S.6 E.4: “Democracy Requires an Argument”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumnus and democracy expert Joel Johnson '96.
Posted on December 17th, 2020 by

Gustavus alum Joel Johnson ’96, the Sanford Peter Schotten Distinguished Professor and member of the Department of Government and International Affairs at Augustana University, talks about his experiences at Gustavus and then Harvard, why democracy requires an argument for it, defending liberal democracy through literature, and the case for studying political science.

Season 6, Episode 4: “Democracy Requires an Argument”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

“Democracy is coming to the USA,” proclaimed Leonard Cohen in his 1992 song Democracy. Today, more than a few people think and have said it’s on the verge of leaving or worse has already left. Part of a global turn against democracy in countries like Hungary, Turkey, India, Brazil, and perhaps even the United States. The present focus on democracy’s fate here and internationally, has made me eager to speak with my guest today, Professor Joel Johnson of the government and International Affairs Department at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Joel is an interesting, provocative and deep thinker about democracy in the US whose work I have long admired and learn from. In full disclosure, I had the pleasure of being one of Joel’s professors during his undergraduate years at Gustavus, where he double majored in political science and honors history, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude in 1996. He went on to earn both his MA and PhD in political science from Harvard University, and subsequently joined the faculty at Augustana in 2003, where he currently chairs the Social Science Division, and holds the Sanford Peter Schotten Distinguished Professor Chair of Government.

Prior to holding that chair, Joel was Augustana Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values. He’s also received summer research funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fulbright senior Scholar Award for teaching and research in Marburg, Germany. In addition to teaching courses in such topics as political philosophy, theories of justice, American political thought, and politics and literature, Joel has also authored numerous articles, chapters, conference papers, op eds, and reviews. Along with a terrific book titled Beyond Practical Virtue, a defense of liberal democracy through literature about which we’ll get into in a bit. Like his other former profs at Gustavus, I am unabashedly proud of Joel’s many accomplishments and it’s my great pleasure to say welcome to the podcast, Joel.

Joel Johnson:

Thank you, Greg. It is an honor to be here speaking with you today. And thank you for that kind introduction.

Greg Kaster:

You are quite welcome. My pleasure. So glad we could. I know the last time we saw each other was when maybe two, was it two years ago, when you came to Gustavus?

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, a couple years ago on a campus visit.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, we’ve we’ve known each a long … Well, we’ve known each other maybe, I don’t know if it was since your first year at Gustavus, but early on, that’s for sure.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, you were my advisor from the very start. So you can take credit for anything that I’ve accomplished.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I’ll take credit for all the good and the bad, I should take credit for the bad too. I know it’s great to have this kind of conversation which you and I haven’t had in such a long time. I’ve been looking forward to it. So how are things going at Augustana first of all, we’re in the middle of this awful pandemic, are you teaching everything online?

Joel Johnson:

I’m teaching in a hybrid format. So the course that I have on theories of justice is partly in person, partly online. So we have to be able to accommodate students who have to go online for a period of time. So it’s been a different experience. It’s felt like my first year teaching again, everything’s different. All the assignments that I normally would rely upon, I have to do differently and pick out other ways of assessing student learning. But students have risen to the challenge. I hope that I for the most part have risen to that challenge, but it’s been quite a ride. Definitely.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, everyone I’ve spoken to about this both, off mic and for the podcasts to a person we say the same thing that the students have really risen to the challenge. For all the, suppose the complaining and they really are, for the most part, doing the work and learning. It is a challenge though, it’s certainly different just to … I’m doing all online. So I’d planned to do hybrid, but then, I guess I got cold feet as things worsen for a bit. But in any case, I’ve had some really good discussions, because I know you have too. It’s certainly not a lost year or another lost semester far from it.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. I can only imagine what things would be like if we didn’t have some of these tools available to us, if this happened even five years ago.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you. Yes. No kidding. In one of my, Well, I guess in the methods course I had them look at a June video lecture by a historian about 1918 and just thinking about. I mean, we wouldn’t be able to do this obviously. I don’t know what we’d do and also, I don’t know what went on at Augustana. I did some research over the summer, sort of for fun, poking around in student publications at Gustavus in 1918, 1919. And which are online, it’s amazing and searchable. There’s virtually nothing about the influence of epidemic it was in Minnesota, I mean, virtually nothing. There’s a little bit and then the largest item I could find, the longest item was about the impact on the football schedule.

Joel Johnson:

Of course, that’s what matters at the end.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly right. Yeah. So well, let’s talk a little bit about democracy. Let’s start there, as I did in my introduction. What’s your assessment of the health of democracy, both in the US and if you feel like it internationally, as well. I think it’s maybe in your book where you point out democracy. It’s always had its critics, right? But go ahead, where are we at?

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. I think I approached this from the perspective of political philosophy and in the history of political philosophy. The arguments for democracy have always had to compete with the arguments for other regimes, other forms of government. And so I guess it’s always been clear to me that democracy requires an argument on its behalf, that it requires defense. That it’s not simply going to happen and drop into our laps, and we’ll be happy with it forever.

