American Democracy: "Productive Conflict," Or A Dumpster Fire?

Jan 8, 2018
Originally published on January 15, 2018 8:06 pm

The tone of American politics can be...nasty. It doesn't take a seasoned political analyst to see that. But is this nastiness really worse than in previous eras, and if so, what does that mean for our democracy?

Historian David Moss takes the long view. He argues that our political systems are much more resilient than we realize, and that conflict, however bitter it may seem, can be productive.

In his new book, Democracy: A Case Study, Moss points out that there have been many moments in our history when panicked Americans wondered if the nation would survive. And yet, the United States is still here.

Furthermore, Moss says, many of the most intractable conflicts have resulted in innovations and compromises that still impact the way our government works today.

This week on Hidden Brain, history and the lessons it holds for our modern political conflicts.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. 2017 was a tough year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Not my president. Not my president. Not...

VEDANTAM: OK, maybe that was an understatement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN NEWSROOM")

BROOKE BALDWIN: What he said 24 hours ago is a threat. It's very serious. Should the world, and more importantly, should Kim Jong Un take that literally?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's how neo-Nazis see President Trump. They are clapping for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

STEPHANIE RUHLE: His thoughtfulness isn't what shareholders are looking for, and it's not what voters look for.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: That is the unraveling of an informed democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Where was I? Oh, yeah, we're all going to die.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Many Americans are angry. That anger has led to sadness and a fear that the United States is falling apart. After two centuries as a beacon of democracy, many fear the ties that bind us together as a nation are starting to fray.

(SOUNDBITE OF RT AMERICA BROADCAST)

SIMONE DEL ROSARIO: Brexit has spurred secession talks all over the world, even in our own country, including rumors of California...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That's what activists in the state of California want. Ever since the election of President Trump, the campaign for Calexit, the secession of California...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: At times, several hundred people face-to-face in brawls using sticks and rocks as weapons...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, unintelligible).

VEDANTAM: If you feel our nation is at a breaking point, today's show may provide you some solace. Historian David Moss takes the long view. In his book "Democracy: A Case Study," David argues that intense political conflict to the point where it looks like our democracy is about to fail has been with us since the country was born. In fact, he argues, such conflict, far from being a harbinger of doom, is actually a sign of vitality.

DAVID MOSS: I think we need to remember American democracy is far from perfect, but it is extraordinarily resilient, and it has generated tremendous progress.

VEDANTAM: Many people judge political success or failure based on whether their side wins. David uses a different metric. He says in the long term, real success and failure is about the health or sickness of democracy itself. Does conflict strengthen our bonds or does it destroy the fabric that holds us together? In today's episode, we'll use American history as a lens to look at how conflict can sometimes bring people together and sometimes tear them apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TARA BOYLE, BYLINE: So if you could, I would love to just get a level on your voices - we get started...

MOSS: OK, all right.

VEDANTAM: David and I met for an interview on the sidelines of a conference in Colorado. My producer Tara Boyle and I found a meeting room at our hotel for the interview. It wasn't quite studio quality, but it had a rustic charm to it. I started by asking David the obvious question. At a time when political conflict seems to be pulling the country apart, how can he possibly be optimistic?

MOSS: Certainly, in the United States, conflict has been - not every time, but a lot of the time - very productive. And so I could give you many examples, and maybe we could talk about some of them. But really, if you think about, for example, in the economic marketplace, competition, conflict is really what drives innovation, new ideas. And the same thing happens in the political sphere. So you have - you know, you have two parties. You have different interest groups. You have all sorts of different people trying to fight it out. And in the process, you get all sorts of good ideas that are surfaced. And so conflict, competition in the political marketplace is crucial.

