningful way. Black men and then Black women really can’t vote until 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. So, you had huge portions of the population that were wholly or largely disenfranchised.”
When asked by Pelton about the current Supreme Court, in which many have lost faith, she responded that she shared those concerns. She added that the reason the Court has such outsized power is that there hasn’t been an amendment to the Constitution since the Equal Rights Amendment failed in the ‘70s. “At the base of the problem is that the only way to change the Constitution now, since [it] has become unamendable, is to convince five Supreme Court Justices to read it differently. And that’s not how the Constitution was designed to work. That’s judicial supremacy.”
Other topics discussed were the “gamification of Twitter” and whether Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy that the medium would control the message is happening now.
NOTE: The following is a transcript of a conversation between Lee Pelton and Jill Lepore on October 25th, 2022, lightly edited for readability.
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard. One of the most highly regarded historians and intellectuals of our time, she has published numerous scholarly articles, books and essays—and has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 2005. Her many books include the international bestseller: These Truths: A History of the United States. She talked with Lee Pelton in a special event to pay tribute to donors to our Annual Campaign for Civic Leadership, which supports the Foundation’s research, convenings and deep public policy work.
LEE PELTON: Let’s begin at the beginning. In your book The Story of America, you write that history is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence. What did you mean?
JILL LEPORE: I am really fascinated by how, as a historian, a specialist in this form of humanistic endeavor where we have methods and rules of evidence and tools of analysis, it’s clear to me that history is a form of inquiry, of the discipline of scholarship. We also talk about history in all of these colloquial ways: We might call it “history” to dress up with a tricorn hat and do a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. Or we call it “history” when we pull out photo albums at home and sit with our grandparents and look at pictures together. Or there’s history as an everyday thing that we all carry around—an understanding of the relationship between the past to the present, and we inquire about it all the time.
But history also operates as myth or as folklore or as a source of false prophecy—or there are these political uses to which history is put. So I am often at pains to describe history as a form of humanistic inquiry—with methods—that is accountable to argument.
I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be a chemist. I'm using the scientific method. I have formulas that I use and I have a lab where I do my work and I publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals. But imagine if there were also alchemists all over the place, and people were getting confused. Imagine if I was working with high level physics, but people kept confusing me with an astrologer.
So I think when I talk about history as a form of storytelling that's accountable to evidence, it's partly to distinguish what scholars do. Students of history do this; middle school students of history do this too. But a lot of what passes for history in the larger public sphere, I think has a little bit of a relationship [like] astrology to astronomy.
LP: Thank you. I think you probably knew this question was going to come: You're wonderfully equipped to comment on the deep divide in our nation—recognizing, of course, that we've always been a nation at war with itself as we struggled to understand who we are and what we stand for. And we also understand that this present-day feud is not new, and you make that clear to us. In fact, it's almost as old as the nation itself and in some respects our nation's history.
One could argue that it has always been a tale of two nations—as one or another belief system—systems seeking ascendancy over the other, a clash between what was, what is and what might be. So, how do you place the current struggle for what our President frequently calls the struggle for the soul of our nation? How you place that in history? In what ways do our current political and social battles, viewed in the rearview mirror, compare to past eras or other significant times in American history? And in what ways are the contours of contemporary politics distinctly different?
JL: That's a really important and intricate question and hard to answer. I will say that I wish that Biden did not talk about a battle for the soul of America. That was a piece of campaign rhetoric that I think it was Pat Robertson used during the rise of the Moral Majority and the rise of the Christian right in the late 70s, early 80s.
Using that rhetoric all the time—engaging in a battle for the soul of America—to me has a really distinctly religious implication. Other language used is that it’s an existential threat, right? And an existential threat is a threat to our very existence, and I actually I find it to be just wildly unhelpful and politically irresponsible to engage in that language. It's a kind of brinksmanship: Whose language is more dire?
It's a little bit like when The Washington Post decided, in 2016, to change its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Suddenly, we're all in some dark cave. I actually just think I think it's really unhelpful.
It’s not that these are not trying and difficult times. But to me, as a historian, there were centuries of our past when hundreds of thousands of people (by the end, four million people), were held in chattel slavery. Those are dark times. This is not as dark as that journey. It troubles me: the insistence that this is the most important election ever and that these are the darkest times we've ever been through.
