Thursday night drew a crowd to the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven to see Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin speak.
The talk, billed as “Democracy, Gun Violence, and the American Social Contract: Defending the Constitution against Insurrectionism and Authoritarianism,” was sold out.
The Summer Institute series will feature other notable speakers, like the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic Deborah Borda, and the current president of Harvard University, Lawrence Bacow.
Raskin has served Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2017, and was a professor of constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law for 25 years.
In 2021, Raskin was the lead manager of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. He also served on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The congressman was introduced by members of the Summer Institute Advisory Committee, chairman Keith Heller and committee member Susan Levine, as well as the Hebrew Center’s rabbi, Caryn Broitman.
“I hope you are looking forward to the exciting six-week program we have planned,” said Heller.
Rabbi Broitman thanked the audience for their attendance and support. “I hope to see you over the summer,” she said. She acknowledged Shelly and Bruce Eckman, the former chairs of the Summer Institute, and gave thanks to the new chair, Heller, before moving on to Raskin, whom she’s known since their college days at Harvard.
“I really have a very special welcome for Congressman Jamie Raskin,” Broitman said. “We lived in the same freshman dorm. I can tell you that he was a shining star then. We all knew his passion for justice, his commitment, his devotion. It’s no surprise to me what an important voice he is now for democracy,” said Broitman. “He was always that patriot, and it is an honor for me to have known him in college and to welcome him here to the synagogue. Thank you, Jamie.”
Raskin received a standing ovation from the packed temple as he took the podium, wearing his signature bandana in an American flag pattern.
“Thank you very much for the warm welcome,” opened Raskin, giving thanks all around. “Rabbi Broitman, what a pleasure it is to see you … You were way too kind about what I was like in my freshman year. It was a form of child abuse; my parents sent me to college when I was 16 years old.” Another round of laughs.
“I’m proud of the people of Massachusetts,” he went on. He acknowledged Massachussetts as being the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, although pointed out it was under order to do so from the state supreme judiciary court. “Maryland was the first state to pass marriage equality without being forced by the Supreme Court,” he bragged of his home state, which the audience found amusing.
“I’m psyched to be with you all,” the congressman confirmed.
Raskin launched into his talk, a combination of well-versed professor and rousing politician.
He called himself “a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” but acknowledged that there could be a range of political views in the audience.
“So I wanted to start on a bipartisan note by invoking our last great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln,“ he said. The statement earned laughs and applause from the audibly blue audience.
He described the U.S. democratic republic as becoming more inclusive over time with amendments. “That’s the meaning and the beauty of the American experiment,” said Raskin.
“What makes America exceptional is that the people constantly resist those dark impulses, and are always fighting for democracy and freedom within the constitutional framework. That’s why we’re an exceptional country,” Raskin said.
“Our social contract is ragged today, it is under attack, under relentless assault,” the congressman continued. Authoritarianism and right-wing insurrectionism threaten “our voting rights, our democratic norm, the rule of law, the Constitution,” and undermine “the American social contract,” Raskin said.
He harked back to classic philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, who argued for inalienable rights. They believed that people exchange being in a state of nature, “all against all,” where no one can count on the protection of the rule of law, for being in an organized state of civil society where people abide by agreed upon-rights for mutual safety, protection, and resources. This is the “social contract” that we all as citizens of our modern nation enter into.
He named Vladimir Putin an autocrat, Donald Trump a kleptocrat, and pro-life politicians theocrats for taking away women’s freedom and healthcare in America on the grounds of religious beliefs to “protect liberty.”
On authoritarianism, he spoke of “Orwellian anti-memory laws” in DeSantis’s Florida “that are designed to obliterate young people’s ability to learn about and understand America’s history of slavery and white supremacy.”
“Freedom is only safe in the hands of small-‘d’ democrats,” said Raskin.
The congressman described gun violence as an “attack on the social contract.” He touched on mass shootings, acknowledging that at least some 50 people died in shootings over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
“We live in a time of random, brutal, and lethal violence, that is a daily violation of the social contract,” the congressman said. “Each day 327 people are shot in America, and 117 are shot and killed by gun violence, homicide, or suicide.”
Moving on to the heart of his talk, he took on the Jan. 6 insurrectionism, stating that the movement that started the riot is still alive and well. He described Jan. 6 as being the result of an “Ivy League coup.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you this was a revolt against the elite. This was a revolt by the elite, against democracy,” said Raskin, naming Trump, Bannon, and other right-wingers by their respective universities.
Raskin described the “insurrectionist theory” of the Second Amendment as a twisting of the right to bear arms to mean, instead, the people’s ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government. In the 18th century, this protected the new Americans against oppressive, tyrannical governments. Raskin explained that insurrection theorists today translate that to mean the right to overthrow the government, which could be interpreted in a multitude of ways.
Those who tout this “insurrectionist thesis” say that if the government has it (even tanks and military-grade weapons), then the people should have it, too.
“Insurrectionism is inflicting a brutal toll on the American people,” Raskin said. “It’s time to reassert the primacy of the real Constitution.”
He acknowledged democracy as being a constant “work in progress.”
The Electoral College was another major point in Raskin’s speech. He said he thought it time to abolish the Electoral College, which in actuality is a vestigial remnant of slavery-era politics and thinking. He called it “profoundly undemocratic,” and a “positive danger” to the democracy of the U.S., filled with “opaque gaps, conflicts, ambiguities, and contradictions.” In the case of a strategic bad-faith actor or bad-faith party, he acknowledged the relative ease they’d have stepping through loopholes to manipulate the system.
He pointed out that five presidents have been elected to office despite losing the popular vote.
“Let’s have an election, let’s count the ballots, and whoever gets the most votes wins,” said Raskin.
The congressman also pointed out that Puerto Rico, like other U.S. territories, does not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress or in presidential elections, and that nearly 700,000 District of Columbia residents do not have representation in the House or Senate. Thanks to the 23rd Amendment, passed in 1961, the district does get three electoral votes in presidential elections.
On this note, Raskin stated that gerrymandering should be eliminated at the state and federal levels, which earned strong applause from the audience.
“The only way to stop the insurrectionism, to stop the authoritarianism, is to build a massive democratic movement for change in this country,” he said. Raskin recalled the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and other instances of democratic marching and peaceful protest.
“How about it’s time to get back on the growth track for democracy?” Raskin said.
The congressman closed his talk quoting Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass.
“If there’s no struggle, there’s no progress,” Frederick Douglass had said. And then, from Thomas Paine, whom Raskin’s late son was named after: “‘Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, but we have this saving consolation: The more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory.’ So let’s make that victory ours,” said Raskin. “Thank you very much.”
Congressman Raskin received his second standing ovation of the night.
“I don’t think anyone will leave here unmoved,” Heller said, after the talk.
Audience questions touched on Supreme Court reform, the origins of the Electoral College, and whether the congressman thought there would be anything done to prevent individuals charged with crimes, particularly insurrection, from running for elected office in the future.
Of the last question, Raskin spoke of the importance of the American judiciary system in upholding its own laws and responsibilities. “It’s up to Congress to act,” he said.
A dessert reception, held in the MVHC back yard, followed the talk.