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Museum Of The American Revolution Officially Opens

Many years ago, a bright and engaging young student informed me, much to my surprise, that she was taking my classes on revolutions in Europe as practicum — a “how-to” manual on fomenting revolution.

She eventually tried to put theory into practice: In October 2003, she was arrested, along with other D.C. Statehood and Green Party activists, for refusing to leave then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s office. They were wearing colonial garb to protest the District of Columbia’s lack of budget autonomy — evidence of its “colonial” status.

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I was apparently not very successful at providing a blueprint for revolutionary change (and had certainly not intended to do so!); D.C. is still subject to the whims of Congress, and neither statehood nor autonomy is likely any time soon.

I find myself thinking lately about Zoe and her efforts to learn how to begin a revolution from history. I am not by nature an activist, and I am not a likely candidate to lead the revolution. I am not planning to mount the barricades. But I worry about the growing frustration that we Americans are losing the ability to shape governmental policies and structures, and that democratic governance is slipping out of our hands.

The United States was born of revolution, with the implicit promise that another one would never be necessary: Our institutions would protect us from the need to take to the streets to overthrow a tyrannical government, because we could always vote out corrupt governors and legislators. That promise slowly expanded to include women and people of color, although the ideal of government “by the people” has never been perfect.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger headlined a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as they seek to “terminate” the practice of political parties crafting congressional districts that unfairly benefit one party over another.

But in the past 20 years, the reality — of gerrymandering greenlighted by the Supreme Court, voter suppression and a Senate and House in which some voters count for dramatically more than others — has become ever more apparent. A minority of voters control the levers of power, and our Constitution no longer guards against a determined Republican party willing to flout norms and change rules to ensure continued control of state and federal governments and the judiciary.

The U.S. government is often critical of authoritarian governments in other countries (at least ones whose policies we don’t like), and we impose sanction on those countries to encourage reform. When some protest that the policies hurt the citizens, say, of Iran or North Korea, not their government, the blithe response is “The people should force change upon their government.” As if it were that easy to bring about regime change.

I have thought about this as I live under a government that bars refugees from seeking asylum, keeps children in living conditions that usually invite visits from child protective services, disregards our treaty obligations, invites election meddling from hostile powers and destroys our standing in the world. I want regime change, and I don’t know how to make it happen.

The vote of the majority is supposed to matter, and to a certain extent it did in 2018 — but only for the House of Representatives. The Senate remains in Republican hands, despite an electorate that went heavily Democratic. A president who won election because of the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote, makes policies and installs judges that a majority of the country opposes. And now, in addition to the built-in rural advantage of the Senate and despite increasing efforts to suppress minority votes across the country, the Supreme Court is notoriously reluctant to take steps to ensure a fair electoral process. How do we change this?

The French, who experienced revolution many times after 1789 (and changed governments frequently), had a revolutionary script that they followed. We have no script for revolutionary change; we still revere our Constitution while the French have gone through many iterations of theirs in the same number of years. But it’s more than that.

I can imagine the excitement Zoe felt when she and her compatriots donned revolutionary clothing to challenge D.C.’s status, but it was a small, non-violent and ultimately futile protest. As a historian, I know that the reality of revolution is bloody and terrifying. We cannot romanticize it, and Americans have thankfully rejected it for most of our history. But today, I waver between hope that peaceful protest and voter mobilization can still bring change in 2020 and fear that Abraham Lincoln’s confidence that our “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” is no longer warranted.

Christine Adams (cmadams@smcm.edu) is a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

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