It's not like when people say the nation has never been so polarized before except for the Civil War, because what then is the nation? Just to be concrete here: There's a measure that political scientists use to quantify polarization—and most of it comes from congressional call votes. It's easiest to measure polarization by measuring congressional records [of] votes. They assign an ideological score to each member of Congress, and then they look at the roll call vote. Anyway, if you piece together all of this data, which you can take all the way back to the beginning of Congress in 1789—you will note that polarization is really high in the 1850s and then after the new betrayal of reconstruction, and then it begins to rise very steeply around 1968. And it's been rising quite steeply ever since.
And so political scientists will say, “Look, polarization is on the rise” or, “Polarization has never been this high.” But, honestly, what kind of a measure are they talking about? Before 1920, women can't vote, right? So if women have opinions and political views that are at the polar extremes, or even in any significant way differ from the rest of the electorate, we can't see that before 1920. And they're also not represented in Congress before the 1970s in a meaningful way or in much of the country in spite of the 15th amendment. Black men and then Black women really can't vote until 1965 and the Voting Rights Act. So, you have a huge portions of the population that are wholly or largely disenfranchised.
So, I would say that we can't really measure polarization in any way that matters until after 1965 when the Voting Rights Act passes. Then, you might say, “Okay, from here on out, the data is meaningful because we're actually looking at a fully enfranchised electorate, voter suppression and poor turnout notwithstanding.”
It's true that if you look from 1965 to the present, polarization has been rising. But then what we're seeing is that this is the first time in American history that we have had a fully multiethnic democracy. And so you see a kind of failure of pluralism—pluralism descending into polarization. And that's its own interesting question.
If the way you have political consensus is by disenfranchising people of color, that's not political consensus. That's just disenfranchisement.
But there is a sort of tendency, and it’s human nature, to sort of claim or reconstruct or resurrect some authentic past that's in stark contrast the unsettled present.
There’s also the desire to imagine a golden age that lies just around the corner. I don't think that. I just don't think that, insofar as political realism is necessary, either those views are really helpful. I mean, I think when there is a big problem for our politics and for our polity—the ability of people to live together—[it’s when] we have these now wholly incommensurate views, not only of what's necessary, moving ahead for the country, but actually of where the country has even been in the past. So now we have this really quite segregated account of the past.
The story of America is a litany of a kind of march to freedom and liberty, where we go from trial to trial. The scale of American influence is extended around the world as a beacon of liberty. And can we have a story of political and moral progress? Increasingly that's the story that's told only on the right, or we have a story that's told only by the left, in which the story of America is a litany of atrocities.
If the version told by the right—that America has never done anything wrong—and the version told by the left—America has never done anything right—I don't think those accounts are as different as the people who promote them think they are. They're a perfect version of one another. They rely on the same affiliation for an extreme position, right? Surely there's truth in both of those accounts. There's both incredible beauty and courage and ingenuity and capacity for celebrating human dignity and equality in American history. And there's also tremendous cruelty and violent acts of atrocity, moral outrages, forms of cowardice and defeat. All nations have these tangled pasts. And I just think that “the battle for the soul of America” language is really as unhelpful as “making America great again,” right? They both are trafficking in these extreme positions: Either everything I say is true, or everything you say is a lie. As if those are a choice.
LP: So, I'm going to stay on this a little bit. As you may know, some folks have been referring to where we are right now as a third reconstruction. The first was in the mid-19th century, which resulted in a huge backlash, as we well know, and was a way of ushering in the Jim Crow system. And then, of course, some people think of the 1960s as a second reconstruction, and again there was a backlash. So, there are some folks who want to construct this as a third reconstruction and that what we're witnessing, [is] history repeating itself and a very strong political, social and economic backlash against a third reconstruction. What do you think about that? Do you think it's just a too simplistic way of thinking about the contours of our history, or is there some truth wedded in that?
JL: I would sort things out a little bit differently. I think about the nature of change in American history, at that macro level, as following this pattern: A political revolution happens and then it is constitutionalized. In most cases, it can be changed by a constitutional amendment or by a constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court. And then the moments kind of divide out differently. First you have the drafting of the Constitution, which is received in the form of political revolution by the anti-federalists who reject the Constitution and say we won’t ratify the Constitution unless you add the Bill of Rights. They succeed, their complaints are constitutionalized in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
You could think then about what we think of as the reconstruction as the next moment where the political movement that is for abolition and emancipation is constitutionalized with the reconstruction amendments. I would then add the progressive era as another moment where the political revolution—that begins with populists in the 1880s and ‘90s and proceeds through the progressives—is constitutionalized by amendments 16 to 19. Beginning with the 16th, which grants the power and the authority to tax income, which is economic redistribution, and the 19th, which is the enfranchisement of women.