VEDANTAM: David says that what matters is not whether there's conflict but whether that conflict is constructive or destructive to democracy. If you just focus on the conflict, you might not see the real picture. To understand the effects of different kinds of conflict, I asked David to tell me about three moments in American history where political disagreements were so intense it seemed like the country might implode. In one case, as we will see, it nearly did. The first moment was just a few years after the founding of the new nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: We think of today as being an unusually bitter moment in politics. Donald Trump calls Hillary Clinton crooked Hillary while Democrats say Trump is unfit for office, possibly crazy. But the founding fathers were happy to sling mud, too. Thomas Jefferson's supporters called John Adams hideous and hermaphroditical. Adams called Alexander Hamilton that bastard brat of a Scottish peddler. The nasty talk was hardly the worst of it. There were deep disagreements about what it meant to be a country. George Washington said he was mortified that political fighting had left the country looking, quote, "ridiculous and contemptible."

MOSS: It did appear to many, including Washington, that the country might be falling apart. So if you look at what was going on, this new nation had just - you know, they declared their independence in 1776, and so, you know, they're jubilant about having won this battle. But it turns out that things sort of turned south fairly quickly. So, you know, within a few years of the formal end of the war, you start seeing some very serious problems across the country.

VEDANTAM: At the time, the new nation was not yet governed by our Constitution, but by another document known as the Articles of Confederation.

MOSS: And they really made the states almost all-powerful. The states were sovereign. Federal government existed, but it was very weak. There was no president. There was no Supreme Court, just a Congress. And the Congress had very limited power. For example, it could spend, and it could borrow, but it couldn't tax. So it turns out that may not have been the best idea because the government does spend, especially on the war, and it does borrow. But then, of course, it's not able to raise revenues.

So the federal government is soon in default. They're not able to pay their creditors. And among the creditors who are most important are former soldiers, and so the soldiers aren't getting paid, so that's a serious problem. That's one thing going on. The states start putting tariffs on each other. The original idea was they were almost going to be a big free-trade zone, but that breaks down fairly quickly. The economy falls into recession.

Economists disagree about exactly how severe it was. Some say it was even worse than the Great Depression. Many say it was much less severe. But in any case, people at the time thought it was a pretty bad problem. So there were all these different things going on, and that's why Washington is mortified beyond expression.

So there are certainly - there's a lot of political conflict as well, but I think it's even - it's a deeper question. He - in fact, he goes on, and he said that he's mortified beyond expression that at the moment of our acknowledged independence, we look ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe. And so what he's saying is, we founded this country, and it's falling apart.

VEDANTAM: So as the states are wrangling with one another and we're trying to figure out whether to actually have a workable federal government, it turns out that the states come up with something of a compromise in terms of how to build the institutions of what today we think of as the modern federal government.

MOSS: So look, one of the first debates was, how do you build Congress? The small states wanted a Congress that would represent them one vote per state. So a state like Delaware or New Hampshire would want that. But other states, the large states, wanted proportional representation - representation according to the number of voters. But in any case, as they were trying to figure out how to set up Congress, they came up with an interesting compromise, which we all know is the great compromise, where they set up the House of Representatives, as you well know, is going to be organized by proportional representation, and the Senate is going to be two votes per state.

But what's particularly interesting about this is that I think often, people think about compromise, and we think - and you hear this all the time today - we need to compromise; we need to meet in the middle. Meeting in the middle is one form of compromise that occurs sometimes. But I think even more common I think in American history in dealing with the kind of conflict that I see is that you don't meet in the middle. You do sort of the best of both - the best of one idea and the best of another. So what you see is the small states got what they wanted, and the large states got what they wanted. So instead of meeting in the middle or splitting the difference, they did both.

VEDANTAM: So the historical moment that mortified Washington also resulted in a model of government that has endured for more than two centuries. The conflict was painful but productive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Nearly 100 years later, the new nation was tested again, this time after the election of Abraham Lincoln.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, reading) Let the consequences be what they may. Whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved 10 fathoms in depth with mangled bodies or whether the last vestige of liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

VEDANTAM: An Atlanta newspaper expressed what many were feeling in the country at the time. Southern states were starting to secede. It was the eve of the Civil War. While the Civil War brought slavery to an end, David still thinks of this moment as an example of destructive conflict. That's because the conflict wasn't resolved through the democratic process but through the bloodiest war in American history.

