What Keeping American Democracy Alive Looks Like

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In the wake of the “Stop the Steal” campaign, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the wave of voter suppression bills making their way through Republican legislatures across the country, the struggle for American democracy feels, for many, visceral and even existential. But for Martha S. Jones, a legal and cultural historian at Johns Hopkins University, the moment we find ourselves in is anything but an aberration.

“I’m not someone who tells stories about a Whiggish arc in which we are always getting better, doing better, improving upon,” Jones says. “Much of American history is a story about contest, about conflict, about disagreement over fundamental ideas and fundamental precepts, fundamental principles, like citizenship and voting rights.”

Jones has spent her career documenting the contestation over American democracy. Her 2018 book, “Birthright Citizens,” tells the story of how Black Americans in the 19th century fought to address the Constitution’s silence on the question of who counts as a citizen, ultimately securing the establishment of birthright citizenship through the 14th Amendment. And her 2020 book “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All” is a sweeping account of Black women’s 200-year fight for equal suffrage.

This conversation is about how the political struggles waged by marginalized groups have forged American democracy as we know it — and the virtues, habits and practices of democratic citizenship we can glean from those struggles. But it also explores the need to reimagine America’s true “founders,” how 19th- and 20th-century Black women were modeling intersectionality long before it became a buzzword, what current discussion around “Black women voters” gets wrong, how worried we should be about current threats to American democracy and much more.

Mentioned:

A Voice from the South by Anna J. Cooper

Book recommendations:

All That She Carried by Tiya Miles

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom

This episode is guest-hosted by Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist whose work focuses on the intersection of politics and history. Before joining The Times in 2019, he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. You can read his work here and follow him on Twitter @jbouie. (Learn more about the other guest hosts during Ezra’s parental leave here.)

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Mary Marge Locker and Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld, audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.

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