Ep. 46 Eric Foner: The Imagined Community

HEATHER ATWOOD: This is The MidPod. I'm Heather Atwood with Nicie Panetta. We're two moms traveling the country profiling candidates, activists, experts and changemakers to help you get ready to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. These elections could be the most important in generations. Every vote will really count. This week's interview is with Eric Foner, a Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University. He specializes in the Civil War, Reconstruction, slavery and 19th century America. His book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize, The Bancroft Prize and The Lincoln Prize in 2011. His latest book is Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History of The Underground Railroad. We have an extensive list of his books on our Resource page in Episode 39. Nicie spoke with Foner in his office at Columbia University.

NICIE PANETTA: So Eric Foner, thank you so much for spending time with the MidPod today. We do appreciate it.

ERIC FONER: I'm very happy to talk to you. Absolutely.

NICIE: So tell us just a little bit first about your own life story and where you grew up and what your childhood was like and how you got interested in the field of history.

FONER: Well I grew up in Long Beach, Long Island, which is a suburb in Nassau County very close to Manhattan, New York City. It is mostly a commuter suburb. I had an unusual path to history because when I was a kid, when I was in high school I really wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be a physicist or an astronomer. I was really into math and science. I had a little telescope I used to set up on a lawn and look at the stars and the moon and everything. But my father was a historian, my uncle was a historian, and so history was sort of - I got it through osmosis in my family and it was a particular kind of history because my family, this is in the 1950s, was very much on the left wing side of politics. Their interest in history was in the things that people now study but back then were ignored: the history of African-Americans, the history of the labor movement, the history of the movement for women's rights. In other words it wasn't just presidents and captains of industry and all this. And you know, I heard about Tom Paine, I heard about Frederick Douglass long before anyone else had ever heard of it. He wasn't in my high school textbook, Frederick Douglass, abolitionists, labor leaders, Eugene V. Debs. That was the kind of history I kind of just absorbed.

NICIE: How did they come to that understanding and the series of interests?

FONER: Well they got into that in the 1930s when my father or my uncle were young men and they were then - you know many people were attracted to radicalism in the Depression, to the world of the Communist Party, the people around them. And the early, those early communist historians were the pioneers, really, of the history of slavery, the history of class struggle in America, the history of all sorts of popular movements which weren't really looked at by most historians. But then the other point is I was in college in the 60s. The society was going through tremendous crises. There was the Civil Rights Revolution, the Vietnam War, and you know, young people like myself wanted to know; where did this come from? Because the history we had been taught in school could not have produced the 1960s. It was a history based on consensus. Everyone agreed. There was no real conflict in American history. Kind of hard to explain the Civil War in that case but still, now suddenly people were in the streets and where did that come from? So a whole generation, including myself, began to study the abolitionist movement, the history of slavery, the history of the Civil War and my dissertation was about that. It was about the Republican Party before the Civil War and the rise of antislavery politics and that sort of thing. So you know, all historians are influenced by the world they're living in. The world you're living in gives you your questions. It doesn't give you your answers but it determines what you are interested in studying in the past. You know, so I was drawn to this broadly defined Civil War era and I've stuck with it pretty much ever since, you know? That that sort of shaped my career as a historian.

NICIE: One of the aspects of your work that has been so interesting for me to dip into is the concept of citizenship, which I think for many of us, we think of as a kind of a static idea. But your work shows that it has evolved dramatically over the course of our country's history. So maybe you could just talk a little bit about the work that you've done on citizenship and how it's evolved in our country.

FONER: One of the themes of my writing over the course of my career has been to look at central concepts in American political culture and how they have changed over time and how they've been battlegrounds, really. They're contested. I wrote a book about the history of the idea of freedom. I've written a lot about citizenship because, you know, I study the Reconstruction era which is when the definition of citizenship was completely rewritten and put into the Constitution. If you go back to the founding of the nation, the Constitution talks about American citizens but never says who they are. It's up to the states to determine who is a citizen. There's no national definition that applies to everybody. And of course the big question was, are black people citizens in the United States? And there's no yes or no answer to that. Some states treated them as citizens. I'm talking about free people, free African-Americans. Some states said, yeah they're citizens, other states said, no, they're not citizens. The court's divided. The U.S. government refused to give passports to black Americans, although you didn't really need a passport then anyway. In 1857 the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision said: No, black people cannot be citizens. Citizenship in the U.S. is for white people only. I don't care if your ancestors have been here for a hundred years. I don't care who you are, what you are, born here, doesn't matter. Citizenship's for whites.