MOSS: When you look at productive conflict, what you see is that although the two sides disagree vehemently about some issue or problem, they do have something in common. And what you see again and again is, Americans have believed deeply in their political system and their democracy, and that's kind of the glue - their faith in the democracy, their commitment to it. That's kind of the glue that holds them together. What you see in the 1850s and leading up into 1860 and the war beginning 1861 is that glue has begun to break down.

And so what happens is that in a sense, the Southerners, those who are going to favor secession, they're more committed to the institution of slavery, and all that it represents, and their identity as slave owners and participating in a slave society. They're so committed to that that they actually are more committed to that than to the national democracy. And so when Lincoln is elected - and he clearly wins the election in November 1860. There's no question about illegal votes or another country intervening or any of these questions. He wins the election. He wins a plurality of the votes, and he wins the popular vote, and he wins a clear majority in the electoral college. But he opposes the expansion of slavery.

Interestingly, he didn't oppose slavery, per se. He wasn't calling for abolition at that point, but he didn't want to see slavery expand, and that was a very controversial issue. And many Southerners who believed that the only way to maintain slavery was for it to continue to expand to maintain political balance between free states and slave states - they couldn't really tolerate the idea that the president of the United States would oppose the expansion of slavery. And so although he was elected - and I think they recognized he was elected, in a sense, fair and square - they just couldn't accept him as president.

And so what you see is they're putting a policy issue - in this case, an entire worldview and way of life revolving around the evils of slavery - they put that ahead of the democracy. And as soon as you do that, then the glue comes apart. So now the conflict just descends into rancor and violence. And so I think it's an important lesson of how our differences can be a source of strength, but they can also be an incredible source of weakness. And the question is, do we have something in common that's holding us together? In most of American history, the answer's been yes. At that moment in history, the answer was, unfortunately, absolutely no.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if one of the things you are implying when you talk about the difference between productive and destructive conflict is that when people have productive conflict, they're actually willing to say, I believe very strongly that I'm right, but I want to at least concede the possibility that I don't have a monopoly on what is right, that I'm willing to concede that maybe there are others who have something of value or it may be that history will show in the future, 20 years from now, there is something that I don't know.

And I'm wondering if this is potentially one of the implications of what you're talking about, which is the difference between productive and destructive conflict is that in productive conflict, people say, there's a chance that I could be wrong sometime in the future.

MOSS: I think that's correct. I think that's true. But even if they don't think they could be wrong, there's a sense that if you believe in the democracy so much, there's only so far you're willing to go. So the question is, how far are you willing to go in order to get what you want, even if you're convinced that you're right? So it may be that you're willing to entertain the ideas of others, but it also may be you're sure that the other side's wrong. But they are the other side, and they're part of the democracy, too, so I'm willing to fight pretty hard but only up to a point.

And so, you know, if you think, another analogy would be in a family, right? So a family, we - you know, every family, people fight, they quarrel, they disagree about all sorts of things, but if there's love in the family, the conflict only goes so far. If the love breaks down, then actually, the conflict can rip the family apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: In the 20th century, the bonds of that democracy were tested again. When we come back - the political upheavals of the 1960s and their echoes today. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY MCGUIRE SONG, "EVE OF DESTRUCTION")

VEDANTAM: We are now in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVE OF DESTRUCTION")

BARRY MCGUIRE: (Singing) The Eastern world, it is exploding - violence flaring, bullets loading. You're old enough to kill...

VEDANTAM: Martin Luther King Jr. is leading the civil rights struggle. There are deep partisan divisions in the country. It's another moment of crisis where it seems like the nation is coming apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Protests, picket lines and beatings occur each week all across our land.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Anti-war demonstrators protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KU KLUX KLAN: THE INVISIBLE EMPIRE")

CHARLES KURALT: The Ku Klux Klan is a secret organization which for 100 years has been allowed to exist in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

(CHEERING)

VEDANTAM: King finds that progress isn't achieved by reaching quickly for consensus. He finds, in fact, that progress comes from triggering conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CITIZEN KING")

KING: I have a feeling that if we can get a breakthrough in Birmingham and really break down the walls of segregation, it will demonstrate to the whole South - at least, the hardcore South - that it can no longer resist...