And so I look at the current state of the world through that lens, that democracy can in fact, be opposed with arguments, perhaps convincing arguments to some. And that’s, I think, really the challenge for us. That we need to understand why we have such affection for democracy, why is it that we need to defend it and what arguments can we bring to bear in its defense?

So I think there’s lots of evidence, as you noted in the intro, that there’s democratic backsliding, there’s some countries who are putting up, I think quite strong arguments for a very different model of how society should be structured. Maybe allowing for economic freedom, but not political liberty and political democracy. And so I think causes us to really think through what is it about democracy, that we need to make clear to the rest of the world to our own country, as to why it’s important to us.

And I think teaching a political philosophy class last spring, in the midst of the pandemic brought this really home for a lot of my students. That it wasn’t just academic reading that they were doing, but they could see this being applied to the headlines practically every single day, as we were all struggling to manage, zoom and figure out what’s next. So I think that’s how I look at things right now. That democracy is always potentially in trouble, and it needs to have defenders and people need to stand up for it and argue for it.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great, I mean, it’s a great point. The point about arguing for it. What does it mean to keep a democracy, right? Or a democratic republic, but what that means is making a case for it. And not only in practice, but in terms of, well, philosophy theory argument, as you said. I think that’s a terrific point. And another reason to have a liberal arts and political science education.

Joel Johnson:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

And I also like the point, you’re reminding us, I think this is really important also, that democracy is always in a way in trouble. But what about now? Are you optimistic, hopeful, pessimistic about the condition, the future of democracy?

Joel Johnson:

I think it’s cloudy. I think it really is something where you could imagine things going in a number of different directions. I think what we need to be clear about is what we mean by democracy, and how democracy, I guess is connected to things like the rule of law, protections of liberalism of individual rights to make sure that … So the problem with democracy ever since ancient times was that you would have factionalism and a majority faction might oppress some minority faction. You would have civil war and so you read federalist nine and Hamilton’s talking about the need to not oscillate between anarchy and tyranny.

And so democracy always has that danger of falling into one trap or another. But if you safeguarded enough, and this is where constitutionalism comes in, you safeguard democracy enough, you can preserve it from falling one way or the other. And I think we’re seeing some real challenges right now. And maybe it requires a recommitment to some of the constitutional safeguards that we’ve placed on democracy rather ingeniously, I think, in some ways, but we’ve forgotten why we did that.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. And I completely agree with what you just said about the safeguards where I’m at, from the start, I guess, from the start of President Trump’s violation, and I don’t mean this in a partisan way it’s just a fact, right? By violating whatever we’re doing. Not following, not observing long standing norms. The way so many of our safeguards are in fact, even laws right, depend on some agreement to follow them. But I’ve doubted maybe more than others the resiliency of our institutions but we shall see. I hope I’m wrong. I haven’t given up on that resiliency, or on those safeguards, but it seems that a lot of them have been thrown by the wayside willfully. But you’re helping me feel a little better, Joel, thank you. Especially that notion that democracy has always been troubled and that we need to make an argument for it. I think that’s really important.

Joel Johnson:

And on the point of constitutions, and legal norms, and all that sort of stuff, Abraham Lincoln’s speech to the young men’s Lyceum is on point. The idea that in normal times, people could be satisfied with their constitutional order. But what happens if you have someone with the spirit of a Napoleon, for example? Are they going to be satisfied with the ordinary rewards of being a senator or a member of the House? And so can you account for the fact that there’s sometimes these large personalities with large ambitions? And can a democratic republic, even one that’s well hedged in with constitutional safeguards, can they handle it? I think that’s that’s always an open question, even in a well established democratic republic.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I agree. And it certainly isn’t the first time that question has come up in an intense way. But in my lifetime, and nowhere near as intensely as now. Not even during Watergate for me anyways, I think back on that. But it’s funny you mentioned the Lincoln’s speech by the way, because I’m teaching the Civil War seminar again, which that may have been the last class you had with me, I can’t remember-

Joel Johnson:

Might have been.

Greg Kaster:

Might have been in 96. I was there. I’ve been there about 10 years. Anyway that’s certainly one of the documents we read. But in that course, as we look at Lincoln and his thinking, and how it evolved over time, especially with respect to slavery. But talk a little bit about first of all your own background and how you made to Gustavus. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up, how you became interested in, why Gustavus and why ultimately, political science and history?

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. Well, it’s I guess, an interesting story. At some level, I grew up in small towns throughout the Midwest. I went to high school in Thief River Falls so far Northwestern Minnesota. And I did well in school, and admissions counselors came to visit. But my guidance counselor I think really didn’t think that anything beyond maybe Fargo-Moorhead or Bemidji would be the extent of what anyone who was a good student could really hope or look for. So there was an admission’s counselor from Gustavus that came all the way up to Thief River. I met with her, had a campus tour, really enjoyed the campus tour. And the most important thing I think, in my decision was that compared to St. Olaf, Gustavus had better food-

Greg Kaster:

That’s really true, I think. I think that’s so true.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, I think it’s still true. And at 18 that seemed to be really important in the balance of considerations. But I remember really liking the campus tour, I spoke with professors, it just seemed like a place I could imagine myself at for four years. So yeah, and the rest was history. Well, quite literally, I became a history major, but I was also bio. I thought I was maybe going to go pre-med.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I forgot about that. I forgot all about that.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. And so maybe it’s a combination of there being an election going on in the fall of 92. That was back in those olden days where George Herbert Walker Bush was running for president and we had Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show at Ross Perot, as a spoiler as an independent candidate.