NICIE: And yet within 10 years there'd be a completely different understanding.

FONER: Well, the Civil War intervened so that was a pretty lively 10 years. And I think in the Civil War the key thing is not just the end of slavery but the service of 200,000 black men in the Union Army and Navy, which gives them a claim to citizenship. Fighting and dying for the nation makes you a citizen of the nation. I mean, you can't say these people don't belong anymore. And in 1866 in Reconstruction, first in the Civil Rights law of 1866, then in the 14th Amendment which was added to the Constitution, they put into the law for the first time this concept of birthright citizenship. Anybody born in the U.S. is a citizen of the United States. And that is paramount to whatever any state may say. The states have to recognize the citizenship of these national citizens unlike before the Civil War. Birthright citizenship remains controversial. What is the status of a child born to parents who are undocumented immigrants? The parents are not citizens but the child born in the United States is a citizen of the United States, although a lot of people don't like that, but that's what the Constitution says now. The principle being that anybody can be a good loyal American, it doesn't matter your race, it doesn't matter your religion, it doesn't matter your ethnicity, it doesn't matter the status of your parents. Doesn't matter if your parents have committed a crime. Your mother can be a bank robber but if you are born in the U.S. you're a citizen. That has nothing to do with you. And the thing is that birthright citizenship is actually rather unique. No country in Europe today automatically gives citizenship to everybody born there. Canada does. Some countries do but it's fairly unique for the United States. And there's a lot of people don't like it but it's in the Constitution so it'd be hard to get rid of. And it is a statement that this is a multicultural society where your adherence to the values of the society is the key thing, not what your DNA is.

NICIE: So the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was a sweeping statement -

FONER: Yes -

NICIE: For the U.S. about what kind of country you were going to be, which to some degree sets the stage for the reactions that took place during the Reconstruction period. Is that fair to say?

FONER: Reconstruction's a long complicated story. I wrote a 600 page book on it. I'm not going to summarize the whole thing but fundamentally, reconstruction is about what is going to be the status of these four million people who were slaves. They're free now. Therefore, what? Are they going to be equal to white people? Are they gonna have the same rights, the same civil rights, the same political rights, economic rights? Or are they going to be some kind of subordinate caste, you know? White Southerners want them to be a subordinate caste as close to slavery as possible. They knew slavery's gone. But there were a lot of gradations between slavery and full equality. Northerners weren't united at all. There was a lot of racism but fundamentally the Republican Party, which dominated at that time, said, no, these people are free and we have to protect their basic rights, their civil rights, the right to go to court, the right to own property, the right to marry, the right to sign a contract, the right to be treated equally before the law. You can't have one set of laws for black people and one set of laws for white people. That's what the Civil Rights Act of 1866 establishes, that these black people are citizens with the same legal rights basically as white Americans. That was a sweep -- it was a remarkable change in a country which had just abolished slavery the previous year. It didn't say anything about the right to vote but soon, after a complicated battle, that comes. Black suffrage, for men only (women didn't have the right to vote anywhere then) in the South and then for the entire nation in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. So you get in that period a really remarkable effort to create an interracial democracy for the first time in our history. And that does produce a violent backlash in the South. What I think you have to call American terrorism: the Ku Klux Klan and groups like that. You know, that's the American al-Qaeda. There are statues to Ku Klux Klan leaders in the South. It would be as if we put up a statue to Osama bin Laden in New York. I mean, to me that's completely outrageous. This was a violent terrorist organization that was devoted to restoring white supremacy and unfortunately were not unsuccessful in many ways.

NICIE: The other side of the citizenship question is, we were talking about a little bit earlier the idea that citizenship comes not just with privileges but also duties and maybe you could speak to how you've seen in your research some of the best of citizenship through American history.

