Jeh Johnson Delivers the 2024 Hagel Lecture Series

On April 26, 2024, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson delivered the the fourth lecture of the annual Hagel Lecture Series on Civil Politics and International Security, a forum to amplify and encourage greater civic participation in critical discussions. The lecture was entitled "Dangers to Democracy at Home and Abroad."

The full text of Secretary Johnson's address as delivered is reproduced below.

Dangers to Democracy at Home and Abroad

Jeh Charles Johnson
University Chicago
April 26, 2024

Mr. Secretary, I am pleased and honored to have the opportunity to deliver a lecture as part of a series in your name.  You are, like my former law partner and mentor Ted Sorensen, a native of Nebraska.  I will repeat here what I once heard Ted say at the outset of a speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to exercise my free speech rights, and that’s what you are getting … a free speech.” I also have a disclosure to make, which I have never made before, but suspect I will make many more times in the future: AI wrote no part of this speech.  Blame me.  I wrote this all myself. 

There is little more one can ask of a public servant than that which Chuck Hagel has delivered: service and sacrifice in uniform during war, two terms as a United States Senator, and service as our nation’s 24th Secretary of Defense. 

While in the Senate you proved yourself an independent and critical thinker and demonstrated the courage to question the Iraq War you once supported.  You always put the best interest of your country above your party.  I regret there are few if any Chuck Hagels serving in Washington today.      

I am also pleased to be here on the campus of the University of Chicago, where over 100 years ago my grandfather Charles S. Johnson studied and got his start as a sociologist.  With the support of Julius Rosenwald and others, at age 26 Dr. Johnson was the associate executive secretary of the Commission that studied the 1919 Chicago race riot.  The 800-page Commission report is notable because it is not merely an account of the riot itself and its immediate causes; it is an in-depth study of black migration to Chicago from the South, the black population Chicago, and the housing problems they faced in this city.

The report states:

“Our race problem must be solved in harmony with the fundamental law of the nation and with its free institutions … The problem must not be regarded as sectional or political, and it should be studied and discussed seriously, frankly, and with an open mind.”

Fast forward a century later, to the important work of another social scientist here at the University of Chicago named Robert Pape.  Like Dr. Johnson’s work, Professor Pape’s research is a serious study of a difficult and historic moment.  It is at the heart of what I want to talk to you about today. 

It’s an election year, and I’m a Democrat.  But today I do not speak to you as a partisan Democrat.  I speak to you as a partisan American. 

The title of this event is “Dangers to democracy at home and abroad.”  Last year Freedom House reported that, on a global basis, freedom has been on the decline for seventeen straight years.  Yet today we must convene a forum in Chicago, Illinois that includes a discussion about the dangers to democracy at home.  For all my life we in America boasted that, despite what happens someplace else, we are the most enduring democracy in the world, and that our transfers of presidential power are always orderly and peaceful.  After January 6, 2021 we can no longer say that. 

Professor Pape’s research reveals that January 6 is not just a stain on American history; it is a harbinger of things that could come. 

January 6 was a pot of scalding water that boiled over on to the U.S. Capitol.  The physical damage done that day has been repaired and those responsible are being brought to justice, but the pot of scalding water remains, the burner underneath is still turned to high, and the pot is ready to boil over again on a moment’s notice. 

Professor Pape’s research tells us those arrested for January 6 were motivated by fear of the so-called Great Replacement, that a surprising number are educated, small business owners, and that a majority come not from red counties in red states, but from blue counties in this country that Joe Biden won.

Most alarming, Professor Pape estimates that somewhere between 12-18 million Americans agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency,” and that large segments of his political base believe one, some or all of the following: that the 2020 election was rigged; that the 2024 election could be rigged; that the prosecutions against Trump are politically motivated, and that the federal government is a “deep state” of immoral people.  Similar research reveals that 51% of Americans say they are dissatisfied with how our democracy works and 46% say they are open to other forms of government.  Less than a third of so-called Millennials say it is essential to live in a democracy. 

We must never take for granted the virtue of living in a democracy.  Democracy is like water; you don’t appreciate its critical importance until you are thirsty or your land is scorched by wildfire.  Democracy is like oxygen; you don’t wake up each day thanking God for the air we breathe, but if someone tried to take it away you would be desperate to keep it.  Democracy is freedom, and the most basic human instinct is to seek freedom. 

Sixteen years ago this November my family and I were in this city to witness something I never expected to see in my lifetime.  By the largest popular vote in U.S. history, we elected a black man named Barack Hussein Obama -- who also happens to be a former faculty member of this University -- to become our president.  I recall the hundreds of TV cameras positioned on bleachers in Grant Park – the whole world was watching because the whole world knew what was happening that night in America was special and historic. 

