Democracy, Journalism and Civic Education

09/01/2015 01:15 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2016

Speaking of freedom of the press, wrote Thomas Jefferson, "When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." Last week, three journalists reminded us of the power of freedom of the press to enlighten political debate. At a press conference in Iowa, Jorge Ramos, anchorman of TV channel Univision, attempted to question Donald Trump, aspirant to presidential candidate for the Republican Party, on Trump's views on immigration from Mexico. Trump ignored the questions and repeatedly ordered Ramos to "sit down" and to "go back to Univision." Subsequently, Mr. Trump's security detail escorted Ramos out of the conference room. Most of the journalists at the conference stood there, in silence, as the conference proceeded. Most did except for two up-standers, journalists Kasie Hunt and Tom Llamas, who challenged Trump about the removal of a journalist from the conference room simply because he was doing his job. Their challenge had the intended effect and Mr. Ramos was subsequently invited to return and asked his questions about the details of Mr. Trump's proposal to forcibly expel undocumented Mexican immigrants from the United States, details which Mr. Trump did not provide.

Electoral campaigns are important events in the life of a democracy, and provide rich material for civic education. Since educating students to engage as democratic citizens is one of the main goals of educational institutions it is important that these lessons are fully and deliberately examined with the depth that the health of this democratic republic requires.

This particular episode offers teachers, indeed all interested in educating democratic citizens, abundant material for discussion, for the kind of deliberation which the nation's founders hoped would allow ordinary people to rule themselves and this democratic experiment.

At the core of this lesson are Mr. Trump's views on how to handle undocumented immigrants, as well as his views on the role of the press. At several points during the campaign Mr. Trump has chosen inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric that portrays immigrants, particularly from Mexico, as undesirables ("rapists and drug traffickers"), and has advocated a position to challenge the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which gives all children born in the United States, regardless of the immigration status of their parents, U.S. citizenship.

Mr. Trump's views have been accompanied by rise in his popularity among republican ranks, making him the leading candidate by a considerable margin. His rhetoric on this and other issues is clearly striking a cord with a portion of the electorate. For a calculating man, tapping into this deeply intolerant streak of part of the population must be an intentional act, one aimed at yielding him the presidential nomination he seeks. The calculations the rest of us must make are where might these politics of hatred and intolerance lead us.

A civic lesson on the politics of hatred in the 21st century should cause us to examine the historical record of where such politics have led in the past. Mr. Trump is certainly not the first public figure to tap into intolerant views or anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. In the mid nineteenth century, the growing immigrant population, especially Irish Catholics, were the object of exclusion of the nativist movements such as the Know Nothing Party or the Immigration Restriction League who demanded special rights for the direct descendants of the original immigrants to this land who inhabited the thirteen colonies. Xenophobia would subsequently target immigrants from Asia, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The political benefits drawn from activating and tapping into intolerance often led to violence, such as the mob attacks and burnings of convents and churches in Massachusetts in 1834 and Philadelphia in 1844 and the Kentucky murders of German and Irish Catholics on election day in 1855. It may not be too different this time. Just a few weeks ago, the Boston Police arrested two thugs in the South End who beat, broke the nose, and urinated in the face of a homeless Hispanic man, citing Mr. Trump's views about immigrants in defense of their actions.

This civic lesson should also cause us to examine the role of the press in asking people who aspire to lead this nation to explain their views. Why should an aspirant think he can order a reporter out of the room or to "go back to Univision," when the reporter is doing his job? In his persistent and courageous pursuit of answers from Mr. Trump, Jorge Ramos is a brave exemplar of what a free press does to inform public deliberation on issues of consequence. That Mr. Ramos, who is a naturalized American citizen, understands this so well should cause us to ponder also what immigrants contribute to the health of this democracy.

The contrast between the actions of Mr. Ramos, who is a U.S. citizen by choice, and Mr. Trump's provide rich material for a study in contrasts in democratic values and practices. The actions of Mr. Ramos in putting himself at risk to advance the rights of the public to informed understanding of Mr. Trump's ideas are deeply aligned with the most basic values reflected in the US Constitution and indeed the most basic values on which this republic of equals was founded. As all naturalized Americans do, Mr. Ramos took an oath to protect and defend the United States that Mr. Trump has never taken, it reads:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;

That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;

That I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

We should ponder, in examining this recent lesson of our democracy, what made up-standers Kasie Hunt and Tom Llamas challenge the behavior of Mr. Trump, while most others sat silently in the room.

We should also ponder what is behind the rise of the support for Mr. Trump, and what the consequences of his politics of hatred are for the future of American democracy. And maybe we should ponder, as we look outside our borders and into past history, what lessons could we learn from the breakdown of the Weimar Republic, when another calculating leader decided to capitalize on the politics of hatred and intolerance.

There are numerous organizations which can support teachers in their work educating their students to be upstanders rather than bystanders. I have the greatest admiration for Facing History and Ourselves, for their demonstrated good work producing high quality materials and working with teachers to develop effective pedagogies for democratic engagement and leadership. Their recently published book Give Bigotry no Sanction is a thoughtful examination of the role of religious tolerance to life in a democracy.

It is my sincere hope that students, teachers and parents, engage fully with the civic lessons of this next presidential campaign. Nothing less than the future of this democracy is at stake.