Rogers Smith on the heart and soul of America

As a scholar, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science is perhaps best known for challenging the view that the U.S. is fundamentally, ‘in its heart and soul,’ a liberal democracy.

As a young man with political ambitions, Rogers Smith wanted to do big things. He never envisioned himself becoming an “academic scribbler.” But today, Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and—as the author of eight books and scores of major essays on American political ideology, civil rights, and constitutionalism—quite the scribbler. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the American Philosophical Society.

Rogers Smith stands, smiling, by bookshelves in his office.
Rogers Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science. (Image: Scott Spitzer)

In a recent Omnia podcast “In These Times”, Smith and Tukufu Zuberi, Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, unpack the event of a riotous mob storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. That event was precipitated by the suggestion that Vice President Mike Pence had the ability to reject certification of the electoral college results. Smith discusses whether this scenario was plausible.

“The particular interpretation that was being put forth that the vice president of the United States has somehow been empowered by the 12th Amendment, unilaterally to decide what electoral college results are valid and which are not, this is one of the most preposterous arguments that has ever been advanced in American constitutional discourse,” Rogers says. “There's simply no way that makes any sense at all on any plausible version of the constitution or constitutional democracy. So I think that that particular argument will be embedded in the dustbin of history very rapidly.”

As a scholar, Smith is perhaps best known for challenging the view that the U.S. is fundamentally, “in its heart and soul,” a liberal democracy. “Everyone accepts the universal principles of human rights and democracy as our true principles,” says Smith. “Those are powerful American traditions, but I have stressed in my writing that they don’t constitute the essential nature of America. There isn’t an essential nature of America. America is a product of ongoing political contestation and struggle.”

Smith spent his teen years as an activist with the Republican party in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, eventually rising to state chairman of the Illinois Teenage Republican Federation. Springfield is, of course, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln and the state capital.

Smith’s youthful foray into politics had left him profoundly disillusioned—both with the corruption that was then rampant in Illinois politics and with what he perceived as increasingly racist attitudes among his fellow GOP activists.

“I had thought of myself as an Abraham Lincoln Republican,” he says. “I thought we were the party of civil rights. I decided I couldn’t be part of the Republican Party anymore. I had to step back and ask myself: What do I really believe in? What am I really for and why?”

Smith came to Penn in 2001 after 20 years on the faculty of Yale, where he held a tenured position as the Alfred Cowles Professor of Government and was co-director of the Yale ISPS Center for the Study of Inequality.

At Penn, his favorite course to teach is an undergraduate class called Race, Ethnicity, and American Constitutional Politics. Smith says many students in the class—often reading primary sources for the first time—had not previously been aware of the ways U.S. policies have worked to preserve systems of white supremacy.

Among the controversies that have motivated Smith is the problem of systemic racism. While some see the election of Barack Obama as evidence that the U.S. has left its racial divisions behind, this summer’s civil unrest in response to the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police has highlighted the fact that racial inequality remains a highly volatile issue in the political landscape.

The recent rise of nationalism in the U.S. and in Europe has caused some political thinkers to question the future viability of liberal democracy. But here again, Smith is fundamentally an optimist.

“I do think there are prospects for building political movements that bring out the best potential of liberal democracy, and in fact extend it further to provide the benefits of our political, economic, and social institutions more broadly,” he says. “There is no certain outcome, but the pendulum is swinging back in that direction, and it’s an opportunity that people need to seize right now. I see some hope for things to get better, and I plan to keep trying to contribute to that in whatever ways I can.”

This story is by Jane Carroll. Read more at Omnia.