In Roundtable, Professors Talk Politics, History

A roundtable on the role of history and the law in the current presidential election drew a crowd in the Barker Center Tuesday night.

Jill Lepore, a history professor and moderator for the panel, said during her introductory remarks that the roundtable was “organized because we wanted to bring together scholars across the University who are writing on these topics.”

The event’s interdisciplinary scope, with faculty members present from the history department, the Law School, and the Kennedy School of Government, resulted in a diversity of approaches to the discussion topic.

Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed touched on questions of American identity and said that the conception of social security as anti-American has forced Obama to defend his healthcare plan, despite its relative conservatism, from perceptions that it is an “‘everyone is going to be in the gulag’ type move.”

Elizabeth Hinton, a visiting fellow in Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, raised concerns regarding a mass disenfranchisement of the population—largely people of color—due to the fact that voting rights are not reinstated for ex-felons even when they have left prison.

“One in four adult Americans has lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction,” Hinton said. “More than any single group, ex-felon disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color,” she added.

Jed Shugerman, assistant professor at HLS discussed the role of the government in the economy, while Kenneth W. Mack, a profesor at the Law School, talked about the possible lessons to be learned from the 1896 election, where there was more campaign spending per capita than in any election since.

When the floor opened to questions, attendees coming from BU, NYU, and the Harvard community voiced concerns regarding issues such as the impoverished nature of political conversation about inequality, the role of body language in the perception of debate success, and the possibility that we have reached an age of “post-truth” elections.

To conclude the event, Lepore posed one last question.

“What sentence do you want to hear at tonight’s debate?” she asked the panelists.

After a pensive silence, Alexander Keyssar ’69, a professor of history and social policy at the Kennedy School quipped, to audience applause, “I withdraw from the race.”

Audience member and Law School program administrator Melissa A. Smith said that the roundtable was sobering.

“I was optimistic and now I’m frightened,” she said. “The whole tenor of the campaign has changed in the past two weeks.”

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