That still holds when you get to the 1960s and there are a whole series of political revolutions at the of height of the Civil Rights Movement, the emergence of the women's movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement. And there's an indigenous rights movement that really reaches a new critical mass in the 1960s. Those movements break the pattern in that they're not constitutionalized except for one. You might say the anti-war movement is constitutionalized through the 26th Amendment, which lowers the voting age to 18 from 21. But the Equal Rights Amendment goes to the states in 1972 and fails. There are environmental metrics amendments that are proposed in Congress that some people think are going to get passed and sent to the states and ratify. But when that era fails, the left really stops trying to amend the Constitution and the right has its has its own reasons for not amending the Constitution. In my view, there's a relationship between that era that begins in 1968, when political polarization begins to rise, and there is an inability of political movements to be constitutionalist by way of amendment.
This is how I think about the era we are in now, where you see the consequence of not constitutionalizing equal rights for women, because the Supreme Court’s decisions and acts of legislation are short of constitutional amendment can be reversed. So, the Voting Rights Act has largely been reversed by the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder. Roe v. Wade from 1973 is reversed. It's not a constitutional right in the sense of an amendment. It's a Supreme Court decision that has recently been reversed.
So I think a lot of the political instability that we're living with now is a consequence of these tremendous mass movements of the 1960s. And having reached a kind of tenuous political settlement but never having been constitutionalized. I don't think the language of a third reconstruction appeals to my understanding of where we're at now.
LP: In a brilliant, funny and really delicious piece in the August issue of The New Yorker, you wrote about bringing back the woolly mammoth. And I want to talk about that a little bit. But let's start here: You wrote, if you will, that if “save the whales” was the motto of the environmental movement in the 1970s, “bring back the woolly mammoth” is something of a slogan for the 2020s. For those who haven't read it, just take us through the first two or three paragraphs where you talk about an image that you see on the street in Brattleboro and how that unleashes this essay.
JL: I'm trying to remember exactly how the piece is organized. I had been at a July 4th parade in Brattleboro. Vermont is so crazy, fun and liberal but in the Fourth of July parade people are really letting their freak flags fly. The parade is an occasion to celebrate a love for the country and also to celebrate the right to public dissent from majority opinion. And so the parade is just delightful. It has all the little elements of Americana. A kids on bikes contingent. There are the girls twirling their batons, there are all these different marching bands. There's the fire department for each of the surrounding towns where the firefighters are in the cab with a few of their little kids throwing lollipops out the window…
You're just there on the street with the thrum of the bands playing John Philip Souza… And then there are all these protests. This parade happened to begin with a streaker—this guy who was completely naked and had really long brown hair and a brown beard and red paint all over him and he insisted he was protesting the Supreme Court's decision on Dobbs. And nobody stopped him. Nobody was arrested and he just did his long streak. And then there were a lot of different LGBTQ groups and women's rights groups, marching in favor or opposed to different things going on in the federal government.
But then along comes this giant puppet. I know it's like 10 feet tall, huge—12 feet long. Made out of junk. It's got this vacuum cleaner hose trunk. It's a woolly mammoth. It’s got patches of fur on the back and these coils of wire popping out of it—and it‘s being rolled along. And there’s a kind of circus performer who is escorting it down the road and he goes up to you and he asks you if you want a climate prophecy. And then the crazy big trunk of the mammoth, along with its wonderful tusks, sends out these scraps of paper that are like fortune cookies, and they have these little prophecies about the climate.
And it was just such a sort of beautiful form of protest against the Silicon Valley people making use of the woolly mammoth in our modern times as the epitome of the possibility that we can use technological solutions to end problems created by technology.
People might know that this Boston-based company called Colossus purports to be going to recreate the woolly mammoth using CRISPR genome editing technology. [The woolly mammoth] is the first animal that humans ever concretely were able to prove [existed]. The genetically engineered woolly mammoth will save the Siberian tundra and therefore stop the cooling of the planet and rescue all of humanity.
To my view, it was like Elon Musk with a cockamamie plan. That is just a kind of perfect representation of the hubris of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur as a possible solver of all things. It's a kind of “solutionism.” It seems to me fundamentally inhumane—and I mean that in every sense— but the beauty of this piece of folk art was [that it was] a kind of protest against a kind of technological utopianism in an age of dystopia. And to me it was just this perfect expression of the power of public art, the meaning of political protest, and what a really good public art installation can [do] within a community. Everybody was invited into the meditation on this and I just thought it was a really beautiful form of civic speech.
