Public Education Has Preached Democracy for Centuries. Will Those Roots Be Strong Enough to Protect Democracy from Trump?

4 min readSep 13, 2020

By Joe Rothstein

You’ve likely encountered this story more than once.

Shortly after delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed on the details of the nation’s founding document, the wife of Philadelphia’s mayor asked Benjamin Franklin “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

During the 233 years since, the nation has beaten back many assaults on our constitutional government. A civil war. Multiple periods of high-level corruption. Foreign challenges that required the nation to take up arms to defend its democratic system.

But the challenge the nation’s founders feared the most, losing the republic to non-democratic autocrats, has not arisen in any serious way. Until now.

For the first time since George Washington (who declined a third presidential term so as not to set an autocratic precedent), the nation has a president who has raised the prospect of not leaving office if he loses the election. A president who questions the voting process itself (“The only way I lose, is if it is rigged”). A president who, during his term of office, has shown little understanding or respect for his constitutional limits (“I have absolute authority”), or the legal system, or the separation of powers. He already has subjugated his allies in Congress to yes-men roles. With four more years in the White House he would then have appointed enough like-minded judges, at all levels of the judiciary, to provide legal cover for however he chooses to use his authority.

Trump is the charismatic authoritarian Ben Franklin feared with his warning, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Whether or not we can keep it depends, not on each day’s news, or political commercials, or the work of political organizations. We have one defense against a slide into authoritarianism: Education. Free, public, compulsory education.

The nation’s founders understood that an educated, informed public would be the best defense of our democratic system.

Thomas Jefferson: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves. And if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Sam Adams: “It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education…