Amherst Professor Lawence Douglas and Sen. Jamie Raskin

Left to right: Lawrence Douglas, professor of law, jurisprudence & social thought; Rep. Jamie Raskin

“It all started with one guy who could not take ‘no’ for an answer from the American people,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin to an audience of students, faculty and staff in Cole Assembly Room on Oct. 18. 

He was talking about Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which, Raskin said, culminated in mob violence at the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021. It’s a topic about which Raskin knows a great deal, having served as lead manager for the resulting second impeachment of the former president and as a member of the U.S. House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack.

Raskin, a lawyer and former constitutional law professor who has represented Maryland’s 8th District as a Democrat in Congress since 2017, has many connections to Amherst: his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin ’83, and all three of their children attended the College. But this time he was visiting as the first invited expert in the 2022–23 Point/Counterpoint Series. (Conversations with writer George Packer and Harvard University Professor Danielle Allen will continue the series in November.)

True to this year’s Point/Counterpoint theme, “Democracy at a Crossroads,” the moderators—Professor of Philosophy Nishi Shah and Lawrence Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought—spoke with Raskin mainly about the current state and possible future of U.S. democracy. In his newest book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy, the congressman describes himself as a lifelong “constitutional optimist.” However, Shah pointed out, polls show that many Americans would support Trump for president again and are willing to vote for candidates who do not believe the 2020 election results were legitimate. “Doesn’t this spell a kind of doom for our country?” Shah asked.

“No!” said Raskin, reminding the audience, “Optimism is an act of will.” In the face of attempts to undermine democracy, erode the separation of church and state and erase historical memory—through, for example, legislative attempts to suppress classroom discussions of systemic racism—he said he remains focused on ideas to “keep American democracy moving forward.” He supports, for example, statehood for Washington, D.C., and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. “We need a universal, constitutional right to vote at every level of government,” he said, in keeping with constitutional amendments throughout the nation’s history that have extended suffrage and other rights to greater and greater portions of the population.

During the audience Q&A, one student politely pushed back on Raskin’s optimism, citing, among other recent developments, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and advancement of state and national “Don’t Say Gay” bills. Aren’t these ways in which we’re moving backward, the student asked, and isn’t it especially hard now to drum up the kind of political cooperation necessary for a constitutional amendment?

Raskin acknowledged that all progress requires movements and struggles; “there’s nothing inevitable about it at all.” But those movements can create momentum even when they do not achieve constitutional change—as in, for instance, the push for an Equal Rights Amendment. He argued that even the regressive steps the student mentioned are reactions to genuine societal change: “Don’t Say Gay” is a response to the increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.  

“In what sense are people born equal?” Raskin said later, in answering another student’s question about democratic principles. “We have the opportunity to do good equally or do evil equally.” 

Along those lines, the congressman’s advice to Amherst students that day included wisdom both from his son, the late Tommy Raskin ’17—“Go out and make friends with people you don’t like”—and from his father, who used to say, “When everything is hopeless, you’re the hope.”