LP: For those of you who have not read it, you should read it and then you'll see a character in New York by the name of Musky Tusky, which is really hilarious but it’s the kind of privilege enjoyed by the upper class oligarchs, who believe they can use their vast fortunes not only to provide public service and propose infrastructure projects and take us to the moon... But I think you're poking fun at that as well.
JL: Yeah, I have done a radio series for the BBC that was released in the U.S. as a podcast about Elon Musk, a five part series looking at “Muskism.” So, this was very much on my mind.
I'm in awe of much of the technological wonder, wonderessness, and engineering marvels that SpaceX has been part of sharing and I am not a Luddite. But I think the vision of the future that is being sold by extreme entrepreneurs who are practicing what I think of as extreme capitalism is one that really has no place for any values that I care about. And the kind of power that these people wield is unrivaled in the history of humanity. And we don't talk about it in a deeply critical way there's a lot of “Muskology”… Why would he want to buy Twitter? What does Musk mean when he says this about Kanye West? Like the way there's so much “Trumpology.” It’s like the kind of fascination with the latest scandal or the latest tweet, but in terms of a deep analysis of what it means, to hold up really above the rule of law—above what we believe in in terms of taxation. I mean, Musk says he shouldn't be paying taxes because he's bringing the light of human consciousness to the stars. No, no!
And you know, you walk into the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and you think about the philanthropy that lay behind it. I mean, in addition to the public commitment of the city and the municipality and the philanthropy that lay behind that as a kind of monument. And the ongoing work that's done by curators and acquisitions and each new exhibit and its commitment to the cultivation of a sense of the history and possibility for the creation of art by humankind.
What’s Mark Zuckerberg leaving behind? The Metaverse? It's actually very, very distressing as a historian to think about the diminishment of a capacity for contributions among this particular generation. So I find it fascinating. I find” Muskism” really distressing. And maybe it made it all the more powerful to me to be sitting on the side of the road watching as little kids were waving flags. Well, this crazy puppet comes along and has more meaningful things to say about the environment than anyone currently on a national stage.
LP: Well, it was a wonderful piece and thank you for it. So I now need to ask you the question you probably knew was coming. Much on the minds of, shall we say, ‘sentient’ Americans these days, no matter where they fall in the political spectrum, is this sort of singular, existential question: “Is democracy dying?” In fact, two of your colleagues wrote a book titled How Democracies Die. And, of course, a related question is, “Can democracy be saved?” And I am assuming, when people say that, they're talking about American democracy, not other kinds of democracies. I'm not sure how frequently we’ve heard the statement that democracy is on the ballot box this year, and so on. What's the answer?
JL: Yeah, so I wrote a piece a couple of years ago (maybe it came out right before the pandemic; I can't remember), called” The Last Time Democracy Nearly Died,” which looked at the 1930s, when fascism and authoritarianism were on the rise all around the world. Much of the world was adhering to communist ideology, and the United States was sort of understood by political observers to be the possible representative of a third way, where under the dire economic circumstances of the Great Depression, which was a global phenomenon, many nation states had turned to authoritarianism, thinking that only an authoritarian—only a real strong man—could actually stop the economic decline, or the state would need to be fully regulated.
And FDR was fighting to be that third way. But a lot of people were engaged in the same discourse about the possible death of democracy in the 1930s as they are today. And I wrote about all of that and what people did to try to defend democracy in the United States in the 1930.
But my favorite thing I came across was that the New Republic had a forum in 1937 called “The Future of Democracy,” where they asked a bunch of people what could we do to help democracy survive? And a political philosopher wrote an essay in which he said, “I just object to the question. Democracy is not like the weather where you just want to know if it is about to rain and [wonder], should I bring my umbrella today? Democracy is a wholly different thing, where your job is to actually go out and stop the rain. And I love that because, you know, democracy only survives if people do the work. And I don't actually think that saying that democracy is on the ballot is doing the work. I think that declaring that one political party is in favor of democracy and the other political party is opposed to democracy is itself anti-democracy. So I actually suspect that that whole moves by Democrats will turn out to have been a kind of bad politics.
I'm just not persuaded by it. You know, I just I think it's inflammatory. I think it's factually wrong.
And I think there has to be a place… There has to be a moment to stand down and not call your political opponents anti-democratic, and try to think about what it is about your policy differences and political differences that can make it seem to you that they must be.
