Arthur Blaustein is the author of "Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport."
Arthur Blaustein is the author of "Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport."

Q&A: He’s served presidents, and now he’s serving democracy

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Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Arthur Blaustein, 87, is passionate about community service. Now retired after a long tenure as professor of community development, politics and public policy at UC Berkeley, he has just released the third edition of “Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport.” The civic engagement handbook includes a discussion of community service, inspirational stories, organizations with volunteer opportunities, and a preface imploring people to get involved in the 2020 election campaign.

Blaustein began volunteering in college and got hooked. He taught school dropouts in Harlem, became involved with American Jewish Congress and chaired its social action committee. He headed south with the American Legion Willard Straight Post, supporting equal voting rights for all Americans (“We thought we settled that,” he said regarding current attacks on voting rights), and in 1965 marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Blaustein was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity by President Jimmy Carter, and to the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities by President Bill Clinton, serving under five presidents in all.

J.: You open your book by writing that election stress disorder emerged in the 2016 election cycle and is “on the rise,” and describe the “long slide down the slippery slope of anti-democratic policies and behavior” that put our democracy at risk. You’ve been through many elections, is this one really so crucial?

Arthur Blaustein: I’ve been involved in every presidential campaign cycle since 1960. This is the most dangerous and the most frightening. There have been two frightening periods in my life — the first was the McCarthy era, the second was the Cuban missile crisis. But this is more dangerous.

Why? One of the candidates, Donald Trump, is the worst president we’ve ever had in the United States. He is a pathological liar and a sociopath, he is unstable … and that is a deadly combination. You don’t know what he is going to do. He knows nothing about American history, American values, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. All he knows is what he sees on Fox News.

How did Trump’s election impact your writing?

It forced me to include in the new introduction a political interpretation of what is going on. Having taught for all these years, the central theme of my teaching was the importance of democratic values and democracy to the U.S. But we now see democracy being subverted.

In your book you list 25 reasons to vote. What do you think are the top five?

Jobs at a living wage, affordable health care, the Supreme Court, the environment and global warming, honest government.

A young Arthur Blaustein took part in the Selma Civil Rights marches in 1965. (Photo/Courtesy Blaustein)
A young Arthur Blaustein took part in the Selma Civil Rights marches in 1965. (Photo/Courtesy Blaustein)

What do you say to those who are disillusioned and plan to sit out the Nov. 3 election?

Democracy is at stake. If you want to turn this country into a banana republic or fascist country, don’t vote. [If Trump wins] you’re going to have race wars in this country, it is going to be such a mess. It would be so dystopian. I’m really an objective sort of guy, but I’m frightened.

You began volunteering in college and have served several presidents. What are a few of your most memorable experiences?

I got something out of every one. Under Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, I served in VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America]. That was an eye opener — how cruel poverty can be, and how many people were involved. In the National Endowment for the Humanities, I served on the public grants committee for museums, libraries, universities, public TV and radio. I learned a lot about their importance and value.

The first time I volunteered was in college, in 1956, as a young Democrat. I offered to take a woman around to speak. It was Eleanor Roosevelt. That was an amazing experience.

What is the current state of civic involvement and volunteerism in this country?

Students are now doing community service in middle schools, prep schools, high schools … Young people are really committed to civic engagement and democratic values and helping this country. They’re more engaged, down to 12 years old.

Does Judaism influence the direction you’ve taken in your life?

It had a big effect. The notion of justice, integrity of character, community — they are all important.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.