Amid crisis in democracy, ‘We have a right to be hopeful’

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After a week that saw the seat of U.S. government overrun by a mob that stormed the Capitol, prompting the historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump for inciting the deadly riot, participants on a livestreamed national town hall led by AFT President Randi Weingarten nevertheless found reasons to be hopeful about American democracy.  

randi weingarten and sari beth rosenburg on telephone town hall jan 2021

Joining Weingarten as speakers during the Jan. 14 town hall discussion were Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Atlantic magazine writer Anne Applebaum, author of the recent book The Twilight of Democracy, and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a history and social studies teacher in the New York City public schools and host of the Summer Zoom Teacher Series on PBS.

Weingarten said she was at AFT headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and watched from an 11th-floor balcony as the mob approached the Capitol after its members heard Trump speak at a rally near the White House. She could see them as they broke through barriers around the Capitol grounds and overran security personnel before entering the building.

Once inside, the rioters broke down doors, vandalized furniture and artworks, and sparked confrontations with Capitol Police officers and others that led to five deaths. The AFT organized the national town hall discussion, Weingarten said, because AFT members “want to know how to understand these events.”

What happened on Jan. 6 “was not a random act,” she said. The people who forced their way into the Capitol were “incited by a president who used the lie that the election was not free and fair.” Americans need to understand what happened, Weingarten added, “and what we need to do to protect our democracy.”

Applebaum offered an historian’s perspective, speaking during an interview with Weingarten taped several hours before the town hall.

“This is not an ideological struggle. We are not watching a battle between liberalism and conservatism,” Applebaum said. “What you saw at the Capitol was a group of people who now live in an alternative reality. ... They no longer trust any source of news that doesn’t tell them the things that they want to know.”

Complicating matters, she said, is the reality that this is not just a grass-roots movement. “There are now members of Congress who are effectively members of this movement, who also live in this alternate reality—and encourage it and incite it,” Applebaum said.

The mob takeover of the Capitol put a spotlight on one of the major threats to the American system of government, she said. “In recent years, we have underrated the degree to which our democracy depends on an accepted set of truths.

“In order to have a democratic debate, you have to agree on the same set of facts. If you no longer have that basic agreement ... then you can’t have democratic debate anymore,” Applebaum said, “and then you get events like what we saw last week.”

As president, Trump has undermined all of our institutions with his constant stream of lies, she said. “Of course, what that allowed him to do was escape accountability. And this is exactly why impeachment is so important, and why it’s important that he be held accountable in some fashion for the events of last week.” He’s spent the last five years “creating a world in which he is never accountable, he is never guilty, he has never done anything wrong,” Applebaum added.

When Weingarten asked her what educators should be doing to defend democracy, Applebaum responded that there needs to be a recommitment to teaching civics education. Civics and social studies, she said, “should be a way of reminding children and young people that politics is about structuring the world that they live in. Everything that they see around them is structured by the political system—by choices that people make.”

Applebaum also said that civics education must be combined with history. Americans, she said, don’t know their own history or its connections with current events and issues.

Finally, Applebaum said educators must instill critical thinking skills in their students. In the modern era of information overload, she said, what’s important is “teaching students to begin thinking their way through it, preparing them to live in this world ... in which truth and falsehood have not been explained to them.”

Applebaum’s support for more civics education and Weingarten’s observation that standardized testing has diminished social studies’ place in the K-12 curriculum drew many comments from teachers watching the livestream on Facebook.

Stephanie Ly, president of AFT New Mexico, noted that while “students learn the skills and knowledge of citizenship by actually being a citizen,” the question for educators is: “How do we give our students ways to be powerful citizens at a time when American democracy needs active citizens so much?”

A Pennsylvania teacher said educators have to push to keep these topics in the classroom. “Elementary teachers absolutely do teach civics, although we may have to squeeze it in between active shooter drills, social-emotional learning programs, test prep and all the other mandates,” she wrote. “The National Constitution Center [in Philadelphia] was always one of my students' favorite field trips.”

A retired teacher observed, “The one positive outcome of this marred moment in American history is breathing life back into emphasizing the importance of social studies curriculum and cross-curriculum civics-mindfulness in K-12 education.”

Rosenberg said she went to her New York City classroom the morning after the Jan. 6 insurrection determined to get her high school students to share what they knew and what they were experiencing in relation to the events in Washington.

“It’s so important that we rise to the challenge of asking them what they are hearing and help them sort through that to get to the truth,” she said, “because we do lose our democracy when we don’t have some sort of shared truth and facts.”

The answers she got did not surprise her. “None of my students said, ‘This is not America.’ They were engaged. They were disappointed, but they also were hopeful,” Rosenberg said.

“They’re hopeful that we as a country can find a way to move past this once and for all,” Rosenberg added. “And they’re looking to their teachers, and they’re looking to each other, for ways to do that.”

One thing that happened over the last four years was that Trump managed to “give us a renewed interest among all Americans in how government works,” Rosenberg said. “Students are so hungry to learn about what’s going on in government.”

In the days leading up to Inauguration Day, there will be several opportunities for AFT members and others to recognize and participate in this milestone of American democracy. The Presidential Inaugural Committee is asking all Americans to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18 a day of national and community service. Volunteers can sign up online at Day of Service.

On Jan. 19, a national memorial service for all of those who have died from COVID-19 will begin at 5:30 Eastern time at the Lincoln Memorial. The Inaugural Committee is asking cities and towns across the country to join in by lighting up their buildings. The AFT headquarters will have its lights on, and people can also light up their individual homes and offices.

On Jan. 20—Inauguration Day—the AFT will host a virtual watch party. Details on joining the party will be posted on social media.

In addition, Share My Lesson has created and assembled many resources to help students navigate current events and understand the foundations of American democracy.

“We have been rattled over the last year,” Weingarten said. But the engagement and responsiveness of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “give me a lot of hope,” Weingarten added.

“There is light. There is hope. There is a fight to thrive, a fight to defend our democracy, a fight to be better. Ultimately, that’s what next week’s about,” she said. “We have a right to be hopeful and be joyous about what tomorrow brings.”

[Tom Lansworth]