Debate Defends Democracy

Debate Defends Democracy is a virtual discussion of Constitutional issues and the Bill of Rights presented by the Conservancy at Federal Hall. Federal Hall, on Wall Street in New York City, is the site where George Washington was inaugurated, the First Congress met, and the Bill of Rights was enacted for ratification by the states. Fundamental Constitutional issues about individual liberties and the power of government that the Founders sought to resolve in 1789-90 when New York City was the capital of the United States have renewed urgency today. Produced in partnership with the National Park Service and New York University with lead support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

VIDEO OF PRIOR PROGRAMS


Debate Defends Democracy launched in June, 2020 and the first series of three programs was hosted by John Avlon, CNN senior political analyst and a noted a historian of American democracy. His Reality Check segment on CNN's New Day often brings historical perspective to current events.

Prior program descriptions and video links below.

  • Democracy & The Electoral College
    October 27th, 5:30 PM EST

    This program unpacks the Electoral College, its roots in the Constitution and its impact on the realities of our democracy that purports to suggest that every vote counts. The procedure to elect a president and vice president was established by the Constitution in Article II, which lays out the role of an Electoral College, which supersedes the popular vote. The nation’s first four elections were held under those rules. The elections of 1796 and 1800 were so politically fraught that Congress enacted the Twelfth Constitutional Amendment in time for the election of 1804. Twice in this short century, the winner of the popular vote has not become president due to the role of the Electoral College. Is the Electoral College an essential bedrock of our republic, apportioning power more equitably by state? Or does it undermine the principle of one person, one vote? Proposals to abolish the Electoral College have gotten considerable attention in recent years. This could be accomplished legislatively through a Constitutional amendment, as happened before. An alternative method has also been proposed — the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which could render the Electoral College system obsolete. In discussing the past and the present of the Electoral College, our panelists will explore whose voices it elevates and whose it diminishes, and then consider how likely it is that future presidential elections may be decided by the popular vote alone in our politically-polarized nation. This program on the Electoral College is presented in partnership with NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. Federal Hall’s Sam Roberts and Brennan Center president Michael Waldman will introduce the program.

    Moderator: John Avlon

    John Avlon is an author, columnist and commentator. He is a senior political analyst and fill-in anchor at CNN, appearing on New Day every morning. Previously, he was the editor-in-chief and managing director of The Daily Beast, during which time the site won 17 journalism awards. He is the author of the books Independent Nation, Wingnuts, and Washington’s Farewell as well as co-editor of the Deadline Artists journalism anthologies. Avlon served as chief speechwriter to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists award for best online column in 2012.

  • Panelists:

    • Wilfred Codrington is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a Brennan Center fellow. His work focuses on constitutional law, election law, and public policy. Professor Codrington is currently working on the book The People’s Constitution: 200 Years, 27 Amendments and the Promise of a More Perfect Union forthcoming in 2021. His writings have also appeared in outlets such as The Atlantic, American Prospect, Columbia Law Review Forum, Slate, The Hill, U.S. News & World Report, and Ms. magazine.
    • Jesse Wegman is a member of The New York Times editorial board, where he has written about the Supreme Court and legal affairs since 2013. His book Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College was published this spring. Mr. Wegman previously worked as a reporter, editor, and producer at outlets including National Public Radio, The New York Observer, Reuters, The Daily Beast, and Newsweek. He graduated from New York University School of Law in 2005 and received a Soros Justice Fellowship to write a book about jailhouse lawyers.
    • Amel Ahmed is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work in comparative political studies looks across democracies at the politics of institutional choices that shape how democracies function. Her 2013 book Democracy and the Politics of Electoral System Choice: Engineering Electoral Dominance won the Best Book Award from the European Politics and Society Section of the American Political Science Association. She co-chaired the APSA’s 2019 annual meeting, the largest gathering of political scientists in the world.

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  • Race, Reconstruction and Voting Rights
    October 13th, 5:30 PM EST

    The Constitution explicitly excluded African Americans and Indigenous People from Constitutional protection, and the Bill of Rights—drafted by the First Congress as the first ten Amendments to Constitution and enacted in September of 1789—did nothing to correct that. Extending Constitutional protections and rights to Black people fell to later Amendments, what are often called “the Reconstruction Amendments.” But the reality is that African Americans have been impeded in the free exercise of their right to vote—by state laws, federal court decisions, and the resistance of their fellow citizens. This, despite passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, fully a century after the Civil War ended, and subsequent legislation protecting Black Americans and other disenfranchised populations that passed only with significant political resistance. In 2013, in Shelby County v Holder, the Supreme Court struck down key requirements of this legislation, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions. The panel will discuss this long history of efforts to suppress Black voting, its impact on other minority voting, and challenges to voting rights that are a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Moderator: Jami Floyd

    Well-known as the local host of “All Things Considered” and Legal Editor in the WNYC Newsroom, Jami Floyd is now leading WNYC’s new Race& Justice unit that covers news through the prism of race, class, and social justice. With a degree from Berkeley Law School, Ms. Floyd taught law at Stanford Law School before embarking on a journalism career that spans two decades and has included stints at ABC News, CBS News, and Court TV. She has appeared as a legal and political analyst on many news outlets including CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, and PBS.