MOSS: First of all, just, if you have to step back and think about what Martin Luther King and others who were leading this movement - they're facing what de Tocqueville called tyranny of the majority. In fact, you know, other than slavery itself, this was about as extreme as it comes. So there were Jim Crow laws that separated blacks and whites, particularly in the South. There were intense disenfranchisement of black voters. And so you now represent - if you think about it, you represent a black minority that has been disenfranchised. It has very little political power. It has very little economic power. What do you do to try to change the system?

So this is an enormously big challenge, and you could imagine many responses would be, the political system's not going to work; we have to go outside the political system. I think what was so brilliant about King, but also before him, if you look at the - a long line from the early 20th century - the NAACP was trying to think about, how do we make change? And what they thought was, we're going to embrace democracy; we're going to hug democracy tightly, and we're going to reveal the hypocrisy. There are these beautiful principles like all men are created equal and equal protection of the law, and then there's practice, where those principles are violated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Yelling) Yes.

KING: ...A check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

(CHEERING)

MOSS: And I think what leaders of the civil rights movement and its antecedents figured out is that hypocrisies actually can be a plus, not just a minus. So if you can bring it out, if you can expose it, if you can put it in front of people and show that the principles they hold dear are being violated, that, in some cases, at least, forces people to choose. Sometimes they choose wrong, unfortunately. But sometimes they actually side with principle.

So this is basically what Martin Luther King was trying to do. He was picking battles. You said he was going for conflict. He was. He wanted to pick some of the most challenging places to protest - Birmingham, Ala., Selma - go in and to try to provoke conflict, protest peacefully, but knowing that there were some pretty tough people on the other side, some pretty brutal police and sheriffs on the other side who were going to take that opportunity to beat up the protesters, use dogs, water cannons, so on. So what he realized is that if you could make people in their living rooms see this violence and bring it out, you know, to - into the light of day, then suddenly, this hypocrisy, which unfortunately was at the heart of the country at that point - we were talking about equal protection, but we weren't living equal protection.

So this is what he did. And so, you know, he goes - first, you know, it's in Montgomery, but then Birmingham. In Birmingham, he even - their children - there's a children's march, so that was a very controversial decision - Selma, again, a similar set of developments. I think without television - I think he well understood this by at least '63. Without television, I don't think he could possibly have done it, but with television, he was able to go march peacefully, protest peacefully. The reaction, though, came, and it came swiftly from the other side, and it put on display this hypocrisy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSS: So what you see once again is this link between conflict tied to this deep faith in the democracy - even how imperfect - I mean, imperfect is an understatement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I HAVE A DREAM")

KING: The Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation.

VEDANTAM: When you think about some of the other leaders of the time, there were certainly people who were advocating some version of what the South was saying in 1861. There were people who were saying look. The system is so broken. It is so faulty that there is no fixing it. We actually have to break it down. And I think the point that you're making is really well-made, which is that King wrapped himself in the flag. He wrapped himself in this ideal of the American democracy. And that potentially is what made the conflict productive.

MOSS: Right. So look. That's what he did. You know, there were a lot of things he was concerned about. But he said, let's take these principles and actually try to see if we can all live by them. I think we need to remember American democracy is far from perfect, but it is extraordinarily resilient. And it has generated tremendous progress - economic progress, social progress, political - a lot slower than we'd all like. But, boy, things can go very badly, and we all know that. And so the question is can you continue to make progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: So which of these historical analogies describes the current moment in the United States? Are we on the brink of a new chapter in our democracy or on the brink of divorce? I asked David about a number of more recent developments that raise troubling signals about the health of our democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) He's not my president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: You're still questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Very simple, I had people looking into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE COHEN: We are introducing articles of impeachment to remove President Trump from office. Given the magnitude of the constitutional crisis, there's no reason for delay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is not based in any real theories of law. This is the congressional equivalent of petulant children throwing a temper tantrum because their team lost.