LP: I want to ask you a question related to saving democracy. And it has to do with contemporary activism—particularly on the left but also on the right. It seems to me that the activism today, over the last five years or maybe over a decade, is highly democratized. Especially on the left, it's rare to have a standard bearer. We have these marches through Boston. But there's no MLK out there, leading the way. And yet, aided and abetted by social media, they are able to draw really very large crowds. I'm not talking about presidential candidates or presidents. I'm talking about the people on the street. What do you make of that sort of democratization? Or that's the best word I can think of. What do you make of that today?
JL: I think across the political spectrum, there's a loss of faith in the idea of representation, which involves a capacity to empower leaders to lead. I have never done any academic work on this, but I would expect [there is a lot of] evidence to support my theory. Maybe I'm wrong and I'll surely hear about that if so. But the idea that our government is built on is that I make decisions as a voter to secure for myself—and for myself only—policy changes that are in my best interest. Or that my vote is therefore my voice alone. The idea on which our government is based is that I choose people who I think have good judgment to represent the interests of me and my home community--in a larger deliberative body. And in choosing that person to represent me—in the same way in a movement I might choose the equivalent of a precinct captain or someone, to delegate to a convention that my political movement might be having, or that I would understand that a person who is elected to represent me and my community, may not always make decisions that I agree with, or even that align with my preferences and my economic self-interest. Because that is the person I've chosen—and my community has chosen—to represent us as a community, and we have different interests.
Maybe we're a neighborhood or maybe we're a particular constituency. And if another person that we have elected to represent us makes enough decisions that, as a collective, we disagree with, well, then we don't reelect that person, and that's how it works. But I would say that a common problem for political organizing is that people can turn up but maybe not look up to a leader because they'd have to cede some piece of their own preferences, because they'd have to cede that person, a King or whoever it would be, as a representative who had been chosen by a collective to represent their interests.
It's a piece of political bait behavior that we've kind of lost. And I think that online, where you are just you and you're a user, you represent your own interests. [It’s a] kind of hyper individualism. Being a unit in an online world makes it very difficult for people to accept that you should belong to a community that can choose people to represent your interests. Especially young people just have a really hard time accepting that there could be someone—that they would vote for somebody—who didn't entirely align with their own point of view.
LP: So, you've mentioned the media that we use to organize these events. And while it may be the case that there are not profound differences between certain events in history today or contemporary history in the past, what has profoundly changed is the medium through which our conflicts are expressed and debated and reported and documented. And they are what Bertrand Russell once remarked about ideas. He said they are destructive and terrible. Thought is merciless to privileged, established institutions, and comfortable habits. They’re lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Now of course, you know he wasn't thinking about Twitter and other social media. But what he was saying is that these ideas, social- media-like ideas, are destabilizing. And when they're unmediated, which they are for the most part these days, they destabilize and unsettle the truth.
And so, do you think we've arrived at that fateful moment that Marshall McLuhan prophesized more than a half a decade ago that the medium has become the message or, put another way, the medium controls and shapes not only the message but, more important, how the message is perceived, and in fact shapes and controls the meaning of the message?
JL: I really wish I could remember the name of this philosopher… I read a great essay by a philosopher from, I think, Arizona State about the gamification of Twitter. And his point was that we know a lot about why people engage in public discourse. Like why you talk to strangers really. So, you go to a Starr market and you're at the fish counter and you're trying to decide what kind of fish you're gonna get for dinner that night or to stock up your freezer for the week. And there's five or six people waiting around in line, and if they're sociable at all, [you get] in a conversation with them. “What do you think about this? This Atlantic salmon versus what is this farmed fish [and why is it so much cheaper]? Why do you do that? People who engage in such conversations are trying to learn something and they're trying to get to the truth of something. I genuinely feel like if I ask enough people, I'll figure out what I should get for dinner tonight. I will arrive at a truth about these fish options. What's the best fish for the price? It's going to be tastiest, right? So, we go to public discourse with a motivation, which is to become attached to other people, and belong socially in a world and also to find out what's true and what's not true.
And so [we] assume that people are engaging with those same good faith motives to a conversation on Twitter, or whatever they do on Twitter. I should confess, I'm not on Twitter. I think it's catastrophic. The algorithms for Twitter come from gambling. It's how to gamify public discourse, how to make it a thing that is part of being human into a game where there can be scores, where eventually you have what he calls “a value capture,” right? Your value, the value that you bring to it is like: I enjoy the company of other people and [I like to] find out what's true and what's not true. That's the value. But the value [is] supplanted: You want to get the most likes, you want to get the most followers, get the most retweets. And so, that's the gamification. So then, it doesn't matter if you feel attached to other people. It doesn't matter if you're finding out what's true, what's not true.