FONER: To me the best of citizenship is the struggles of people who feel they're being denied certain rights to achieve full equality. I mean, I wrote a book, The Story of American Freedom, in which the dynamic of the expansion of freedom in America is not just Supreme Court decisions or presidential proclamations but is these grassroots struggles, whether it's the abolitionist movement against slavery or the women's rights movement or the labor movement or the gay movement and others in the 1960s. This is what has expanded freedom and equality for everybody in the country. One of the things people don't often realize is, these struggles change citizenship and democracy for everybody. It's not just, let's say, black people getting in on a preexisting set of rights. It changes those rights when black people get in. It expands them for everybody as happened in Reconstruction. The right to marry is expanded for everybody when gay people acquire that right in the last few years. To me that's what citizenship is: struggling to make this a better country. Paul Robeson, a great American, once said: "The patriot is the person who is never satisfied with his country." The patriot is not the person who waves the flag and sings, you know, The Star Spangled Banner and My Country Right or Wrong, whatever the President said is fine with me. No, that's not patriotism. Patriotism is trying to make this a better country. And those are the people I really admire and try to write about in my history.

NICIE: Dissent, principled dissent, can be part of the duty of citizenship.

FONER: Principled dissent is essential as the people who made the American Revolution, whether it's Jefferson or John Adams or you name them. They understood that. Dissent is the lifeblood of a democracy. Obviously I'm not talking about people blowing up buildings but dissent - and it's not just a polite debating society - it's through picket lines, it's through verbal confrontations. The abolitionist movement is a perfect example of this. You know, on the one hand they circulated petitions, they issued pamphlets, they gave speeches. They tried to spread their ideas in that manner. On the other hand they violated the law by helping fugitive slaves. You know, they said, "no, we are not obligated to follow an unjust law." Now there are many people like Lincoln who said, "I don't go that far. I hate the fact that fugitives are sent back but that's in the Constitution. We can't pick and choose what law we agree with." But many people said, "no, civil disobedience can also be a part of principled dissent."

NICIE: So let's talk about the abolitionist movement before and after the Fugitive Slave Act.

FONER: Well first of all, let's remember slavery is protected by the Constitution where it exists. There's a whole debate about whether it can spread but where it exists in the states, nobody before the Civil War hardly believed the federal government could just watch it and abolish slavery. One of the clauses the Constitution is that other states must send back fugitive slaves. You can't become free just by running away to a free state. You carry the status of slavery with you, so to speak. In fact, as one judge said in New York State in the 1830s, I quote this in my book: because of the Fugitive Slave Act, New York is still a slave state. We have abolished slavery but we're still a slave state because we have to enforce the slave laws of other states. In 1850 Congress implementing this clause of the Constitution passed a very draconian Fugitive Slave Act because previously it had been hard for Southerners to get their slaves back. Northern states didn't quite want to cooperate very much. Now it became a federal responsibility. The federal government would take charge of capturing and returning fugitive slaves. Federal officials, even the army if need be - and there were cases like that. What they did was override all the laws, like the states would pass laws: well, a fugitive has be given a trial by jury. Fugitive Slave Act abrogates that. Now it's just the federal government. State governments have nothing to do with it. It's interesting as a sideline: we sometimes think of the South before the war believing in States' Rights. The Fugitive Slave Act was the greatest violation of States' Rights in the whole period before the Civil War. And yet the South was all in favor of it. They didn't believe in States' Rights. They believed in slavery. When States' Rights supported slavery they were gung-ho. When vigorous federal power over the state supported slavery they went that direction. Now before 1850, the abolitionist movement - there had been an Underground Railroad that basically came into existence in the late 1830s, but it was fairly small. The 1850 act actually galvanized resistance. It was so offensive to many people, like for example, if you were just standing on a street corner and a U.S. marshal came to you and said, "You got to help me, I'm chasing a fugitive, you got me - I'm deputizing you." And you said, "I don't really want to do that." You're committing a federal crime, refusing to help capture a fugitive is a federal crime now. So people are swept into this process who previously would have had no connection with it. So it actually galvanized resistance, armed resistance, violent resistance where mobs would assault the courthouse and seize the fugitive and send him on his way. Gun battles, Christiana, Pennsylvania 1851. An owner was killed by a mob when he was trying to apprehend some fugitive slaves. Legal resistance. Courts would intervene and the North tried to stop. So it actually strengthened the abolitionist movement a lot even though some people were sent to jail for helping to - for resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. And quite a few fugitives were captured and sent back to the South. But it sort of exacerbated the sectional conflict that was going on.

