Is American liberal democracy morally defensible? | Interview with Dr. Rogers Smith

UPenn political scientist, Dr. Rogers Smith, talks to us about America’s continual struggle for its identity evidenced through swings in political power and more. Enjoy!

Is American liberal democracy morally defensible? | Interview with Dr. Rogers Smith

Dr. Rogers M. Smith asks if American liberal democracy is morally defensible, unpacks hierarchies of traditional political power, covers the rise and decline of racial equality, and examines the contested American identity. The Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science for the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Smith dialogues with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Political Scientist Dr. Rogers Smith

Interview Transcript

0:01 Rogers Smith: When we’ve made progress toward greater racial equality, greater racial justice in America. And we made the argument that the pattern has been that America has made progress only when there’s been a combination of domestic and international political pressures during a time of crisis.

00:25 Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at and today we have another special guest with us today, Professor Smith, who is a political science professor and one of the most influential political scientists in the United States today. So we are truly honored to have you, Professor Smith. And first, we’d like to find out how you got involved in your particular discipline, because there’s a lot of young people who will be watching this interview and they’ll be trying to sort out what their future major should be, so can you tell us a little bit about how that all transpired?

00:57 Rogers Smith: Yes. I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, a state capital. I was actually born in South Carolina, but my family moved north shortly thereafter, and Springfield is also the hometown of Abraham Lincoln.

01:12 Jed Macosko: That’s right.

01:13 Rogers Smith: So it was an environment with a lot of politics in the air and the grandeur of the Lincoln legacy, and this was in the 1960s, the Civil Rights era. And I got involved in politics as a teenager quite extensively. And my father was a business man, and I was active as a Republican. I was the state chairman of the Illinois teenage Republicans.

01:43 Jed Macosko: Wow.

01:44 Rogers Smith: I saw the Republicans as the party of business, yes, and Dad was a business man, but also as the party of Lincoln, the party of Civil Rights, and in Illinois, as the party of good government, because the Democrats were the... Had a club machine in Chicago, they were supporters of segregation. Well, so that is how I felt entering political activism, but at the same time, this was the beginning of a transition in Illinois, and eventually the nation, in which the Republican Party began to shift on those issues. And by 1970, I realized that in Illinois, the Republicans were not really for civil rights nor were they actually always the party of good government, and I came to feel my understanding of politics was significantly defective in pushing for a lot of things that were going the wrong way. And so I decided I needed to begin to study politics more deeply, and I chose an institution that would allow me to do that, a teaching-oriented college and that focused on politics and issues of political history and political philosophy, and I made what was initially the devastating discovery that I actually liked studying, thinking, and writing about politics more than I did doing politics.


03:21 Jed Macosko: Oh no.

03:21 Rogers Smith: And I came... I’m fundamentally a nerd, but I came to terms with that, and I advise students to this day to try to figure out what they enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis and then try to pursue that. You’ll probably make more of a contribution that way than any other way, and that’s the decision I came to, I really enjoyed being a scholar of politics, so I made that choice and I’ve been happy with it ever since.

03:55 Jed Macosko: That’s really cool. Now, when you decide that you like studying and teaching and learning about, you’ve decided that you’re a nerd, how far of a stretch was it to understand that you’d be a good professor? Was that kind of at the same moment you realized, I like all the studying and being a nerd and I wanna be a professor, or did you think maybe about going into political think tank or... Tell us a little bit about how you became a professor.

04:19 Rogers Smith: I actually went to graduate school without a clear sense of what would come after graduate school. I joke about it, but the truth is, I was profoundly troubled by the developments of the late 1960s that required me to challenge a lot of my beliefs that I had grown up with. So there were big questions that I wanted to pursue, and while I thought, as an undergraduate, I made a little progress, I really went to graduate school just to give me an opportunity to continue to study and think more deeply. And I knew that that could lead to becoming a professor, but I didn’t give that a great deal of attention really. And it was only when I began as a graduate student to teach for the first time, which is not something I had focused on, I was gonna try and answer these big questions and... But then I got in the classroom and I started engaging with the students, and I discovered, just my surprise, not my horror, but my surprise that I loved engaging with students and...

05:36 Jed Macosko: That’s great.

05:37 Rogers Smith: And I also did feel in my graduate work, I found the intellectual and political direction I was looking for, and so then at that point, I loved the scholarship, I loved the teaching. What else was I gonna do?

