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The State of the States


In Hamilton’s annual Constitution Day lecture, Amherst College Professor Austin Sarat delivered a talk titled “Everyone Knows American Democracy is in Trouble: But Maybe Donald Trump is Not to Blame.” Sarat’s presentation cataloged the demonstrable deterioration of American democracy, focusing in particular on evidence gathered prior to the Trump presidency. 

“I come here to blame the problems of American democracy on the young,” said Sarat, who President David Wippman described as one of the country’s most prominent and prolific scholars on law, jurisprudence, and social justice. “Large numbers of young people are not invested in democracy at all — and there are good reasons why they shouldn’t be.”

To this end, Sarat highlighted the country’s “paralyzed democratic institutions,” which “fail to deliver just, equal, and dignified treatment.” In line with the title of his talk, Sarat then turned his attention to the 45th president. “Donald Trump has done untold damage to American democracy,” he said. “But Trump is as much a symptom as he is a cause … American democracy has been eroding at the foundations for decades.”

To support this claim, Sarat presented data spanning a range of topics — trust in the federal government, faith in political institutions, and feelings toward democracy in general, to name a few. Especially alarming, Sarat said, are the statistics showing that support for democracy and aversion to non-democratic rule decreases sharply among younger generations. “People my age are much more attached to democratic rule than younger people,” Sarat said. “What’s going to happen when we die out?”

From a political science perspective, Sarat explained, democratic institutions tend to “provide mechanisms of accountability, be more responsive to people’s needs, and [be] better at protecting rights and upholding political equality.” In practice, the United States is plagued by the shortcomings of these same institutions. “There are large structural [issues] to talk about,” said Sarat, “which I think explains why large numbers of Americans, and especially young Americans committed to achieving social justice, have disinvested in democracy.”

Returning to the event’s central theme, Sarat stressed that these problems are hardly new — aggravated, but not created, by the presidency of Donald Trump. He took the example of an October 2016 statement regarding the outcome of the imminent election, in which Trump promised to accept the results only if he won. “He was already speaking to a receptive audience,” Sarat said. A poll conducted that same month asked participants if they would trust election results not in their favor, to which “28% said definitely not or unlikely,” Sarat added. 

At the end of his talk, Sarat directed a message to students in attendance. “The future of American democracy rests on the willingness of a generation of young people to come to the conclusion, to quote Barack Obama, that we be jealous, anxious guardians of democracy,” he said.

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