So there’s a lot going on and maybe that helped shift me more towards interest in politics. But spring of that first year, as I was still taking Chem and bio courses along with history courses, I remember this moment. I was in yet another lab in the afternoon, and looking outside and seeing all my friends play Ultimate Frisbee. But I don’t know if I can spend all my afternoons for the rest of my life in a lab. And so in the end, I spent the rest of my time in libraries-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, in libraries to see [crosstalk 00:14:25].

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, so maybe it was, again speaking as an 18, 19 year old and my decision making was not all that clear, but I really loved my opening history classes. I distinctly remember Kevin Byrne coming dressed up as various characters that first year in the American survey. Dano’s drums intro to poli sci class really piqued my curiosity. And yet-

Greg Kaster:

And was Ron Christensen in poli sci? He was there, right?

Joel Johnson:

He was. He was my advisor in political science. And sophomore year when I decided that I would add poli sci to history and I was kind of dumping the bio and chem stuff. I came up to him after a class and I said to him, I’m looking for an advisor in the political science department. And deadpan he responded, well, I hope you find him.

Greg Kaster:

That sounds like Ron.

Joel Johnson:

It does.

Greg Kaster:

Ron who’s now passed away sadly. But Ron who did really interesting work on political trials and which you’ve done a bit of as well on your teaching, I think we can come to that maybe later. A couple of things. One, it’s so funny, again the consistency and comments. And I suppose this is true of any school that one attends where you feel it’s you, where you feel you belong. Sounds trite I know but it’s powerful. Everyone has commented on that. Everybody I’ve interviewed, students, alums. But that sense of I can see myself here, I can picture myself here and then the food.

Some episodes ago, some recordings ago, I don’t remember how many, I interviewed Steve children, who’s the head of Dining Services, among other things. He’s just done a phenomenal job. He might have been there when you were there I can’t remember. Anyway, and that really matters, right? I mean, something like food and facilities that matters a great deal. And it’s also important. And I told him what if our students weren’t well nourished? How are they going to do the intellectual heavy lifting they need to do? So I appreciate what you said about the Friday.

Joel Johnson:

And what builds community better than eating in common.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Joel Johnson:

So it’s a residential liberal arts experience. So you should be gathered around the table and have discussions continue past the formal end of a class.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. Well, you probably remember. I mean, I think even at that point, I know at that point, the history factory certainly we were eating, God knows we were eating everything we could get our hands on. We were into food and bringing food to class. In fact, I think it was your class maybe. The Civil War seminar we may have met at our home then, our home in St. Peter, but also maybe at Patrick’s one of the local taverns I can’t remember.

Joel Johnson:

At your home once at least and down at the Chestnut Tree Cafe.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s right, Chestnut Tree. Yeah, which is no longer there. But we have River Rock instead. Yeah, that’s right. I mean food and thought, right, important they go together. And literally Lisa Heldke that’s what she works on in philosophy, Gustavus faculty member. Tell us a little bit about what you worked on for both poli sci and history honors. I don’t remember for your history honors, you did a paper tell us a little bit about that. But also I don’t remember was our capstone you did at that point in poli sci as well?

Joel Johnson:

It was. Poli sci had a similar kind of requirements. You do an independent research paper with an advisor and I worked with Ron Christiansen on that. And it was about US constitutional law and principles and how they related to the Declaration of Independence. The history thesis, which you advised was … I was really interested in the fact that there was this consensus view of American political thought, that there’s this liberal tradition, a classic liberal tradition in American political thought. But that prior to the Civil War, you had almost a NEO feudal kind of thought coming out of the south. And writers like George Fitzhugh, who would make the argument not just that slavery is a necessary evil, but it’s a positive good for our concern.

And I was struck by that, how could someone make such an argument that may be interesting, where does that argument come from? What’s the intellectual lineage of it? And that caused me to look all the way back to Aristotle for it and book one of the politics. And trying to tease out how defenders of slavery at that time made this argument that on the one hand, had ancient lineage, but at the same time, could be joined with an argument against northern capitalism. That you’d have wage slavery as being worse than actual physical slavery.

And you had to kind of show how that was embedded in a tradition of argumentation that stretched all the way back to the ancient Greeks, but also selectively quoted the ancient Greeks and missed a lot of the complexity and say, Aristotle’s thought. But yeah, that was kind of the focus of that that thesis.

Greg Kaster:

I remember it well, and I fondly remember that was your senior year. I think it was in one semester, maybe over two semesters, we did the honors thesis.

Joel Johnson:

I think so. Over two semesters.

Greg Kaster:

I definitely remember being in my old office in the social science building, which is by the way, I don’t know if you’ve been there? It’s been renovated and it’s beautiful. Used to be-

Joel Johnson:

Completely different.

