Congressman Jamie Raskin Speaks on State of American Democracy, Jan. 6 Insurrection

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, Congressman Jamie Raskin spoke on campus as part of the Point/Counterpoint series “Democracy at a Cross Roads.” The talk discussed the threats facing American democracy and Raskin’s role on the January 6 committee.

Congressman Jamie Raskin Speaks on State of American Democracy, Jan. 6 Insurrection
Congressman Raskin is the first speaker in this semester's iteration of the Point/Counterpoint series "Democracy at a Cross Roads." Photo courtesy of Slate Taylor '25.

Jamie Raskin — Democratic congressman from Maryland, manager of the second impeachment of Donald Trump, member of the Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, and parent of two Amherst graduates — spoke on campus on Tuesday, Oct. 18, as part of the Point/Counterpoint series “Democracy at a Cross Roads.” Funding for the event was provided by the Seminars on Opposing Views Fund, which was established by the Class of 1970 and bolstered by continuing contributions from alumni and parents.

A good bulk of attendees were students from the first-year seminar “Progress?” which is split into four different sections. Students from those classes were required to attend, but a healthy mix of older students, faculty, and members of the broader community also attended the event, held in the Red Room. The result was an impressive turnout that forced many students to sit on the floor and stand in the wings.

Before this diverse audience, Raskin and the two moderators — James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas and Professor of Philosophy Nishi Shah — discussed the threats facing American democracy, Raskin’s experience on Jan. 6, and his roles in the impeachment and Jan. 6 committee hearings.

After a few questions about his early life and path into politics, Raskin did not mince words in discussing the threat he says the Republican party poses to American democracy. He described the “MAGA” wing of the party as a “cult” and laid out, with detail and clarity reminiscent of his performance during the select committee hearings, the steps that Trump and his “minions” (Douglas’ words) took in their attempt to invalidate the 2020 election.

Raskin made clear that the efforts to overthrow the election extended far beyond the events of Jan. 6. “Every nook and cranny in our antiquated Electoral College system became an opportunity to try to throw the election,” he said.

Raskin was catapulted into the national spotlight when he served as the primary manager for Donald Trump’s second impeachment after the failed insurrection. He later played a key role in the widely-watched hearings of the Jan. 6 committee in the summer and fall of this year.

Echoing similar warnings from college President Michael Elliott’s convocation address, Douglas told The Student that “Progress?,” his first-year seminar,  “challenges some conventional understandings of progress,” especially considering the fact that “recent history has revealed the profound vulnerabilities of our constitutional democracy.”

Raskin did lay out the case for optimism about the future of the American republic, despite the threats he described, and in the face of respectful skepticism from the moderators and student speakers. He pointed to a history of slow democratic progress, usually marked by a string of constitutional amendments capping off periods of social activism and guaranteeing new rights.

He conceded that the nation was in dark times, yet advocated for “pessimism of the intellect ... but optimism of the soul.” He maintained that American democracy could be led out of a difficult moment through political action, stating that Democrats must focus on “educating people about the process, about the rules, about people’s rights, people’s responsibilities, and then what the issues are and what kind of progress we can make.”

Raskin also referenced his support for proposals such as the abolition of the filibuster to pass voting-rights legislation like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact as a means to advance democracy, while also describing the current Supreme Court as an “illegitimately composed institution rendering illegitimate decisions.”

Despite the serious nature of the subject matter, Raskin’s remarks were not short on humor. The biggest laughs came when Raskin presented his Republican colleagues as both insidious and ridiculous, proclaiming the GOP the “Banana Republic party” and comparing Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett to Mrs. Waterford, one of the primary villains in “The Handmaid's Tale.”

Raskin holds close personal ties to the college. His wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin ’83, is an Amherst alum and Board of Trustees member. All three of their children — Hannah ’14, Tommy ’17, and Tabitha ’20 — attended the college. (Tabitha transferred, and did not graduate from Amherst).

Though Raskin largely kept his discussion to politics, it was clear that his son Tommy ’17 — who graduated from Amherst with a history degree but passed away by suicide just a week before the events of Jan. 6 — was never far from his mind.

He mentioned his late son in passing many times, making clear that Tommy had played an outsized role in his political career from the beginning, teaching his father important lessons (such as, “make friends with somebody you don’t like”) and even introducing him at his first-ever campaign event when he ran for the Maryland state Senate in 2006.

Raskin tells the story of the 50 days between Tommy’s passing on the last day of 2020 through the impeachment trial in his new book — “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy.”

“I figured I’d probably spend the rest of my life reliving and trying to understand these 50 days, if I didn’t try to commit them to paper and tell the story of what we had just experienced,” said Raskin.

Douglas said that he hoped the event would provide his students a sense of hope.“I find that many students work from the default assumption that the U.S. government is simply dysfunctional,” he said. “I would hope that [students] come away with an understanding of the possibilities for meaningful political engagement in today’s government.”

Reflections from attendees who spoke with The Student affirmed Douglas’ hope.

Isabel Martinez ’26, who is in Douglas’ “Progress?” section, described the panel as “enlightening,” stating, “I haven’t been as connected to politics as I want to be — but this panel definitely made me more interested in looking into politics.”

Martinez said that she especially appreciated Raskin’s discussion of the history of American democracy and how a series of struggles led to new constitutional amendments and individual rights. “The way that he talked about [how] each individual can have an influence on democracy was definitely something that I’m going to consider,” she said.

Sandor Weiss ’25, who has followed American politics and Raskin’s career closely over the past few years, said that he “really liked the event,” but had a few reservations.

He wondered whether Raskin’s positions as a progressive Democrat — political views shared by himself and most of the Amherst community — were “pretty much reinforcing our opinions on American democracy.”

Though he himself agreed with much of what Raskin said, he argued that “the point of the Point/Counterpoint series is to provide alternative points of view.”

“I’m not sure [it] actually contributed to a dialogue,” said Weiss. “We could have pretty much gotten that same sort of stump speech about Trump’s guilt and the sort of fragility of American democracy if we had watched him on Jake Tapper,” he said, in reference to the CNN anchor.

Nevertheless, Weiss said, “That doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly cool for him to say it to us himself.”

Raskin finished his day at the college with an appearance in Douglas’ Legal Institutions class, which covered similar subject matter.