  • Panelists:

    • Vanita Gupta is President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition. Previously Gupta was Acting Assistant Attorney General and head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division where she served as the nation’s chief civil rights prosecutor. Prior to joining the Justice Department, Gupta served as Deputy Legal Director and the Director of the Center for Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she launched the Smart Justice Campaign to end mass incarceration.
    • Richard Hasen is a Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. A nationally recognized expert in election law and campaign finance regulation, he was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal in 2013. His newest book, Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy was published earlier this year. Professor Hasen’s previous books include Voting Wars, Plutocrats United, and The Justice of Contradictions.
    • Rina Shah is Managing Director of Red Fort Strategies, a government relations and public affairs strategic consulting firm that specializes in activating the Asian-American community. Her expertise is in building political and issue advocacy campaigns at every level as well as offering strategic guidance to a wide-range of domestic and international corporations, including start-up ventures, which seek to navigate the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government. Ms. Shah served as a senior aide to two Republican Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and is a frequent media commentator.

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  • The Supreme Court and Balancing Power
    October 6th, 5:30 PM EST

    The first Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 at Federal Hall, and George Washington appointed all the federal judges, including the Supreme Court. But the role of the Court was originally quite limited. That all changed following the case of Marbury vs Madison in 1803, which established that the Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution and override both Congressional legislation and executive orders. For almost 200 years, that decision has made the issue of who sits on the Court extremely consequential. Now, with a Supreme Court nominee named only weeks away from the presidential election, our panelists will look at the battle over the nomination of a new Supreme Court judge through the lens of history and consider cases on the Court’s current docket that a new ideological composition of the Court could effect.

    Moderator: Jami Floyd

    Well-known as the local host of “All Things Considered” and Legal Editor in the WNYC Newsroom, Jami Floyd is now leading WNYC’s new Race& Justice unit that covers news through the prism of race, class, and social justice. With a degree from Berkeley Law School, Ms. Floyd taught law at Stanford Law School before embarking on a journalism career that spans two decades and has included stints at ABC News, CBS News, and Court TV. She has appeared as a legal and political analyst on many news outlets including CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, and PBS.

  • Panelists:

    • Trevor Morrison is Dean of NYU School of Law and Co-Director of the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU Law. He is particularly well-known for his expertise in constitutional law as practiced in the executive branch and his research on the separation of powers, federalism and the federal courts. Dean Morrison spent 2009 in the White House, where he served as associate counsel to President Barack Obama. He was a law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court from 2002-03, and he has also worked in the US Justice Department’s Office.
    • Ilya Shapiro is the Director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute. He is publisher of the Cato Supreme Court Review and has edited eleven volumes. His latest book, Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Court, was published in September. Mr. Shapiro has filed more than 300 amicus curiae “friend of the court” briefs in the Supreme Court. Before entering private practice, he clerked for Judge E. Grady Jolly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
    • Janai S. Nelson is Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and works with the President and Director-Counsel to determine and execute LDF’s strategic vision and oversee the operation of its programs. She is also a member of LDF’s litigation and policy teams and was one of the lead counsel in a federal challenge to Texas’s voter ID law. Formerly a law professor, she has testified before Congress on voter suppression, algorithmic bias, and in support of the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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  • Towards a More Authentic History
    September 30th, 5:30 PM EST

    FEDERAL HALL’s annual benefit was a special edition of Debate Defends Democracy featuring a solo performance by Wynton Marsalis and two fascinating conversations with artists and curators about how to expand the narrative of American history to be more authentic.

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    Program details →


  • Defending the First Amendment
    June 30th, 5 PM EST

    Crafted by the First Congress at Federal Hall, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights ensured a range of freedoms that some founders felt were inadequately protected by the language of the Constitution. While the other rights were framed as absolute, the right of the people to assemble was specifically modified by the word “peaceably.” The freedom of assembly has perhaps never been the subject of so urgent a debate as during a pandemic in a time of mass protests. Our discussion will tackle such questions as whether local state or federal authorities should drive the decision making, what exceptions should be made for religious liberty – a provision also mandated in the First Amendment, the use of police and the national guard in the context of the right of assembly, and finally the sometimes difficult balance between individual freedom and the common good during a public health crisis.