VEDANTAM: Are these modern conflicts business as usual? Or has something changed?

MOSS: I think both. I mean, it depends what you want the comparison to be. I think that relative to much of the 20th century, we've been more partisan. We're more partisan today than in a long time. But I have to say. If you look back in the 19th century, there were strong divisions - very powerful divisions. At one moment, that, of course, led to the Civil War. But most of the time, those divisions actually did not lead to anything like violence. In fact, they often led to very productive conflicts. So I don't think the question - I don't think the right question is, is there too much conflict? Again, I think conflict - especially if it stays in the political realm - is a very good thing. It generates good ideas.

The question is what do we have in common. I think that's really - we have to ask ourselves not how do we suppress conflict but how do we elevate what we have in common. So we don't have a common ethnic origin. We don't have a common religion. This country is very different from many others. We have people coming from all over. What we've had from the beginning is - I hope - is a common faith in small d - not the party but the system - democratic - or you can call it small r republican governance.

And this actually - Benjamin Franklin, one of the greatest minds this country ever produced - back in 1776, the Continental Congress, just hours after it adopted the Declaration of Independence, it asked a very powerful, heavy-weight group of people - John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin - to develop a seal for the United States of America - the great seal, a two-sided emblem. They wanted some marketing materials for this new country they just formed. And anyway, these three come up with a design, and Congress doesn't like it. They reject it. They come up with another design. But Franklin, in that process, came up with three words that Congress did like.

And those three words were Latin words e pluribus unum. He took it from a - he took those words not from a great Roman thinker but rather from a magazine he liked called Gentleman's Magazine. It was a literary magazine. And on the cover were these words e pluribus unum - out of many, one. And what they were trying to say in the magazine was out of many literary works - they brought together many fragments of literary works - out of many fragments of literary works, one magazine.

What he - he saw it as out of many states and peoples, one nation. And I think what he understood really, very early was that diversity - difference created great strengths for the country. But what was going to create that unity? It was going to be our belief - our common belief in democratic self-governance. Or he would have called it republican self-governance. And so I think that that's just immensely important. So as we look at conflict, I think it's maybe a fool's errand to try to suppress conflict. The question is do we have enough in common to hold it together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Political scientists have noticed that both parties are becoming more ideologically consistent. In other words, Republicans are more conservative, and Democrats are more liberal than they used to be. I asked David if this kind of polarization might be leading to a destructive conflict.

MOSS: Look. We don't know. So I want to be careful. History - I'm a historian. I look backwards. I'm not so good at predicting the future. And I think none of us are. So we don't know if this type of conflict is itself dangerous. I guess I'm not convinced that it is. I think a much bigger concern - and if you look at - for example, Gallup asked this question on a regular basis - if you ask do you have confidence in your fellow Americans to make decisions as part of our democracy, actually that number has been falling quite dramatically. And the number who say that they have little or no confidence in their fellow Americans has increased sharply from about 15 percent in the early 1970s to about 43 percent today.

Those are big numbers. I have to say, I worry much more about those numbers than ideological conformity and so on. I think the question is do you have some faith in those around you. Even if you disagree with them sharply, do you believe in the system? Are you willing when you lose to accept it? And are you going to be treated with some degree of respect when you lose as well, you know? As we think about winning and losing, we have to lose with grace, and we have to win with grace as well. And maybe we just have to be careful not to let the winning and losing become a value of its own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: As I was talking to David, I thought of a wicked joke. A man falls off the top of a 100-story building. As he's falling, he passes the 20th floor, and he tells himself, well, everything seems to be going pretty well so far. David's take on history is that the United States is resilient. We've had a lot of setbacks and crises, and none of them has proved fatal. When we come back, I'm going to ask David how we can know if our present moment is just one of those false alarms or whether it's an example of that guy who's about to go splat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Social scientists talk about two sets of problems when you're looking at phenomena. They talk about things that are false positives and things that are false negatives. So the false positives are things that look like alarm bells. And, you know, if you pay too much attention to them, you will chase all sorts of little things down rabbit holes, and most of them will come to nothing. If you ignore the false negatives, they're the things that you miss that actually turn out to be catastrophic.