NICIE: So I was just wondering before we move to some of the contemporary parallels, if you could just share a couple of stories that really stay with you about the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.

FONER: A couple of years ago I published a book based on the diary, really, of a New York City abolitionist editor, Sydney Howard Gay, who was also a key figure in the Underground Railroad in New York City. And for a couple of years he kept a record of about 200 men, women and children who passed through his office. And he helped send them to freedom in Canada, Upstate New York. He interviewed them and it was full of amazing stories. I mean, one of the people who came through his office was Harriet Tubman leading a group out of slavery and he wrote a whole thing about Tubman and how she had led this group and where they hid and who helped them and this sort of thing. And then most people escaped by themselves, not with the assistance of someone like Tubman. You know, there were stories of a guy from North Carolina who hid out in the woods for months until some friends told him there was a ship captain who had agreed to hide him on his ship when he was traveling to the North and Gay asked him, "well, out in the woods, you know, there's wild animals, weren't you afraid?” He said, "No, I'm only afraid of people, not these animals." There was a guy who wrote in broken handwriting a little account for Sydney Howard Gay of the treatment he had received, the whippings, the brutality that made him to stand out in the cold and with no shoes on in the snow for hours because he had done something wrong. One of the things that struck me in all of these is the way in which all these people talk about the brutality of their owners, you know? The violence of slavery and the notion of the happy slave and the kind owner didn't come through at all. The ingenuity of people of how they escaped. Some did it on foot but by the 1850s many of them just stowed away on trains actually. You know, it was a lot easier to get to the North by that time by train, by boat, they hid in ships, they hid on trains. If they were in the Upper South like Maryland they actually stole a horse-drawn carriage from their owner and just drove some miles to Pennsylvania. I was also very interested in who helped them when they got to the North. There were these Quaker families, farm families in southern Pennsylvania who would give them shelter. Then they'd be sent on to Philadelphia where William Still, a black man, ran this kind of abolitionist headquarters and they would come to him. He would then send a telegram up to Sydney Howard Gay in New York saying, OK, two coming tonight and he put them on a train. And then there was a guy in New York I'd never heard of before called Louis Napoleon who was a black man who worked with Gay and he would go to the train station and meet these people. So it was a pretty well-developed network at that time although it really didn't involve that many people. You know, we shouldn't think of the Underground Railroad as a giant operation of hundreds and hundreds of agents. In New York City I don't think there were more than a dozen people at any one time actively helping fugitive slaves, you know? But nonetheless they succeeded helping hundreds get through the city and then up to Syracuse and Canada, and Boston and places like that.

NICIE: And so that's that's just something to note that this was a very small percentage of the population that was actively resisting in this way.

FONER: It was a small percentage who were actively engaged. There was a much larger number who found the whole thing distasteful and would not help apprehend a fugitive slave. And then when confronted with it people sort of had to make a choice, you know? I mean, one of the more interesting things that came up in this diary is a policeman brought a fugitive slave to Gay's office. Now the New York City government was very pro-Southern. New York controlled the cotton trade with England. It was controlled by the Democratic Party with close ties to the South. The city officials were perfectly happy to send back fugitives. A policeman who encountered one, well what did he do? He could have just arrested him but he took him to Gay's office and he said, "look, you better get this guy out of here really fast because they're going to get him soon." You know, so he made a choice to help this poor person. He wasn't an abolitionist but confronted with a human being in that kind of dire strait, you decide what you are going to do, you know, on a human basis not just on a legal basis. To go back to something you said before: so the abolitionist movement is operating, you might say, both above ground and underground at the same time. They're acting legally and illegally at the same time. There's a wide range of tactics and methods. Some of them work, some of them don't work, but there's no one true way of fighting against slavery. There's all sorts of things that you have to do.