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  • Panelists include:

    • David D. Cole, the National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union who leads its Supreme Court practice and oversees the work of the organization’s nearly 300 lawyers. Mr. Cole has litigated many constitutional cases in the Supreme Court over more than 30 years, from the start of his career as a staff attorney Center for Constitutional Rights. His victories have included Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman, which extended First Amendment protection to flag burning and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the ACLU represented a gay couple refused service by a bakery for a wedding cake. Mr. Cole taught constitutional law and criminal justice at Georgetown University from 1990 until 2016, while continuing to litigate Constitutional cases. He has taught at several universities including NYU Law School and is the author of eight books. The most recent, published in 2016, is titled Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law.
    • Ross Douthat, an American conservative political analyst, blogger, and best-selling author, who writes a regular column for the New York Times, where he became the youngest regular op-ed writer in 2009. Previously Mr. Douthat was a senior editor at The Atlantic. His most recent book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, published in 2020, discusses his view of what happens when a rich and powerful society ceases advancing—how the combination of wealth and technological proficiency with economic stagnation, political stalemates, cultural exhaustion, and demographic decline creates a strange kind of “sustainable decadence.” Among Mr. Douthat’s other titles are To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, the NY Times best-seller Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and Grand New Party.
    • Theodore R. Johnson, III, a senior fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice where his work explores the role that race plays in electoral politics and voting behavior, issue framing, and disparities in policy outcomes. Mr. Johnson holds a Doctorate of Law and Policy and his doctoral research focused on translating increased civic engagement into tangible policy outcomes, particularly for disenfranchised and subjugated communities. Mr. Johnson is also a retired commander in the U.S. Navy following a two-decade career that took him to every corner of the world and included service as a White House fellow, military professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and speechwriter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has more than 15 years of public policy experience in federal departments and agencies, and is an expert on cybersecurity.
  • The Hyper Partisan Presidency
    June 23rd, 5 PM EST

    The second event in Federal Hall’s Debate Defends Democracy program explores hyper-partisanship, the presidency and the separation of powers. George Washington was very concerned about the impact of political parties on America’s young democracy and believed that disagreement between political parties weakened the government. In his famous Farewell Address, published in newspapers across the country when he declined to stand for election to a third term, Washington warns that efforts of one party to dominate the other could lead to despotism and undermine the checks and balances prescribed by the Constitution. This program will explore the trends that have led to increasing partisanship and the impact on presidential power.

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  • Panelists include:

    • Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Gulag: A History. Her most recent book is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, which examines why some people have abandoned liberal democratic ideals in favor of strongman cults, nationalist movements, or one-party states. A distinguished journalist, Ms. Applebaum was a Washington Post columnist for fifteen years and a former member of its editorial board, and has also been an editor and columnist for numerous other publications including several British newspapers. From 1988-1991 she covered the collapse of communism as the Warsaw correspondent of the Economist magazine and the Independent newspaper.
    • Douglas Brinkley is a U.S. presidential historian and acclaimed author of dozens of books on a great range of topics in American history including seven that were New York Times bestsellers. His two-volume annotated The Nixon Tapes, published in 2016, won the Arthur S. Link – Warren F. Kuehl Prize, and he was selected by Nancy Reagan to edit Ronald Reagan’s presidential diaries (2011). He has written presidential biographies about both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as well as Jimmy Carter. Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University, Mr. Brinkley is a CNN Presidential Historian and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Mr. Brinkley works in many capacities in the world of public history including for boards, museums, colleges and historical societies.
    • Ron Christie is an American government relations expert and Republican political strategist. He began working at the White House in 2001 as deputy assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney, and later joined the staff of the President, serving as a Special Assistant to George W. Bush until 2004. Previously, Mr. Christie was a senior advisor to Senator George Allen of Virginia and a senior advisor to John Kasich, the former House Budget Committee Chairman and the future Governor of Ohio. Mr. Christie is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of several books including Black in the White House. Among several university faculty appointments, Mr. Christie is a lecturer on the American Presidency at NYU DC and a member of Advisory Board of the John Brademas Center. He is currently CEO of Christie Strategies LLC, a full-service communications and issues management firm in Washington, D.C.
  • Democracy in a Time of Crisis
    June 16th, 5 PM EST

    Democracy in a Time of Crisis explored how Constitutional questions regarding federal authority, states’ rights, and First Amendment guarantees of freedom of assembly and religion during the COVID pandemic (and prior pandemics) have stressed our democratic values. The discussion continued into the expanding crisis around racial injustice and executive power that is roiling the country as we head into an election season during a time of intense strain.

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  • Panelists included:

    • John M. Barry is an historian and New York Times best-selling author of The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history, a study of the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide. The National Academies of Sciences named it the year’s best book on science or medicine. Since 2004 Mr. Barry has worked on pandemic preparedness with the Bush and Obama White Houses and other government entities, and was the only non-scientist on a federal Infectious Disease Board of Experts. He is also a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
    • Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and former president of the Amerian Academy of Religion. Professor Glaude’s most well-known books are Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, which has been described as “one of the most imaginative, daring books of the twenty-first century,” and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. They take a wide look at black communities and reveal complexities, vulnerabilities, and opportunities for hope.
    • Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving systems of democracy and justice. It is a leading national voice on voting rights, money in politics, criminal justice reform, and constitutional law. Mr. Waldman, a constitutional lawyer and writer who is an expert on the presidency and American democracy, has led the Center since 2005. A former speechwriter and policy coordinator for President Clinton he has drafted four State of the Union addresses. He is also an author of acclaimed books on voting and the Second Amendment.
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ADDITIONAL SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

  • Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in Debate Defends Democracy programs and or materials do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • Special 2020 program support for Federal Hall also provided by the New York Stock Exchange-ICE Foundation, Stonbely Family Foundation and the Bogosian-Quigley Family Foundation.