Greg Kaster:

Oh my goodness. It’s so much nicer. But there we were and I remember it’s one of the things I so enjoyed about you and any student like you. The give and take we had, as we spoke about Fitzhugh, but also about other related readings like fire, the historian Eric Foner’s work on free labor ideology in the north. And yeah, you wrote that wonderful, marvelous piece. I don’t know if it changed your view to Fitzhugh, what do you think? Did you come to a bunch of dead pipes, what did you feel about Fitzhugh by the end of the process?

Joel Johnson:

Well, it’s kind of like watching a car wreck. It’s something that fortunately has been excised from American thought. But there’s the interesting way in which the pro slavery thought also becomes a critique of free labor, Which again gets to the Foner coverage, you get to arguments about free labor and free soil in the north. And how even Abraham Lincoln took Fitzhugh seriously at some level. You have to engage with that argument and show why it’s misguided and wrong and the parts that you disagree with. So I don’t know, maybe that contributed to my notion that democracy, if you really value democracy, you have to stand up for it and defend it.

Greg Kaster:

You’re taking words out of my mouth. I was just about to say that. And Fitzhugh one has to reckon with him, right? He’s not a superficial thinker, far from it. You mentioned Aristotle and sort of going back. Did you take, were you a classics minor, did you study classics at Gustavus too?

Joel Johnson:

No, I didn’t. I did take Latin. I took Latin for a couple of years.

Greg Kaster:

Well did you-

Joel Johnson:

I guess that counts for something, but it’s not Greek.

Greg Kaster:

So did your connection with Aristotle, your engagement with Aristotle come through political science?

Joel Johnson:

Mostly. And mostly early on in grad school, realizing that. You get some of that in a political science major and undergrad, but I wasn’t seeking out necessarily additional courses in political theory as an undergrad. That was a later developing interest. And I think actually a lot of my interest and big ideas came from taking intellectual history type courses in the history department.

So really like Tom Emmer, its 19th century intellectual history course that opened up things beyond the American experience. So the awareness of the broader debates.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Joel Johnson:

But going back to the Greeks, I think it was mostly a grad school experience, building on what I already knew of more recent times.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Well, let’s talk about grad school. So off you went to Harvard, and I don’t remember, were other schools in the mix for you or was Harvard pretty much it from the start? I can’t recall.

Joel Johnson:

In the end, it came down to Notre Dame and Harvard. And I think it was a close call, in terms of where I felt like I fit better. But I think the choice was a good one in the end, and lucked out by having some good advisors in what was maybe otherwise a difficult department to get through if you weren’t kind of a self starter. And always pushing yourself and taking advantage of opportunities because nothing’s going to be handed to you.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I want to ask you about you, you worked closely. Was he your thesis advisor Michael Sandal?

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. Michael Sandel was my thesis advisor, he was also … Sometimes there are these moments where you go back and you say, Well, I’m glad I made that decision rather than another because you’re coming out, I was coming out of my second year of my master’s PhD study. And the third year and beyond, you have to start making real connections to some faculty. And one way to do that is to become their teaching assistant.

And there was a moment where I went up to a couple of these esteemed professors, and volunteered to be a teaching assistant for one of the courses they were planning for the fall of my third year, and not expecting success. I was asked to be part of the teaching core for that. And so that started the process of coming to know some of these professors a little bit better, and then eventually working with them. And I did a lot of teaching as a TA in grad school. And I think that helped me gain access where it would have been more difficult otherwise.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s good advice for any student thinking about graduate school. The other thing is Sandel is like he’s famous in terms of his … What’s the course he teaches? I don’t know if he still does at Harvard, where it’s just packed. [crosstalk 00:24:46]. Yes, thank you. That’s what I’m thinking. Tell us a little bit about him, what it was like working with him. He’s a superstar.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. So coming from Gustavus small class sizes, a very intimate atmosphere for teaching and learning. I show up at Harvard and the graduate seminars are all fairly small. But then you go to start teaching and helping teach undergraduates. And you could be in a room that holds 800 students. And you have one superstar professor giving the lectures a couple times a week, but a lot of the actual teaching and guiding people through discussion happens in discussion sections of maybe 18 or 20 students.

And so I guess I’d had plenty of experience being in classes of that size. So I felt like I could just kind of copy what I had seen done by Marcus Davis professors and try to do it somewhat good in many, many of these discussion sections. So I think it was really valuable training. I leaned a lot on what I learned from my professors at Gustavus, frankly. They’d go like, how would Greg Kaster teach this subject? How would Ron Christiansen teach this subject? And unfortunately, had those memories in my mind of how to go forward.

Greg Kaster:

Well, thank you. First of all, Ron would say the same thing but it’s so true that. I never took an Ed course. I’ve never taken an Ed course. And I still catch myself I mean, channeling. I become conscious of channeling a high school teacher who had a profound impact on me or an undergraduate teacher or even a graduate teacher. So I think what you’re describing is both true and pretty common. What about Sandel as a mentor? I mean, what was that relationship like?