NICIE: OK so that brings us to our present moment. And without minimizing in any way the ongoing struggle for black people and African-American people in America to exercise their full range of rights and succeed in our country, and we have to share that particularly we've spent a fair amount of time in California this year for our project that we look at some of the enforcement actions that are now being taken with respect to illegal immigrants or undocumented immigrants here in the U.S. as taking that to a new level and putting all of us as citizens in a kind of a new position in terms of worrying about people who've been in our communities for many years being deported. So I would be interested in your thoughts as a historian knowing this history very deeply. What are the parallels and what are the real differences from the history?

FONER: I think we learn a lot from the history. This word didn't exist but there were places in the North that basically considered themselves sanctuary cities before the Civil War. New Bedford, Massachusetts was called the Fugitive's Gibraltar. They had a strong abolitionist movement, a strong free black community. If you got to New Bedford you were pretty safe. It would be very hard to apprehend someone there. You had churches that gave sanctuary to fugitive slaves. The Plymouth Church in Brooklyn here, where Henry Ward Beecher, a very prominent theologian, was the minister, hid fugitives in the basement and sent them along. You had laws passed in the North like the laws in many states today saying that local officials cannot cooperate with people who are trying to apprehend fugitive slaves. If the federal government's doing this that's their business but we are not going to enforce this law or cooperate with it. There were judges who freed fugitives and issued a writ of habeas corpus for them. In other words there were many people who simply were not willing to accept the idea of sending, whether you call them refugees, fugitives, migrants, whatever word you want to use, sending them back. People fleeing oppression, fleeing inequality, seeking a better life. They said, "we're not going to send these people back." And I think there's a lot of parallels between that period and the period today where the federal government is trying to just nab people who have been parts of communities for a long time, send them back, and many local communities are refusing to cooperate with that. Just like before the Civil War we have to ask ourselves, well who are we as a society? Who do we sympathize with in the 1850s? The slave catchers? Is that the people we want to emulate? 150 years, people are going to look at us and say: they were the slave catchers of the 19-teens or do we sympathize with the abolitionists even if they did break the law? They were operating as William Seward, the senator from New York said, according to a higher law: the law of justice, morality, religion, whatever it was that motivated them. You know, to me that's a heroic period in American history. And those are the people we should emulate - the antislavery people, not the ones who said, "well look, this is the law, we got to abide by it. I don't really know. We can't really do anything." There are plenty of lessons in that history for us.

NICIE: Then there is another concept you talked, about the Imagined Community?

FONER: That's Benedict Anderson. That really relates more to citizenship and who is an American. What Anderson's point was: a nation is not just a set of lines on a map of physical territory. It's a mental construct. We imagine the nation. I've never met most of the people who are Americans. Obviously there's 300 million of them. But I have a concept of them in my mind whether they've been born here, immigrants, the rights they have. I could tell an American from a German or a Frenchman or even a Canadian, you know, because of certain cultural affinities and experiences and interests and things like that. Whether the American is black, white, Asian, Native, I don't care. So the imagined community is a useful concept for thinking about the people who have been here undocumented for years should be part of our imagined community. They are here, they are working. They are trying to make a better life for themselves. We should be sympathetic to them and their children, often born here, are citizens of the United States. They have as much right to be here as anybody in this country has. So you know, we can learn from this history is my point.

NICIE: And I think from an economic perspective obviously slavery was an economic system as well as a political system of control over people.


NICIE: And so it's interesting to think about the economic system that we have today and all the work that undocumented people do in our society that make it work right now.

FONER: Now that we have very low unemployment there are plenty of jobs that are going unfilled because for perfectly good reason American citizens don't want those jobs. The pay is too low. The physical labor is too hard. The hours are no good. Undocumented immigrants - who's picking our lettuce out in California? If we ship these 11 or 12 million people out of the country who's going to pick our food for us, you know? They can double the salary and they're still gonna not get a lot of Americans to do that work. They are actually productive members of the society and they should be recognized as such in my opinion.

NICIE: And I just wanted to - back on the question of what ordinary Americans can do right now. Could you touch on that speech that Abraham Lincoln gave in 1860 and what was on his mind that wanted him to talk about the duty of citizenship?

