University Colloquium – Rick Shenkman

Why is Democracy so @#$&! Hard?
Rick Shenkman
Historian, Author, Investigative Reporter
George Washington University’s History News Network

In the 1940s, six in ten Americans hadn’t gone past the eighth grade. Today a majority have attended college.  But surveys show that Americans today are no better educated about politics.  A majority don’t even know that we have three branches of government.  What’s gone wrong? The answer to the question would seem to be that we have a voter problem.  But Shenkman argues what we actually have is a human being problem.  In his talk he draws on research in history and science to explain why modern humans fail so often at tasks they should be good at (like deciding which politicians we can trust with power). He also asks why, despite obvious improvements in our democracy — such as the extension of voting rights to African Americans in 1965 — the system seems to be so frustratingly unequal to the challenges we face.  He ends his talk on an optimistic note.  Science shows that for all their faults human beings share one gift that saves them time and again:  our adaptability to change and our willingness in the end to face reality.  

Rick Shenkman is the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, a website that features leading historians’ perspectives on current events. He can regularly be seen on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. He is a New York Times best-selling author of seven history books; his latest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). Educated at Vassar and Harvard, Mr. Shenkman is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of KIRO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. In 1997 he was the host, writer and producer of a prime time series for The Learning Channel inspired by his books on myths. In 2008 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He gives lectures at colleges around the country on several topics, including American myths and presidential politics.