And I'm wondering. As you're thinking about the long sweep of history, it's clear there have been many, many, many examples of false positives, where you sort of said things look like they're coming apart. Things look like they're falling apart. And they haven't. And the case you make as a result is that the country is resilient. But I'm wondering if this belief in our resilience can hide the fact that sometimes actually we might be at risk. In other words, it's only in hindsight that you know that a certain thing turned out well or badly. In the moment, how do you know which way it's going to go?

MOSS: Right. So you said that, you know, people have been seeing the collapse of American democracy for a very, very long time. You know, when James Madison was elected, a fiercely federalist newspaper in Connecticut said that the country was fast on the broad road to despotism and ruin. So these things have happened before. And the critics - as you say, the critics are usually wrong. In one moment, they weren't - right? - in the lead up to the Civil War. We can't just take comfort in the fact that many, many times people have said democracy was failing and many, many times they were wrong because if we do that, what if this is one of the times when they're right.

So you're asking the question how can you tell the difference. I think you need to look at is the culture of democracy strong enough to hold us together. That's the question I keep asking. How do you know? You need to look at your politicians. Look at the ones on your side, who agree with you. And do you see them ever putting democracy in second place? And how often do they do it? So I'll leave it to listeners to make that decision. My guess is you can find some examples of that, and you can find examples in history. The more severe that becomes, the more dangerous it becomes.

It's good, I think, in a democracy to be hypochondriacs - that is to think that, oh, our system might be sick because when you think it might be sick, you start to take some action to try to fix it. And you see that it's in moments of political reform that you do have almost like a national civics class. You do get people talking about democracy, thinking about principles - the civil rights movement, the voting rights movement that we talked about before in leading up to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That was such a time. It was like a national civics class. And so - where people were thinking about these. What does equal protection mean? Are we following it? Are we not following it?

So we need to think about that - and if we can maybe just get away a little bit from only talking about should taxes be high or low. Should government be big or small? Should guns be protected this way or not protected - or so on. All those fights are important fights - extremely important. But we can't only fight about that. We need to think about sort of the broader pillars of government and make sure we understand them and make sure we retain our commitment to them.

VEDANTAM: One of the other factors you identified that's different about partisanship today from partisanship in the past is that you say partisanship in the past was more exuberant - that things were more cynical today rather than exuberant. What do you mean by exuberant partisanship? And how could we bring that back?

MOSS: One of the things I write about in the book is - particularly in the conclusion - is this - is what appears to be a decline in this culture of democracy. And one element of that actually goes back a very long way. It's not just recent. So as you say, I think if you go back into the 19th century, partisanship was extremely, extremely strong. But there was a life in it - an excitement. You use the word exuberance. I think that's a good one. And that came out, for example, beautifully on Election Day. Election Day was a celebration. It was a party. It was completely different from Election Day today.

What do I mean by that? Well, back then, actually voting was public. So this is before the secret ballot. You would go and cast a ballot. Your ballot usually had a color. It might be pink. It might be blue. And it would reflect what party you were voting for. Everyone could see when you put the ballot in. And there were a lot of people around you.

In fact, usually, at your voting place, there was a celebration going on. There was a lot of debating. There was a lot of drinking. There was a lot of fighting. There was a lot going on. And some people were actually afraid to go vote because it was such a raucous environment. But overall, the voting rates were up at 70, 75, 80 percent - so very high voting rates, much higher than we have today. So there was this celebratory atmosphere that was going on at every Election Day. And part of that was something we wouldn't want to repeat. So you know, why were ballots so public? Why was voting so public?

Well, part of it was political machines wanted to be able to pay people off to vote for their party. And you couldn't really pay people off if you couldn't see how they were going to vote. So if you're going to pay them a dollar to vote this way or that, you had to make sure you knew how they're actually going to vote. So you had to see - you had to have someone at the polling place watch them put the vote in. So there was a downside. There was a corruption associated with this old system. But unfortunately, when we fixed that, we ended up taking the life out of voting.