All Twitter has done is transform your natural interest in these good things into something that will potentially be neutral, but turns out to be quite bad. And how people accept as a business proposition participating in something that woefully undermines what is necessary for domestic tranquility... In a kind of constitutional sense, [it] staggers the imagination. I hear this from my colleagues all the time. Oh, my God, you're so lucky. You never got on Twitter. I can't give it up. It's an addiction. And it's horrible to me. It's making it worse personally. It's like, yep, Get off. Get out of it. Well, but now it's necessary because it's the only way I can get my publication and my payments out. What's it like? People have accepted, as a proxy for actual discourse, actual public discourse, that [it] has all these goodnesses and good outcomes associated with something that is so objectively so bad? It’s what puzzles me and baffles me but is the best answer I can give to your really important question for which I don't really have an answer.
I mean, part of it is that this gamification is decontextualized. Right? I mean, there is rarely any content [or] it's content without context and it’s content without history. It's the most a historical kind of, you know, engagement that you can have with a bunch of people that you don't know as opposed to the person at the fish counter, where you can actually talk and have a conversation.
LP: So, we're coming to a close here and I want to thank you, but I'm compelled to ask you about the Supreme Court. So, when McConnell sort of blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, the President said, “You know, what's going to happen is you're going to politicize the Supreme Court.” And I think there are some of us, myself included, who believe that that's what in fact happened. I think many others always had some faith in this court: that it was objective, an arbiter in which one could have some confidence even if there are decisions made that you disagree with. And I think there are many folks who have lost faith. Maybe there are others who really regained their faith in courts. And so, there have been conversations about creating term limits or age limits or expanding the size of the court. In fact, I think if you're serious about those, you have to do both, and not just one. Do you have a point of view on this issue or does history provide one?
JL: Yeah, I mean I share all of those concerns. I do think that at base the problem is that the only way to change the Constitution now, since the Constitution has become unamendable, is to convince five Supreme Court justices to read it differently. And that is not how the Constitution was designed to work. Right? That's judicial supremacy, where there's no answer to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court has been historically so important in protecting minority rights. So the long history of the Supreme Court is not a glorious calling for the protection of rights, for instance, but it has been an important forum for securing rights during eras of disenfranchisement, when there was a way to get an amendment passed.
I think the court has too much power. It's not necessarily power that the justices have attempted to secure, but that the transformation of our political culture has resulted in. I mean that Garland thing is just a total nuttiness. But I think this really started in the ‘80s with the Bork appointment, the Bork nomination, and the political response to it, which came at a time when liberals were really invested in judicial appointments because that is where they were going to try to protect Roe. That is where they were going to try to protect civil rights decisions by the legislature. They were just very high stakes for liberals at the time, especially through the privacy doctrine in reproductive rights cases. So, it's been a long road to get to this particular place. And I think it's a very worrisome moment [and] is a really destabilized part of our constitutional arrangement.
LP: Listen, we have time for one final question. I'm going to ask you, and excuse me if it sounds like sacrilege, but I'm going to ask you what gives you hope about this grand experiment that we call democracy?
JL: That’s always a really hard question. I have a podcast called “The Last Archive” and the new season is just out. And we did a few episodes this season where we tried an experiment that was proposed by Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain, where we went to high schools, and we asked high school students to determine whether political campaign ads should or should not be on social media and we asked them to fact check the ads. And [we said], “Instead, imagine that you were on a jury that has been contracted by Facebook to decide whether these things should be posted or not. So, if we were to actually have Facebook make this these binding decisions, have high school students make these decisions. It'd be great civics education for kids and also Facebook would be relieved of the obligation to decide what stays up or goes down. And the kids were unbelievable. I was really shocked. They took this so seriously. They were so fair minded and so careful and nonpartisan and keen and smart and questioning and thoughtful and gracious with one another. And I was just reminded, again, what a great institution is public education in this country. How tragic that it is so poorly supported and funded and so low prestige as a profession to go into teaching. But I was staggered and it was one of the most hopeful experiences I've had in recent years.
LP: Professor Lepore, thank you so much for spending some time with us and especially thank you for providing so many of us with these wonderful perspectives on history and contemporary life and
JL: It was fun being with you all. Thanks everyone.