05:48 Jed Macosko: That’s right. That’s kind of what happen to me. So now you found what you wanted to head in, the direction you wanted to head, tell us a little bit about that and how that led you to what you did for your career.

06:02 Rogers Smith: I came to think in my teens that American political principles and the American political community had some severe deficiencies. We were supposed to be for liberty and justice for all, but we had these enormous racial inequalities, these intractable problems of poverty, this overseas war in Vietnam that people saw as imperialistic. And my question became, is there a kind of version of American political principles that I think I can find morally defensible, but that I can also claim to have some authentic authority in American life or was America fundamentally flawed? There was a song when I was a teenager. America, you become a monster. And that haunted me. I thought is America a monster? And I ended up working on American constitutionalism and American political thought. And in my dissertation, in my first book, I made an argument about a kind of understanding of American liberal democracy as an ongoing project of expanding meaningful possessions through our institutions and practices, meaningful possessions of the basic liberties people need to lead a flourishing life.

07:46 Rogers Smith: And I thought I saw a way to argue that that was the direction the nation could and should pursue. Subsequently I began working more extensively on American citizenship and its history in order to see how far I could claim American principles were embodied in our conceptions of citizenship. And there, I became far more vividly aware of how America had been efficiently structured as a white man’s society in privileging the Christian religion above others, privileging male governance amongst others. This is not something that was treated through most of our history as an exceptional or marginal view as I had been taught in my graduate studies. But when Stephen Douglas runs against Abraham Lincoln for the Senate in Illinois in 1858, Stephen Douglass says, “I believe this nation was made by the white man, for the white man, and it is to be governed by the white man and not any inferior race.” It’s right out there and Douglass is elected senator. This is...

09:01 Jed Macosko: Unbelievable. Wow.

09:02 Rogers Smith: Right. Well, I did not realize how pervasive this was, and that led me to a further rethinking of how I wanted to understand American political principles and American constitutionalism that has really shaped my work ever since. So ultimately, I did think I could argue that there are deeply embedded and valuable traditions in American life, but not that they define the true meaning of American identity. How we define the true meaning of American identity is a political struggle that we engage in all the time. It’s up to us to decide what the meaning of America will be and being able to contribute to that is something I have found very worthwhile.

09:53 Jed Macosko: Yeah, that seems incredible. So if you were to chart the virtue of the United States from its inception until now, there is obviously different parts of the country, different things going on, but you mentioned the Douglas Lincoln debates as a point where you could really see a low going down and clear as day people being discriminatory and seeing the United States as a place for whites to government. Do you see prior to that some little blips of hope where things were done in a more open way, or were there times in the past where people just weren’t even thinking about whether America was dominated by white men because it was just sort of the water that they lived in. So just bring us up to speed with that because we haven’t gone through the same disillusionment that you went through when you realized all of this, and help us see. I hear for example about [inaudible] saying that America is great because she’s good. What part of it was good if there was so much bigotry going on back then?

11:03 Rogers Smith: Well it was always a contest, and so there were always good things as well as things that are not so good, and some things were horrible. And they were often deeply intertwined in ways that means that you can’t line up history neatly, here are the good guys and the bad guys. On some issues you’ll be in favor of some and on other issues others. But some years ago I wrote a book with Philip Klinkner called The Unsteady March, which looks specifically at when we’ve made progress toward greater racial equality, greater racial justice in America. And we made the argument that the pattern has been that America has made progress only when there’s been a combination of domestic and international political pressures during a time of crisis in which it seemed necessary for America to embrace its more inclusive and egalitarian self-understandings in order to prevail, and that has led to bursts of reform lasting 10 to 15 years, followed generally by about three quarters of a century of stagnation and retrenchment.

12:22 Jed Macosko: Right. Kind of like a boa constrictor constricting back down, right?

12:27 Rogers Smith: Not all the way back down though. We say there’s been cumulative progress.

12:29 Jed Macosko: Okay, good.

12:32 Rogers Smith: So how the American Revolution led to the first emancipation in the North, the ending of slavery in the north, and African-Americans voted in the state of North Carolina up until the 1830s, free African-Americans did even while it was a slave state, but they lost the vote then. They lost the vote in much of the North too. There was a retraction, and that got worse and worse until ultimately we got the Civil War. And the Civil War produced another period of racial reform lasting through the end of Reconstruction, but then we had a period of stagnation and retrenchment that really lasted till the modern Civil Rights era.