Joel Johnson:

So I ended up serving as the head teaching fellow teaching assistant for this big class several times. And overseeing, I think it was like 22 or 24, other teaching assistants. By the time you break down a class that big into intersections, you need a lot of personnel. But I would have access to them literally backstage, because he would be in a waiting room, a hallway, a staircase, just off the stage in front of the large auditorium, Sanders theater.

And so there’d always be a moment or two, where we’d be able to just kind of chat as we’re getting ready for the time to go on. And those were nice moments. And then I would have the opportunity to meet with him weekly to kind of go over course administration issues. And I would say, oh, by the way, I’ve got this issue I’m struggling with my dissertation, I was hoping we could talk about it for a few minutes. But beyond that he was very generous with his time and comments, and supportive all the way through. And I always felt really fortunate to have a superstar like that. Take the time to really focus in on a student and say, here’s some advice I would give you.

Greg Kaster:

That mentor advisor relationship, at the undergraduate level too it’s just so important. The book comes out of your dissertation is that right am I remembering correctly? So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about that. It’s just a great, a wonderful book came out when it was at 2007 or around then?

Joel Johnson:

Yes, 2007.

Greg Kaster:

And one of the things that I … You know more about this than I do. But it seems to one of the original aspects of your work is the way you focus on literature as a lens through which you examine issues related to democracy. So I’ll let us say more about the book than I will. But essentially, you’re looking in the book at critics like Nietzsche, thinkers like Frederick Nietzsche and Thomas Carlyle. Critics of democracies ability or also may be inability to allow the individual to develop. It’s an aesthetic critique is that right? I mean more than-

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. There’s a good word to describe it but I would say it’s sort of an aesthetic critique. That democracy, its critics in the 19th century. They would concede that democracy could lead to equality could maybe lead to prosperity. Roast goose with applesauce for everyone, according to Thomas Carlyle. So that’s all fine and good. But the critique then shifts, and it says, Well, you could maybe achieve all those things, but you’re not going to have culture, you’re not going to have the development of the individual because there’s no class above that elevates society.

That argument is one that most 19th century Americans just simply ignore. But it’s a nerve with some because they wouldn’t be happy simply with saying that democracy is good at making things prosperous and equal, but they would want to be able to live up to the old world standards of culture.

And so where this argument actually gets addressed, I think most interestingly is within literature, the stories that novelists are telling. And sometimes that’s the most effective way of getting back against the criticism. Is to show how in the micro level, you’re dealing with individuals within the context of democracy. You see them develop and flourish in a way that gets overlooked by outside critics. And in fact, that development might even be a more genuine or authentic kind of human flourishing than what might be present if you simply have a lot of aristocrats going around in carriages in art museums and so on.

Greg Kaster:

And so you’re quite explicitly pushing back against the argument advanced by people like Carlisle and Nietzsche. I know you look at William Dean Howls, right? Tell us a little bit about the literature you look at and a little bit more about what you tease out of it.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, so I look at William Dean Howls, Jameson Mark Cooper and Mark Twain. I think Twain of the three he’s my guy. I think if you-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that makes me happy Joel. I was just about to say my favorite. I used to dress up as 20 when I was in high school. I had a white suit, a rocker and my dad wouldn’t let me smoke cigars. But oh, I would keep going? Yes, I’m all yours.

Joel Johnson:

I think there needs to be photographic evidence to this.

Greg Kaster:

It’s probably here somewhere. Yeah, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Joel Johnson:

I think really Twain in particular most explicitly takes on that critique. In fact, in an article I just finished a couple months ago, I look at Twain’s response to Matthew Arnold, who’s one of the English writers who carries on this critique of American culture, that is never going to amount to anything. And Twain, he gets pretty vicious in his response to Arnold in particular. And his novel, a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, could be read as a response to Arnold that, well, you in the old world don’t have much in the way of culture either.

So there’s a lot going on there. But it’s difficult to respond to that critique in standard kind of argumentation, other than to say, Well, yes, obviously, people have culture in a democracy. But to be able to tell it in a story is, I think, a little bit more effective. And that’s why I was looking in Cooper for his understanding of how engagement with nature unleashes part of human potential that might not be there otherwise. Howls in the struggle for improvement. Not just material improvement but including material improvements. The fact of upward mobility can in fact bring out certain virtues that wouldn’t necessarily be called out in a more stagnant society that’s hierarchical. Really, my love is there for Twain.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, you mentioned the article, which is just for listeners. I think it’s the one that was published in the political science reviewers is that? Yeah. It’s called a Discriminating Irreverence, Matthew Arnold and Mark Twain on democratic culture and humor. Can you say a little bit more about that humor part of that?

Joel Johnson:

Right. So I argue that Twain sees a certain kind of humor as being essential for elevating democracy. For blowing up all of the big misconceptions, the big lies, the way in which we might get manipulated, and told false truths and all of that. That a certain kind of humor can blow that up. And so I go through that article, looking at some of the passages where were Twain talks about that, and also looking at some examples of how he accomplishes that himself. And so the discriminating irreverence, not simply irreverence that doesn’t do it, but a discriminating irreverence that knows its targets, and is going for the deep untruths. And not just for the surface things.

