Law Journal of the Liberal Arts Symposium: Austin Sarat on America’s Democracy Under Threat

By: Thomas Cassara, Staff Writer

This past Thursday, a lecture about America’s democracy through the Law Journal of the Liberal Arts (LJLA) featured Amherst College Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science Austin Sarat. He discussed some disturbing trends he has found within our democracy and engaged with front-row students one on one, which allowed for a more discussion-based lecture.

Sarat discussed his belief in the importance of legal study in the liberal arts, fear of what he sees as real threats to democracy, and his belief that Donald Trump is not the only one at fault for the decline of American democracy. Throughout the lecture, Sarat questioned commonly-held beliefs in America. Sarat blamed the younger generations and Americans in general, who might take freedom and democracy for granted, for the decline in American democracy.

Sarat complimented Gettysburg College’s commitment to a liberal arts education and specified the need for further studies of law in the liberal arts. He believes that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to educate and prepare the next generation and added that it is not a complete education without the study of law. 

Legal studies create citizens who can truly be “jealous guardians of democracy,” according to Sarat.

Sarat put the lecture on pause to give time for group discussions. He asked the audience for definitions of “the rule of law,” which was defined as the practices governing individuals and institutions and as a monopoly on violence. 

Sarat explained that, though Trump is sometimes blamed as the primary source of division in this country, he is “a symptom as much as a cause,” of the many problems we face as a nation. 

Throughout the lecture, he focused more on American public opinion than Trump’s actions. Sarat referenced a recent poll from a major news organization that showed 51 percent of Trump supporters who believe Trump should be able to overturn Supreme Court decisions.

Sarat feared that American democracy will, if not already, begin to deteriorate. He cited a compilation of graphs and charts that showed a decline in confidence in democratic governance and a failing faith in government institutions. He emphasized the importance of democracy and how deeply disturbing he found the decline of support for democratic governance among young people.

One comparison was between a survey conducted in 1978 and one conducted in 2017, the older of the two showing that 75 percent of people had faith in the government, but by 2017, that number had dropped to 30 percent.

One of the many interesting moral questions Sarat posed to the audience was whether the Constitution requires democracy. Students were unsure of how to respond, as no hands raised to answer this philosophical question. Americans, through civics classes, dinner table conversations, and historical dramas, are taught from a young age that democracy is the core of our government. Sarat explained that the Constitution does not require democracy. Technically, it only requires that the life, liberty, and rights of American citizens be preserved. 

Sarat contended that Amendments such as the 13th (which abolished slavery), the 19th (which made discrimination against voters on the basis on sex unconstitutional), and the 26th (which constitutionally improved civil rights) are examples of “democratic improvements to the Constitution.”

“You involve yourself in knowing about public affairs,” he continued. “And it means that you don’t take democracy and the rule of law for granted. You realize that what Adams said in his time is alas very much a lively prospect in our time. And that is democracy will die, at least for myself, I think that would be a tragedy” 

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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