Democracy Day 2021

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Democracy Day | Shriver Hall
August 28, 2021

Good afternoon. I am so pleased that we are able to gather here together for this colloquium on democracy and the purpose of engagement with its core ideas, values and practices.

In a few minutes, I’ll turn the program over to my colleagues from the SNF Agora Institute and our faculty, who will—each in their own unique way and from their own disciplinary perspective—take up the question of what afflicts democracy at this moment.

You may be wondering why I’m here today – on a typical year I would meet most of you for the first time tomorrow at Convocation.

I hope you’ll allow me to take a few minutes to answer that question.

On one level, the answer is pretty simple and straightforward: I am a lawyer and legal academic, and I have spent my professional career studying the institutions and legal frameworks at the heart of modern democracies, a vast and vital complex of institutions like legislatures, courts, schools, and the media that are designed to maximize equality and freedom, and mediate between the individual and society at large.

But that is an answer you could deduce from my resume.

There is a deeper motivation for my wanting to join you this afternoon.

That explanation requires that we travel back to Warsaw, Poland in 1939.

That year, my paternal grandfather, a scholar of Talmud, or Jewish law, lost his job, and couldn’t find another. Like so many other immigrants – including, I’m sure, many in your families – he sought economic opportunity in a different country. Motivation on one level is very mundane. He just wanted to do better for his family economically. Out of desperation, he applied to emigrate to Canada and received a visa to enter the country with his family, which included my father, who was then only 7 years old, as well as my aunt and uncle.

At one level, the story of the impetus for my family’s immigration, as I said, is conventional. But the circumstances against which it unfolded are not.

You see, a mere six months after my family crossed the Atlantic, Hitler invaded Poland and began his systematic extermination program against European Jewry. Miraculously, my family had narrowly escaped the advance of fascism across Europe and the horrors of the Holocaust that would claim all their relatives who remained behind.

My father – who lived another 71 years – struggled throughout his life to make sense of his good fortune. Why was he spared when six million of his brethren were not? How did he make sense of that?

This was, of course, a question that really didn’t have a simple answer.

Over the years, my father’s own answer became a paean to democracy. He recognized how many of the blessings in his life he could trace to having the chance to grow up in a society organized by rule of law. A society composed of institutions that took seriously the accountability of elected officials and that limited the exercise of coercive powers. A society that promoted human flourishing by carefully balancing the public and collective good and the dignity and needs of the individual, especially when those individuals are members of minority groups.

While my father’s story captures the demonstrable superiority of democratic institutions over fascist ones, I have also come to recognize that it is also an example of Canada’s less than perfect embodiment of democracy’s promise.

What my father’s family could not have known when they first arrived in Canada was that they were five of fewer than 5,000 Jewish refugees whom the country admitted from the time of Hitler’s ascent in1933 to the end of the Second World War in 1945. By contrast, the United States admitted more than 200,000 Jewish refugees during that same period. Canada, though it prides itself on being one of the world’s most open societies, actively prevented the entry of refugees trying to escape Nazism. And there was no doubt what was entailed by the Nazi program from 1933 on.

Indeed, when one senior government official was asked by the press in 1945 how many Jewish refugees the country would admit, his answer encapsulated this attitude perfectly. “None,” he said, “was too many.”

This was an expression no doubt of mass public sentiment against Jews but it was also a was also, to my mind, a searing example of failed liberal democracy. The suspicion and fear of outsiders – in this case, rooted deeply in anti-Semitism – who held beliefs and adhered to traditions that may have seemed remote. The callousness towards other experiences and lives. The tyranny of a majority over a vulnerable minority.

My family’s story captures both sides of the democratic coin, and it is imperative that we hold both truths in our minds simultaneously, recognizing the immense blessings and virtues of democratic society, but also recognizing the ways in which it can and does tragically fall short of its aspirations and promise.

Like my father, I remain hopeful that the better angels of democracy can win the day. Like him, I have put my faith in the possibilities and promises of liberal democracy because I believe, truly, that this is the best way to organize society: a government responsive and accountable to the popular will and scrutiny that also comprises institutions that protect individual rights and preserve the rule of law.

But democracy is not a self-executing endeavor, a machine that runs by itself. For democracy to thrive and survive, it needs to be continuously re-examined and nurtured—by lawyers, yes, but also by historians, ethicists, scientists and citizenry at large. History is replete with examples of how quickly these rhythms, these cadences of democracy can be distorted, and democracy’s potential squandered when we become blasé about its requirements.

This recognition is echoed in contemporary calls for racial justice, for the reduction of inequality, and for concerted action on global crises like climate change.

Today is an opportunity for all of you to begin exploring some of the problems facing democracies alongside your professors and to ask the hard questions of what must happen for democracies to thrive and flourish in the decades ahead.

There is truly no better place to ask these questions than a university like Johns Hopkins, because it is here that we approach questions with an attitude that is open to dissent, eager to exchange ideas with those who may think differently, and committed to arriving at truth.

We are a place apart, a place where new ideas are born and refined through contestation, experimentation, and debate. So, I invite you to head out this afternoon and enjoy your time with your professors today. Engage them in dialogue, and when you see me around campus – which you will – stop me and tell me what you discovered from today’s experience.

I want to thank the Center for Social Concern, our new student orientation team, and the SNF Agora Institute for organizing this program and giving us all an opportunity to think deeply about how to build societies that are more just and fair.

Now, I am delighted now to introduce the inaugural director of the SNF Agora Institute, Hahrie Han. The Institute was founded to bring the expertise from across different disciplines to bear on some of the most serious problems confronting democracy today, and it has found an ideal leader in Dr. Han, a renowned political science professor here at Hopkins specializing in the study of grassroots organizing and collective action. I can truly think of no one better to help kick off Democracy Day.

Thank you all for being here!