Greg Kaster:

And this fabulous one, too. This relates, I assume to, I can’t remember if it’s something you published or is a presentation about John, was it John Stewart. And the daily-

Joel Johnson:

Oh, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Is there something going on there? I mean, it’s similar to Stuart’s pure … I mean, he’s no longer … Go ahead.

Joel Johnson:

I do cite him. I do point out that famous moment on CNN Crossfire, where the Stewart appeared, and told both participants, you’re hurting us, you’re hurting America, by doing this. By pretending that your view is the whole truth and not simply a partial one. And I think survived pretty well over time as one of those moments where you’re probing beneath is simply making fun of the foibles of politicians and so on. But getting at something deeper, that is important to the flourishing of democracy itself.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I agree. I love that. I think Stewart would say, we’ve all heard him say, I’m not I’m not a journalist, this isn’t really a new show. But it’s a serious show in that way. I mean, just you’re saying. What was your phrase, irreverent?

Joel Johnson:

Discriminating Irreverence.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, Irreverence.

Joel Johnson:

It’s a line from Twain.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, which I think Stewart and Trevor know and two others. I mean, Colbert had it in his show the original show. Yeah. And you’re also reminding me this relates to your point about argument and democracy. That democracy requires … I mean, there are plenty of arguments against that we need to argue for those who believe in it. And maybe we forget that one powerful, effective way of doing that is through art, through literature. And we ignore that at our peril I would say. I just love, I guess I’m maybe an intellectual historian at heart in the sense that I love reading texts closely. And you are so good at that. And the book is just wonderful. It’s a great read. I’m a fan of Howls too. I used to use some of his novels in the US survey course.

But I urge people to read it. It’s a timely book. And if I were in charge, which I’m not every government official would have to read it, talk about every professor. I wanted to ask you too another one of my favorites of your articles is the one on Uncle Tom moral reasoning and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And I’ve developed the last many years, I don’t know if I was teaching the course when you were there Joel, but I’ve it called American lives. And I focus typically on Harriet Beecher Stowe, who’s the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abraham Lincoln, and then Frederick Douglass. But tell us a little bit about your argument in that article. And also, what is moral reasoning all about?

Joel Johnson:

How much time do we have?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I know. And you held a chair in that so.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, right. So I was really fascinated with that book. I had not read it until I think well into my 20s. And it’s one of those books that I guess going back to Twain, it’s a classic, because everyone talks about it, nobody’s read it. But actually reading it, I was impressed by the complexity, in terms of how it dealt with people’s responses to injustice. And that if you read that book, you can actually create a whole typology of how people respond, reasonable or not, to evidence of injustice.

And so there’s some who find very creative ways to ignore it, to pretend it’s not happening. You have others who respond with quietude or passivity. They find ways of justifying it. They act in ways that involve violence, nonviolent resistance, and the way in which they come to those decisions, I think, really interested me. And I thought Stewart did a nice job throughout that book. Of talking about how real people might reason through confronting deep injustice.

So what is moral reasoning all about? I think it’s about how do people figure out the right thing to do when confronted with those kinds of choices. And I think that book is very rich, it deserves to still be read quite widely today.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. You know the history of the book and some of our listeners too, as well. An absolute sensation. I had a prof once in graduate school who, bad pun it was a runaway bestseller. Of course, focuses on … Allies are running away but running north. And then Uncle Tom Cabin. Having the book then, it’s a masterpiece. And then it gets a bad rap deservedly, in some ways, certainly, in the 20th century, even earlier by male literary critics. But it’s an absolutely phenomenal book and exactly the way you were describing.

Students just in the American lives class, which are teaching again online, read it, and they’re reading a biography of Stewart as well. But it deserves to be read and reread.  And it’s so much more complicated than the critics. And as you said, so many people haven’t read it, right? Quick to criticize it, they’ve never read it. They’ve heard about it, but it is such a complicated book morally in all kinds of ways.

You got the kind Shelby is a slave holder who forced to sell allies to pay debts, right? And then Uncle Tom, who’s well, spoiler alert sort of Christ figure right? The opposite of what that phrase Uncle Tom means today in important ways. Anyway, and there’s no way to understand that book or Stewart without putting both in their historical context. So I just love that article. Thank you. And so when you had that chair in moral reasoning, what were you doing? Were you teaching people how to reason morally?

Joel Johnson:

Well, each inhabitant of that chair gets to kind of decide how they’re going to use that period of three years. And for me, I felt that I was best able to simply well, sponsor discussions, providing readings in advance that might take two different sides on an issue and then moderate discussion. That worked, I think pretty well. All kinds of different issues would hold some reading groups. And I guess it stretched me a bit because some of it stretches beyond what I’m comfortable in political philosophy or in history, but into matters of theology. But to play that role of facilitator, moderator, encouraged that was kind of how I saw it.

It was also during the time when the Ferguson-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah.

