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My Fellow Citizens,

"What a time to be alive!" Comedian Nicole Byer turns to this phrase during episodes of Netflix's show "Nailed It." She watches total failure creep up on amateur bakers brave enough to compete on the show. Why am I watching a baking competition?

Like everyone else, I'm trying to distract myself from headlines like these:

McConnell indicates he'll let Trump's lawyers dictate Trump's impeachment trial

Trump mocks Greta Thunberg on Twitter, and she jabs back

In a polarized era, will impeachment become a 'new normal'?

Ugh. What a time to be alive… and is it over yet? But this note is actually about a small voice of optimism that made its way into the mix. I'm 2020-ready, and Frederick Douglass helped me get there.

The latest issue of The Atlantic takes up the question of how to stop a civil war. Because I'm low on hope, I had no intention of ever picking it up. Ever. There was one headline I couldn't resist: Frederick Douglass's Vision for a Reborn America.

A man who escaped slavery, fought for abolition, and then watched Jim Crow tighten its grip on the country still had hope for who we could be. If anyone had a reason to give up on the whole project of self-government in the United States, it was Frederick Douglass. Somehow, in 1869, he still saw a country that could live up to its promises. 

In The Atlantic, David Blight writes that Douglass, "had always believed that America had a 'mission'—that the United States was a set of ideas despite its 'tangled network of contradictions.'"

At this moment in 2019, the mission again seems beyond our reach. The tangled mess of contradictions is all we can see from where we are. 

Blight refers to remarks Douglass gave in Boston titled, "Our Composite Nationality." He planned his remarks in response to efforts seeking to limit Chinese immigration. With Douglass deciding the course of the inquiry, the specific challenge of the moment gave way to bigger questions of purpose and principle. He wove his thoughts through three questions—what we are, what we are likely to be, and what we ought to be. 

We are "the most fortunate of nations. We stand in relation to all others, as youth to age.

We are "a country of all extremes— , ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world."

When it comes to what we are likely to be, Douglass observed:

"Nature has two voices, the one is high, the other low; one is in sweet accord with reason and justice, and the other apparently at war with both." He uses this fact of nature to assure his audience that 'ignorance is full of prejudice, but it will disappear with enlightenment.

Douglass sees no reason to listen to "prophets of gloom." He shifts his focus to a vision for what we ought to be.

Our strength or security depends on the friendship of our people in a country where, "In all matters, —in time of peace, in time of war, and at all times, —it makes its appeal to all the people, and to all classes of the people.

Looking forward to 2020, we can still choose between the stories the competing voices bring us about what we are, what we are likely to be, and what we ought to be. We don't have to participate in the dread peddled by prophets of doom. We don't have to surrender the strength that resides in our principles and our people. 

In December 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed a few of these themes when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. After talking about tired feet, dreary days, and darkest nights, he said persisting through these hardships is how "we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born."

2020 is our turn at this creative turmoil, and there's no doubt that we're up for the challenge. What a time to be alive.

And I'm glad to be stuck in this creative turmoil with you.



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(share your responses in our Learning Studio)

"If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government, until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy, and the world a desert."

—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 65

Are we watching the final act of a failed Congress?

Norm Ornstein wrote "The Senate Shreds its Norms" in September 2018. This week, he took to Twitter to talk about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's remarks suggesting he would coordinate the impeachment trial with the White House.

Jeff Tulis, Professor of Government at the University of Texas and friend of Politicolor, also published a short essay on what an impeachment trial requires, The Senate as an Impeachment Court Should Not Be the Senate as Usual.

From that essay: 
"The impeachment trial of President Trump requires dignity, fairness, impartiality, and seriousness of purpose in order to render a good verdict. But whatever the verdict, more is on trial than just the president.

Our political culture is on trial.

The impeachment of Donald Trump could be a rare moment of profound civic education, and of possible civic renewal."

Over at Vox, David Roberts also believes "America's Epistemic Crisis has arrived." He has been watching our "growing inability, not just to cooperate, but even to learn and know the same things, to have a shared understanding of reality." 


Is it good exercise to test the limits of our constitutional norms from time to time?

Journalist Anne Applebaum has a powerful perspective as an American citizen who has lived abroad for years at a time. This question about testing our limits is one she borrowed from a more hopeful colleague. 

Applebaum participated in a recent episode of Radio Atlantic that asked "Is Russia Winning the Impeachment Hearings?" With some prodding, she compared state-run media in Russia to the stories being told on Fox News and contemplated a future where President Trump is impeached and re-elected. She is skeptical that American democracy would survive that last test. 

On another show, Anne had the opportunity to share the lessons she had learned about national populism while living in Poland. There a myth and loyalty tests combined to manipulate elections:
The point was to get people to believe in a kind of alternative reality, to doubt institutions, to doubt that the government was telling them the truth. And that was absolutely an attempt to help win an election.

Lots of stories this week suggest we're keeping up with the exercise plan. The House passed legislation to protect the voting rights compromised by the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby v. Holder (2013). The Washington Post and journalist Craig Whitlock persisted in taking their FOIA requests to court and have finally published what they're calling The Afghanistan Papers

The story of that fight over access to the truth is one worth hearing too. Check out the Afghanistan Papers episode of their podcast Post Reports.

Occasionally we pick up these questions and the topics they present in our Learning Studio. Look for deeper inquiries in this closed online community where the focus is on following the conversation. 

The Learning Studio requires a membership but it's free. 

Up for discussion in the Learning Studio:


Are concepts like an "unconstrained presidency" and a "constitutional monstrosity" helpful for discussing why impeachment is important?

And important enough to take up right now?

The Learning Studio is the place to find the quotes supporting these concepts. You can join the conversation there even if you haven't picked up the book. We host our civic conversations n our Learning Studio so we can focus on thinking together without worrying about aggravating someone's shouty uncle that lives for Facebook fights.
Join the Studio

Coming Soon! MLK Day Reading Retreat

Clear your schedule. Stock the fridge. Prepare to sink into your favorite reading spot and let's get a good book read. We'll be turning pages together over the weekend so you can share what you're thinking with other readers in the Learning Studio. 

Look at your To Be Read pile. Is there a title you would like to share with a civic-minded group? Reply to this email with the recommendation.

Titles up for consideration include:

Good Work: A Los Angeles Parking Lot Now a Dense Urban Jungle

Second Home Hollywood has been described as "the new creative hothouse." Architects SelgasCano reclaimed the wasteland of an empty parking lot by moving in 6,500 trees and 700 tons of soil and vegetation. They built a 50,000 square foot garden that includes 112 native species. It also hosts co-working spaces and a public library. 

Their mission statement includes making it possible to hear new ideas and new ways of thinking. The video is sure to spark your imagination whether you're in Los Angeles or miles away. The design of the co-working spaces include these bright yellow roofs that make the bold transformation something you can even appreciate from the sky above. 

A dull gray parking lot has a new look and a community has a new space to imagine we can still work together. 

(via Colossal)

We also share quotes and questions on the web. Find us in most of the usual places.

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