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The Presidential Center Directors and Preserving Democracy in America



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When the Institute was founded more than 17 years ago, the university charged it with conducting research into our nation’s democratic governance processes and policies at all scales of analysis. Accordingly, we are ever interested not only in investigating the array of factors shaping those processes and decisions, but also whether the nation itself remains committed to the principles that sustain individual freedom and democratic possibility.  We therefore took immediate note when, on September 7, with the leadership of the George W. Bush Institute, the directors of presidential centers and foundations for 13 presidents—all of those since Herbert Hoover, with the exception of the Eisenhower center—took the unprecedented step of releasing a common statement expressing concern about the relative vitality of American democracy:

We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount. Americans have a strong interest in supporting democratic movements and respect for human rights around the world because free societies elsewhere contribute to our own security and prosperity here at home. But that interest is undermined when others see our own house in disarray.

        Without naming specific individuals, these center directors called on,

elected officials [to] lead by example and govern effectively in ways that deliver for the American people. This, in turn, will help to restore trust in public service. The rest of us must engage in civil dialogue; respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.1

        This extraordinary bipartisan expression of concern from these important leaders underscores just how perilous our present political situation has become for the maintenance of the democratic principles of human dignity, of the rule of law and of due process of law. It comes as former president Donald Trump and other officials and advisors in his administration and in the Republican Party, and others that he and they incited to commit criminal acts, are now being indicted or sentenced for crimes. Meanwhile, the GOP has followed Trump in declaring that all these legal processes constitute political persecutions and that once elected, that party and Trump will reap righteous vengeance in supposedly equally partisan terms. All of this is an outrageous lie and an obvious attack on democracy that the directors of these centers and foundations have rightly noted represents a clear and present danger to our polity.

        As we enter what will be a perilous national election cycle with Trump the likely Republican presidential nominee, I find myself reflecting on what it means to watch a major United States political party adopt an electoral strategy that encourages its partisans to embrace lies, to hate, to ignore and attack the due process and rule of law, and to undermine human dignity, all in the name of a supposedly organized political persecution that does not, and has never, existed. This turn is profoundly dangerous for freedom, as once unleashed, anger and hatred, whether righteous or deeply misguided, always bring unforeseen consequences and costs and our nation’s present situation is no exception to that well-worn rule.

        I highlighted one example of GOP efforts to elicit and manifest that electoral strategy, that hatred, in a recent Soundings that featured Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s efforts to rally partisans to loathe refugees, asylees and migrants for political gain.2 He tells his supporters that the danger these individuals and groups represent is so extreme that it justifies denying them water amidst 100 degree-plus temperatures. That gubernatorial order, alleged by a Texas State Trooper serving as a medic, set me thinking, in turn, of the inhumanity, abasement of the rule of law and cruelty such a stance entails. For their part, and on grounds of a hatred also born of scapegoating and like social hierarchical claims, the Nazis systematically denied prisoners at Auschwitz and other internment and extermination camps adequate water in the name of their supposed lack of deservingness as “subhumans without rights” and to hasten their demise for that same reason.

        This sort of descent into bestiality is but a stone’s throw psychologically from what the Texas governor and his allies and the GOP are today embracing. Denying people water has profound physical and psychological consequences, as the few survivors of the Nazi Camps have reported:

Reason begins to waver. It is crushed by thirst.
Thirst was worse than hunger.
All of us were terribly dehydrated. It isn’t easy to assert self-control in a situation like that, but it was life-threatening to all of us to lose control over ourselves and to give in to despair —to not use some wisdom in our judgements and actions.3

        These are realities, not lies pressed foremost by nominally “populist” leaders and officials to elicit breast-beating hatred and anger. They represent the individual human cost of the fables now being pressed and believed by GOP supporters. Those lies are distinctly and distinctively dangerous for that very reason. These stands are choices, adopted both by those propounding them and by those choosing to believe them. Abbott did not need to place razor wire-laced buoys in the Rio Grande River or order that refugees be denied water; he selected those actions, apparently believing that enacting his lies in so heinous a way would garner popularity with his supporters. While they have done that with many, they have also imperiled and killed innocents and morally degraded and criminally implicated all those complicit in their implementation even as they have undermined the principles of human dignity and the rule of law.

        I wish I could argue this scenario has never before occurred in the United States, but that is surely not true. Across our history as a nation, elected leaders and would-be officials have profited by demeaning targeted groups, whether immigrants, women, Native Americans, Japanese and Chinese Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, the Irish, Slavs, or members of supposedly dangerous faiths, including Roman Catholics and believers in Islam, among many others that might be cited. In each case officials and would be political leaders have targeted these groups for popular hatred for political gain and in each instance their efforts have undermined the civil and human rights of those set apart. In each case too and very like today, there was no evidence that these individuals were innately evil or malicious, but they were surely different or “other” and therefore easy marks for the fear mongers seeking to use them to stir ire and hate. Today, as has historically occurred and often just as tragically, refugees and immigrants are the GOP’s principal but hardly only, target for such efforts. And as has occurred before, millions of Americans have shown themselves willing to believe the lies offered concerning these groups, however obviously outrageous or ignorant those assertions might be.

        The presidential foundation and institute directors have called on Americans instead to accept the innate pluralism of their polity and to engage in respectful dialogue when conflicts inevitably arise, implicitly relying on broad acceptance of the rule of law and human dignity as they did so. But it is just those tenets that the GOP now ridicules on the argument that holding Trump and others accountable for their alleged crimes is simply partisan and that there is and can be no rule of law apart from those in power attaining what they want when they want it, irrespective of the costs of those actions to alleged enemies, including other Americans.

        Ultimately, there is no easy way out of this quagmire, and Trump intends to do all he can to keep such “dialogue” as may occur at the level of conspiracy and fear mongering. In any case, the presidential center directors were right to contend that such discourse must not go unchallenged. Such demagoguery must be met at every turn in the name of the democratic principles it seeks to undermine. The reality the GOP now demands be set aside in favor of a fantasy world fueled and ruled by anger and hatred must be challenged as the ugly anti-democratic construct it is. In a very real sense, the hope of our polity lies in whether its population will ultimately evidence sufficient cultural; that is, democratic, resistance to the current torrent of claims of hatred to overcome them. This elemental question is not unique to the United States. It is, rather, as old as humankind.

        The leaders of the presidential centers have provided a signal and powerful example for all. This said, we promise here at the Institute to monitor this situation and to report on it as truthfully as we can while also honoring the principles of human dignity and the rule of law otherwise now broadly under attack by one of our major political parties. Like all lovers of human freedom, we wish matters were different, but they are not, and we cannot and should not pretend otherwise because it is easier to do so. This assault on democracy and freedom must be challenged head on and we aim to continue to do our part in efforts to do so.


1 Kramer, David, J., “Strengthening our Democracy: Presidential Centers Affirm that Democracy Holds Us Together,”, Accessed September 8, 2023. 

2 Stephenson, Max Jr., “Hope and Possibility Amidst Human Depravity,” Soundings, September 11, 2023,, Accessed September 11, 2023.

3 Cywiński, Piotr, M.A., Auschwitz: A Monograph on the Human, Oswieçim, Poland: Auschwitz State Museum, 2022, pp. 131=132. 

Publication Date

October 1, 2023