13:11 Rogers Smith: Which we argue was incubated by a combination of the pressures of the domestic Civil Rights Movement, but also the Cold War, which created international pressure to show that we really were the democracy we claimed to be. And communist nations were quick to point out to the many nations of color that were gaining independence after World War II, look how Americans treat their people of color. So that was a big liability, and that led to another period of reform that lasted about 10 or 15 years and we have been in a period of some stagnation in retrenchment sense I fear. At least that’s what I concluded in the 1980s. The election of Barack Obama, the first person of modern African descent ever to be elected the leader of any predominantly European descended nation was certainly a significant step forward. It was followed by the election of Donald Trump, who professes to believe in racial equality, but it was clearly inspired a resurgence of white nationalist movements in the US, even if that’s not his personal position as he claims.

14:27 Jed Macosko: Interesting, fascinating. Well, this has already been a real lesson for all of us who don’t study Political Science in what’s been going on in the United States. My only real taste of what you’re talking about is a book by Garrison Keillor’s brother. I’m from Minnesota so Garrison Keillor carries a lot of cache in Minnesota and his brother wrote a book called This Rebellious House, and it talks a little bit about how there’s good and bad in every aspect of the forming of the United States and the progression of the United States. And a lot of what you were saying sounds a bit like that, that there’s bursts of good but overall, we’re sort of a rebellious house so to speak when it comes to the principles that we would all espouse to be true, equality and things like that. So very interesting the way you talked about it. Now as sort of to finish this off, what do you think you will be known for as a political scientist? You’ve already risen in our rankings all the way up to the very top, but is it this understanding of racial equality that you’re most known for, or what other aspects of your political science career will people remember about you?

15:37 Rogers Smith: Well I don’t know what people will remember, if they remember very much at all, but certainly the argument that I’ve re-capitulated that it’s not true that America is simply in its DNA fundamentally dedicated to democracy and human rights, but that instead, American civic identity is contested and it can go in different directions depending on who wins that contest. I think that’s an enduring lesson of my work that at the moment people are taking more seriously than they did when I first started making that argument. Connected to that argument, there’s a strong temptation across the political spectrum that hard-headed social science looks at material factors at the economic pressures, aspirations to power. I’ve argued all that’s true, but what will lead to economic well-being, what will lead to power, and what to do with power, these are all things that need to be interpreted through ideas, and I have argued that social science needs to study ideas as well as material factors, and in relation to material factors, sometimes against the grain of my discipline but with some impact over time.

17:13 Rogers Smith: It may well be though, I’ve done lots of work with graduate students, have advised over 60 PhD dissertations, and been on about 150 dissertation committees, as well as teaching thousands of undergraduates, and it may be that my teaching will have more impact. It did lead some graduate students to do dissertations that paid more attention to ideas, like for example Rogan Kersh who wrote on the idea of union and American political thought, a great dissertation and then he went on to do greater things.

17:53 Jed Macosko: That’s right. And so let’s talk a little bit about our friend Rogan Kersh who’s the provost at my university. You mentioned that he lampooned you with a little video skit that was called Rogers and Me, taking your first name and the play on the Michael Myers movie. So do you wanna just give us a little treat about what that was about, and why it was so funny?

18:15 Rogers Smith: Well, it’s Michael Moore that...

18:17 Jed Macosko: Oh sorry, Michael Moore.

18:18 Rogers Smith: The documentary guy, right. Although it had a Michael Meyer’s quality to it. It really made Michael Moore famous when he did this documentary Roger and Me about how the president of General Motors then, whose name was Roger Smith was being so cold and heartless towards the automobile workers in Michigan including Flint, Michigan where Michael Moore was from. And so I was teaching a DL then, and at the end of every year the graduate students would have skits and shows where they mocked the faculty, a very healthy activity, and Rogan got the idea of shooting a video called Rogers and Me. He got all of the graduate students involved in making it, and its theme was that in addition to being cold and heartless, my vision of political science was destructive of the career of graduate students, and it was very funny. I like to think his subsequent career has shown that it’s not entirely true.

19:27 Jed Macosko: Okay, good. Well good. It has just been a pleasure to be with you today, Professor Smith. I like that you are trying to bring more of the ideas of freedom, unity, whatever it is. The ideas make a difference in political science and politics and it’s not just the cold hard facts of economics and who’s at war with whom. So I like that, and I think that that’s probably one of the reasons that you are one of our most influential political scientists, and we really appreciate you taking some time with us today. So thank you.

20:03 Rogers Smith: Thank you, Jed. It’s been a pleasure.