FONER: Well in 1860, February, Lincoln came to New York and gave a very, very, very famous speech at Cooper Institute or Cooper Union in the Great Hall which is still there. I've spoken there. It's pretty amazing to speak at the same spot Lincoln did 150 years ago. Now Lincoln was here, you might say, as a presidential candidate. He was trying to drum up support in the East because he was well-known in the West but not so much in the East. But to give the Republican Party position on not slavery, per se, but the westward expansion of slavery. The Republican Party was devoted to stopping the end of slavery. Although Lincoln always made it clear that the fundamental issue was slavery itself. We think it wrong and they think it right, he said, that is the basic problem. If that's the case it's hard to imagine a compromise, where you say well, it's half wrong and half right. But at the end of his great speech Lincoln said, I don't have the exact text in front of me, but he said you know, We must we must realize that right makes might. Being on the right side gives you strength. And with that conviction we must have the courage to do our duty as we understand it. What is our duty? He had given a long speech. Our duty is to prevent any further expansion of slavery in the hope that that will lead it eventually to die out. Lincoln didn't anticipate a civil war. He didn't anticipate the violent end of slavery within a few years. But he did know, as he had said in his House Divided speech two years earlier, this country is either going to be all slave or all free. A house divided cannot stand. So the notion of doing your duty as you understand it, he's leaving the door open to many things. One of them is to vote for the Republican Party. He's there as a candidate, you know? So that's one thing. But it's not the only thing. Lincoln is not an abolitionist. He did not help fugitive slaves but he understands they are part of a broader antislavery movement. There are people doing one thing, there are people doing another thing. Legal methods, other methods, political methods. So he's there to stake out his position on the greatest crisis the country has ever faced.

NICIE: The crisis atmosphere is one that pervades our politics today. You've talked about the fragility of democracy and democracy was obviously very fragile then. Is it now?

FONER: Yes, I think our democracy is quite fragile now. You know in 19-- I remember well, I'm old enough to remember - you know, 1989, the end of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, 1991 the end of the Soviet Union. The 1990s were proclaimed to be the decade of democracy. Eastern Europe, Russia - I don't know if you call it democracy but they got a kind of kleptocracy with Yeltsin in charge but nonetheless it wasn't the communist system anymore. Military rule ended in parts of Latin America, in parts of Africa. The world seemed to be going down the democratic path. Fast forward 20 years. We're not going down that path anymore. The world is going down the path of the Strongman who disdains democracy. Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey. Xi in China. Remember, '89 was the year of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy, which were crushed. And I'm sorry to have to say Trump in the United States. Now Trump is not a dictator. We have a very well-developed system of checks and balances but nonetheless he disdains many of the features of democracy. He disdains a free press. He disdains an independent judiciary. He disdains his opponents - he says, I'm gonna put them in jail, you know? He disdains the give and take which is essential to democracy. We are not immune in this country to the call of the Strongman. You know, the guy will just come in and solve our problems without any concern for democratic processes or legal processes or things like that. So yeah, democracy is and always has been fragile because it requires people to think of the good of the whole country not just their own personal self-interest, you know? If everybody thinks that their personal self-interest is very hard to have a democratic system.

NICIE: OK so to wrap it up we've talked quite a bit about citizenship. What about Congress. What would be your advice to members of Congress today and also to the candidates that are stepping up to run that many of them do not have a lot of political experience and some of them are probably going to get elected in this in this election?

FONER: Yeah, well we have a very distorted political system right now, partly thanks to the Supreme Court, partly thanks to the decline of the political parties as powerful institutions. The Supreme Court has just unleashed the avalanche of money into politics with no restrictions whatsoever. This is bad for democracy to say the least. The decline of the political party has led a lone man like Trump to march in and take over the party. He had no standing or no existence in the Republican Party beforehand. The parties actually used to play a stabilizing role in politics but they don't anymore. And they understood how to deal with each other not just to give in to the other side but how to make deals, how to make compromises, etc. The funny thing is, public opinion polls show that people when asked will say, the large majority, say we should have less polarization, we should have more compromise. The parties should get along. But that never happens in Congress now partly because we have a primary system where the candidates seeking nominations take the most extreme position on the theory, well they'll moderate it a bit in the general election. Nowadays they often don't do that. So they're elected on the promise: I'm not going to compromise. I'm just going to stand up for what you want and that's it. You know, but that makes it very difficult to get anything accomplished. It's hard to see the way out and then complicating that further is gerrymandering where it doesn't matter what you do in many districts. Your party is going to win no matter if you ran a horse for the Congress. It used to be the voters chose their political leaders. Now the political leaders choose their own voters in order to make sure they get reelected. So even though there are shifts from one election to the next, there's a lot of seats that are just already pre-determined. It doesn't matter who or what the campaign. It's been already figured out who's going to win. That's not very democratic either. What we fundamentally need is like Lincoln said, an engaged citizenry, who's going to say, "I'm not going to take this anymore. This system is just broken and I am not going to just elect people who will continue the status quo as it is." I mean, it's easy to blame politicians, which I do, but you have to blame voters, too. Voters put people in office and then they immediately say, "I don't want them. I need an outsider now." They kick them out after two years. Well, you should have given more thought to who you put in. If six months after in office you say these guys are no good.