Joel Johnson:

Everything was arising with Ferguson, Michael Brown. So I helped organize an event where we brought law enforcement, community leaders together to talk things through with students. It was a multi person endeavor to pull this off. But I think that was maybe the most memorable thing from that period of time, where we took advantage of the fact that at our small liberal arts colleges, we can sit down and talk things through with good faith efforts. And I think it was a pretty productive moment. With a lot of people really getting into it, and baring their souls as it were.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And that’s another important point. Just a quick aside, I mean, this sort of stereotype about, just college students are thin skinned or yelling or screaming, unable to having no. Come to our campuses where these really difficult conversations are taking place, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. That sounds like a fantastic event, if I can use that that word. What about the current chair, if I’m pronouncing correctly, the [shorten 00:42:26] distinguished chair. Does that have a particular focus?

Joel Johnson:

It doesn’t. It’s more just an honorary chair. And that’s in recognition of scholarship and teaching.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Congratulations on that. Yeah, exciting. The other thing you’ve had, of course, I think we may be exchanged emails. You sent me a wonderful poster, which is still in my office.

Joel Johnson:

Oh, right. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I think it was a worker, he was like be punctual, the worker headed to the factory but in German. But you had this, it was a year-long Fulbright or not?

Joel Johnson:

It was.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So tell us a little bit about that. Both the program, the Fulbright Program but also your experience in Germany?

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. So coming up to my first sabbatical, having made it through tenure, and applied to the Fulbright Program thinking this kind of a long shot. And I’m someone who studies mostly American political thoughts, and I don’t have a whole lot of expertise in say, European politics. But I thought I would apply just to see what happened and didn’t hear, didn’t hear, didn’t hear. And then eventually did here and found out that they were going to be offering me this Fulbright, in the department of American and English Studies at the University of Marburg, which is just north of Frankfurt, Germany.

And of course, that sets everything in motion, like how can we do this, do we have to move? We just went to a new house, so you’ve got to figure out what to do for that year. But it was wonderful. And I taught some courses that, again, maybe speak to my liberal arts training, that these weren’t things that necessarily I would have taught at Augustana. But because I think the liberal arts training enables you to go beyond your core specialty with some ease, even if you aren’t an expert, you can stretch into it a bit.

So they wanted me to teach about America. That was the thing that maybe I hadn’t really thought about in advance. Was if I’m going to a country like Germany, I’m there as the person from the far country who can teach from my own experience, about my own country, my own politics and history. So I taught a course on the American frontier, which was really fascinating to do. Taught an intro to American politics, taught a course on American politics and literature.

So kind of it really was an American Studies type of position where it wasn’t just politics, but a wide variety of things. And then as a Fulbright Scholar, the American Embassy and the consulate in Frankfurt would schedule me to give talks throughout the country-

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Joel Johnson:

On American issues. That was right when the 2010 election was going on. So the Tea Party was rising up, it was still first couple years of President Obama’s term. So that was fascinating to be able to go to all these civic groups and organizations and talk to them and feel their questions.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. So was it all undergraduates or graduates students or both you were teaching?

Joel Johnson:

It was both.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah, it was both. Mostly undergrads, but they were older, on the older side.

Greg Kaster:

The Fulbright Program is just such a fantastic program. And were you able to do some research as well or was it strictly teaching, mostly teaching?

Joel Johnson:

I did do some writing, but it was pretty heavy on the teaching and the traveling.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. Sure.

Joel Johnson:

Between the two it was balanced much more towards that than towards just time for scholarship.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, anyway, congratulations. I know you had a blast. And as you say, it’s funny about the liberal. I was just sort of thinking somewhat cynically, the liberal arts prepares us to fake it really well. You said it better, a stretch. But it is one thing I love about teaching at a place like Gustavus, I’ve loved that. I didn’t attend such a school. I attended as you know big State University in Northern Illinois University into Calvin and Boston University, huge prep for my PhD. But I’d love school like Augustana are sister schools, really both part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and not evangelical the way some people might think. But Lutheran, higher ed. And the way any good liberal arts college lets both the professors and the students stretch and experiment and grow. I really love that. I value that so much.

Other thing I want to ask you about because I am just, I can’t stop reading enough and thinking I need to stop, about the damn Electoral College. And I saw that you hosted and boy, I wish I had been able to be there. You’d hosted I think it’s a debate back on your campus. What are your thoughts about the electoral college?

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. That was a debate that actually sponsored by the math club on campus. We get invited to do something for the math club.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. Watch out.

Greg Kaster:

There’s some liberal arts in action, by the way, that’s perfect.

Joel Johnson:

Right. I tend to be okay with the electoral college based on the fact that it does serve as a kind of compromise balance between the large states and small states. That the small states get their way in the Senate, the large states get their way in the house. And then how do we pick a president? Well, if you go back to the records in the Philadelphia convention, it was anyone’s guess. There were all kinds of things proposed. Maybe the state governors should pick the president, maybe the state legislature should pick the president, maybe the Congress should pick the president.