I recall the emails I received from colleagues and friends: “I’m crying.  Thanks for leading me to this man,” or, “Bravo. I am now prepared and proud to become a United States citizen.”  Even John McCain, Obama’s opponent, was magnanimous in his concession speech as he recognized that history was being made that night. 

I will also never forget the front page of the next morning’s Chicago Sun-Times: a full-page photo of Barack Obama and the simple two-word caption: “Mr. President.” 

Then, somehow, came Barack Obama’s immediate successor: a man with autocratic, self-serving impulses, no experience in public office, no respect for the Constitution and constitutional norms, who inspired and incited the January 6 insurrection, was impeached twice, has been found civilly liable for sexual assault and bank fraud, is an indicted criminal defendant in four separate jurisdictions, and, yet, today is one of two viable candidates to get elected president again. 

How did this happen?  Many foreign observers of the arc of American history must be puzzled by this stark turn of events.  

I believe what Franklin Roosevelt said in his final inaugural address in 1945, “sometimes we will be rising to the heights, then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward.  The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”    

FDR’s words are by no means inevitable.  We must work hard to push the boulder upward on that straight path among the peaks and valleys.  We must face the alarming results of Professor Pape’s research head-on: that millions of Americans believe our country is headed in the wrong direction, they have become disillusioned with their government and their leaders, susceptible to the darkest conspiracy theories, and that Donald Trump, no matter what he says and does, speaks for them. 

At this juncture in American history the future of our democracy depends on what we do now to combat growing levels of American anger, apathy, ignorance and indifference. 

About a year ago the American Bar Association asked me to co-chair with former Judge Michael Luttig a task force to secure our democracy.  The task force is an extraordinary bipartisan group of distinguished Americans, that consists of not just lawyers, but historians, scholars, former judges and two former presidential candidates.  We are traveling the country on a listening tour to places like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. 

The response to our efforts has been incredible, as we encounter many others concerned about the future of our democracy who want to join forces with us.  We are focused on bolstering civics in education, the creation of rapid response teams to address urgent legal issues around the election, and promoting election worker safety. 

We will issue a report and recommendations at the ABA convention in August.  

For myself, I am convinced that, to safeguard our democracy we must focus our efforts on the enablers.  In any movement backward or forward there are a core group of protagonists and a larger, more passive population of enablers.  No effort to take this country backward can succeed without enablers – those who know better but are prepared to excuse narcissism for the sake of lower taxes, lower interest rates, or just plain apathy, cowardice and political expediency. 

I believe we must re-incentivize political behavior among the enablers.  We must reform the whole manner in which we elect members of Congress. 

We have a system now in which almost all seats in Congress have been politically gerrymandered to protect incumbents on both sides of the aisle.  The process of legislative redistricting is rigged, literally, to the point where the politicians pick their voters, not the other way around. 

How else do you have an ineffective institution – Congress – that has only about a 15% approval rating yet 90% of its members get reelected every two years? 

Very few seats in Congress are contested in an across-the-board general election – by some estimates only 35 of the total 435.  The only real threat to an incumbent’s survival is a primary challenge from the ideological fringes -- for a Republican the extreme right and for a Democrat the extreme left.  Ideological purity, demagoguery are therefore incentivized; political courage, independence and compromise for the sake of governing are punished.  

At present six states have adopted independent redistricting commissions composed of citizens, not politicians, to draw legislative districts at the state and federal level, resulting in more competitive seats in federal and state legislatures.  Likewise, some states like California have adopted an open primary system.  These reforms should be expanded to more states.

Both have the effect of requiring politicians to appeal to a broader ideological swath of voters to get elected and reelected.  Rank choice voting is a concept that should be explored too.

I leave you on what I hope is a note of optimism. 

Shortly before he died at age 63 in 1945 President Roosevelt had the vision that the trend of civilization is forever upward.  Just before he died at age 63 in 1956, Dr. Johnson wrote an essay in the New York Times entitled “A southern Negro’s View of the South,” charting the sociologist’s course for the civil rights movement that was about to come.  For this essay Dr. Johnson received many congratulatory letters, including one from a young Baptist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama named Martin Luther King, proclaiming the essay was “the best statement I have read in the whole subject area  . . . You combine in this article the fact finding mind of the social scientist with the moral insights of a religious prophet.” 

What did my grandfather write that moved Dr. King to such lofty praise?  I’m sure it was one passage in his essay, which lives on in my DNA.  Describing the southern blacks’ predicament in the Jim Crow South in 1956, Dr. Johnson said:

“[t]here is no sense of hopelessness in this situation, however uncomfortable and menacing and humiliating it may be at times.  Faith in the ultimate strength of the democratic philosophy and code of the nation as a whole has always been stronger than the impulse to despair.”

Thanks for listening.