And now most people go. They vote. They vote in a private booth. And they make their decision. They walk out. They maybe buy a brownie at a bake sale or something. And that's about it. There's not really much engagement. There's certainly not a lot of debating. There's not a lot of drinking. And there's maybe fortunately not a lot of fighting - physical fighting. But there is a question. Could we have a little bit more of that celebratory atmosphere? Could Election Day be a holiday? Could it be more of a celebration? And what you'd see is a lot more people engaged in the democracy. And it was an important moment. So we lost that. We got something in return. We got a cleaner electoral system. I wouldn't want to give that up, but, boy, we lost something in the process.

VEDANTAM: When I look at the present moment, just in the last few months, it feels like I've seen numerous pictures of liberals and Democrats holding up signs to Donald Trump saying not my president - he's not my president - deeply unhappy about how the election turned out but not just unhappy - to the point of saying he is not a legitimate president. When you look at the conflict we're having right now about whether Russia interfered with the presidential election, there is real division among Republicans.

Is this - are we supposed to be defending the president and approaching this from a partisan point of view? Or are we supposed to be thinking about this as Americans, worried about, you know, foreign power trying to influence our democracy? I think both of those are pretty clear examples that lots of people are placing party before country.

MOSS: I think it depends how far it goes. So certainly, you know, you gave the example of many people are out there saying Trump isn't my president. You know, the same was true of Barack Obama - that many people didn't think he was a legitimate president. I think the question though is to what extent are you then willing to violate the law because you think there is no law. And so I think that would be crossing a barrier.

And so the truth is you can disagree with, for example, either president's executive orders, and you can take them to court. The question is what do you do if you lose in court. And what do you do - is court kind of the proper remedy? I would say if you believe in the democracy, it is. And, you know, sometimes you lose. And sometimes, you lose for a long time. So those who lose need to try to respect the process - fight as hard as they can. I'm not trying to say not to fight - fight as hard as they can. The question is do you legally respect the process.

Those who hold up a sign and saying, you know, the president's not my president - I think they're exercising their First Amendment rights. I have to say that doesn't cause me grave concern. The question is do you then recognize the political process as itself as legitimate. I think so far - mostly, I think the answer has been yes. So I am not so worried about the signs. I do get concerned though about this atrophy - if you look at our culture of democracy - I've given you one piece of data from a Gallup poll. I could give you some others. I think our culture of democracy has weakened. Maybe that's a little bit part of the reason why people are sometimes holding up those signs.

But, again, if that glue is coming apart, then I start to worry that are we going to get the best from column A and the best from column B, like we did at the Constitutional Convention and so many other times after that. Or are we going to get paralyzed and be unable to act? Or are we going to find a kind of tyranny of the majority? So these are all possible outcomes in our system of government. What I think we need to come to respect is the power of productive tension, of productive conflict and how important it is, in a sense, to be ambidextrous as citizens. One the - with one hand, we need to be fighting as hard as we can peacefully to get our views, to keep pushing - even, you know, when we lose, we keep pushing and pushing. But at the same time, on the other hand, we need to respect our democracy, and we need to respect it and show it great reverence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: David, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

MOSS: Thanks so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: David Moss is the author of "Democracy: A Case Study." He's a historian at Harvard University. This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penman and Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Renee Klahr, Parth Shah, and Jenny Schmidt. Special thanks this week to Jerad Walker at Oregon Public Broadcasting. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen for my stories on Morning Edition.

Our unsung heroes this week are the thousands of volunteers at polling stations who help people exercise their democratic rights. These are tough and unpaid jobs. But if you ever want to find evidence that many Americans care about their democracy, all you need to do is hang out with some of these volunteers. Shows like ours couldn't function without a free and fair democracy, and we are grateful to these volunteers. If you like this episode, please tell a friend about it. Also you might want to remind that friend to show up on election day and vote. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.