So there were downsides with all the other possibilities that were raised in this complicated beast, the Electoral College is a way of satisfying all parties to some extent. Now, it still means that California, New York is going to have a hugely outsized influence in picking the president. But little Wyoming is going to have at least a little bit of say. And yeah, so not, not every vote counts the same in picking the president. And that’s just something that is … That’s a feature not a bug. And so-

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

Joel Johnson:

Yeah. You get these weird outcomes where the popular vote goes one way and the electoral vote goes the other way. That’s difficult. That’s wrenching.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. What drives me crazy about it is, I mean you again know more than I do. But I can’t think of … There’s not another democracy where the leader is elected this way. Where you’re not elected by the popular vote, right? You can win the popular vote and of course, that can happen and lose election, which seems undemocratic, anti-democratic, I don’t know. But we’ve got it. I know there’s this attempt to get around it by the state camera, what that’s called. How many states have to agree to it? But where they would award the electors to the … How does that work? To the winner, I think of the popular vote, the overall popular vote.

But it’s a funny … What you said is absolutely right about the Philadelphia convention. There’s not a whole lot of … There’s some discussion and debate, of course about it, but it’s sort of, well, let’s just do it this way, or this way. And we live with it still. I was just curious because I’m reading the New York Times journalist Jesse Wegmans book on it, which is decidedly against it. And there’s a historian name Alexandra Qaisar, a lot on the history of voting in country has a new book out about the electoral college. I haven’t read yet. I’ve got it, but I’ve just been obsessing about it lately. And maybe it goes back to at least 2000 I guess for me what happened Bush V. Gore. Thank you. What about making a case for not only the liberal arts, which I know you can make but for your discipline of field in particular. I mean, why study government and International Affairs or what at Gustavus is called political science. Why?

Joel Johnson:

It’s a great question. Personally, I was interested in history ever since I was a little kid. And the parts in any history book that I read that dealt with politics, I would skip over, because I found them boring. And it wasn’t until college that I actually discovered that the political questions were really fascinating and they concerned everyone, that’s what makes them political. They are society wide questions. And there was … It was thrilling to actually realize that you can engage with those kinds of questions and make a difference and see that implemented into reality if everything goes well.

And so I think I became more and more fascinated with that. And I try to convey that to my students as well, that everything around them touches politics in some way has been formed by political decisions. The fact that when they enter into Augustana or Gustavus the requirements for graduation are the result of decisions of those people beyond this room. Someone made this decision, they have to take a certain number of English classes or math classes or whatever. And so wouldn’t you want to be a part of that level of decision making and to understand how it works?

So I think there’s so many reasons why you might want to be studying political science just to become a better citizen and more informed person in this world. But there’s also the notion that it engages with big picture questions that can affect massive numbers of people. That was really something that inspired me. And to know something about history is vital to be a good participant in any kind of political debate. So I saw the two fields is working very closely together.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And I’m thinking as you’re speaking, if we can’t escape history, we can’t escape politics, either. I mean, politics understood broadly is decisions made by some that influence everybody in one way or another. I love that. Thank you. And one last question. Have you seen Hamilton either on television or the Disney or-

Joel Johnson:

I saw it on television. I did. I saw it when it was broadcast.

Greg Kaster:

What do you think of Hamilton? I know you did some work on the anti Federalists way back then. See, the opponents of the Constitution. Do you use it in class at all or what are your thoughts?

Joel Johnson:

I don’t make occasional references to it. Yeah. But yeah, I know it’s a fantastic blend of music and storytelling. It’s very favorable to Hamilton, that might take issue with some of the interpretation of Hamilton himself. But [crosstalk 00:53:10] take it the way the story is told.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I love it. I absolutely love it. I guess I play some of the … It’s helped me get through the whole Jeffersonian period. I just play some songs instead of trying to mutual. But the other thing as you say it’s favorable and you may have seen too. A recent paper published by I think it’s a re-enactor, at the Hamilton house in New York. About how he bought in some ways. He’s not quite the abolitionists he’s made out to be in Ranchero’s book, which I enjoyed. But I had my doubts about that, and certainly not the abolitionists he’s made out to be in the musical. But nonetheless, it’s a great music-

Joel Johnson:

Its sure is.

Greg Kaster:

Its sure is, I love it. So this has been so much fun. Thank you so much. Your work is just so interesting and timely and important, and we need to get you … It’s occurring to me, have you ever come back to Gustavus to give a talk? We need to do that.

Joel Johnson:

I haven’t yet.

Greg Kaster:

You consider yourself invited. Well, we want to do it in person though. So that would be fun.

Joel Johnson:

Although this is great, too. This is great.

Greg Kaster:

I love this. I just love it. It’s so good to talk to you about ideas and I know we exchange emails now and then. And by the way, I’m so glad you went to Harvard, because then I could go back to Boston with Kate and see you there.

Joel Johnson:

That’s right.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:54:41] with all due respect, but Cambridge.

Joel Johnson:

[inaudible 00:54:47] is going back there.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that was fun. So Joel, it’s awesome. It’s great to talk to you. I’m so proud of all that you’ve done and are doing. Best of luck with all your work behind the classroom I know and hopefully we’ll all get through this awful pandemic sooner rather than later.

Joel Johnson:

That’s right. One way or the other. Thank you, Greg. This has been a lot of fun.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure, Joel, take good care.

Joel Johnson:

You too. All right. Bye-bye.

 

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

Comments are closed.