NICIE: Is there a time for American history that you look back on that either looks similar in terms of the way Congress was dysfunctional or at a time where Congress improved in its ability to function?

FONER: You know in the 1850s, Congress was totally dysfunctional. Look what happened. I hope we're not going down that road, exactly. There have been periods, you know, in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Revolution could not have happened without Republicans and Democrats working together. The Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of '65. They were Democratic measures but they required considerable Republican support. Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate, worked together on these things, whether there was partisan advantage or not. We could operate that way again. One of the things today that's even more - that's also a problem is these outside voices pushing people to the extreme. You know, whether it's Fox News or Rush Limbaugh on the radio where people in Congress are kind of afraid if they don't follow the party position they'll be lambasted that night. You know, in Lincoln's day it took a while for things to get around. That very day they'll be lambasted for, you know, giving in and surrendering and they don't want to face that. So there's all sorts of pressures that didn't exist in the past.

NICIE: I think that's a really great point and one that's easy for people on the left not to fully understand, what happens to Republican lawmakers when they make a more centrist type of move. They really do get just raked over the coals.

FONER: And then they have the Koch Brothers others, Rebecca Mercer, ready to fund a challenger in the next primary. So is it worth it? You know, is it worth it or the easiest - the course of least resistance is just to follow what the party line is being put out by the extreme right.

NICIE: Aside from your own books is there any other book or documentary or anything you would suggest our listeners check out or something you're working on now? What are you working on now?

FONER: First of all in terms of check out I think anything by my mentor, my supervisor Richard Hofstadter would be very valuable. Unfortunately in the last year or two we seemed to be, how shall I put it, living through again his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics or another one of his books, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, seems to be flourishing radically. People just rejecting science altogether as unworthy of consideration. You know, what am I working on? I'm actually working on a little book about the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution right after the Civil War. 13th abolished slavery, 14th created national citizenship and equality before the law, 15th gave black men the right to vote. They are critical in the world we live in today and yet they are not widely known or understood. When people think about the Constitution they think about the Bill of Rights. They think about the Declaration of Independence. They are not part of our public consciousness of history the way they should be. So I'm not a legal historian but I'm trying to write about why they were passed and what were the circumstance. What did they try to accomplish. Just so people who are interested can learn this.

NICIE: Well I'm glad you brought that up because we talked about this a little bit earlier in The MidPod with John Lawrence. It strikes me that we've had these bursts of constitutional revision. They don't come often but they have come along at important moments and we may need to have a burst of constitutional revisions particularly with respect to money in politics as one that come to mind.

FONER: Yeah, it's difficult because as you know it takes three quarters of the states, and for example, we should certainly get rid of the Electoral College which is a total joke. The idea that the person who gets the most votes doesn't win is ridiculous. But that would require three quarters of the states and there are many states that benefit from the electoral college. They have excess power which they shouldn't really have. A vote in Wyoming carries a lot more weight than a vote in California. So they're not going to ratify such an amendment. But on the other hand there are certainly things that need to be addressed and one would hope a certain kind of constitutional creativity is not beyond us now.

NICIE: Well Professor Eric Foner, thank you so much for being with The MidPod. We appreciate your insights. Thank you so much.

FONER: You're very welcome. Nice to talk to you. [MidPod theme music]

NICIE: That was Eric Foner, Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University.

HEATHER: That's it for this week. Join us on Facebook and Twitter, @TheMidPod and see you soon.

Eunice Panetta