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20, 2018

Senator Susan Collins
U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C.

Dear Senator Collins,

I write to you as someone whose roots in Maine go back to 1794, as the co-owner
of the Georgetown Country Store, as a citizen concerned that we are more polarized
as a nation than we have been since the Civil War, and above all as an historian of
modern America who sees us approaching a breakdown in our democracy from
which we might never recover.

I have been an historian for 47 years. I am the author of 13 books on modern
America, specializing in women’s history, civil right history, and political history. I
have been the president of the Organization of American Historians, chair of the
history department at Duke University, and Dean of the Faculty and Vice-Provost at
Duke for nine years, from 1995-2004.

In the past I would have said that 1968 represented our moment of greatest
division since the Civil War – the Black Power movement, a new feminist movement,
the student revolt of the late 1960s, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the anger
of “middle America” at all the assaults on traditional American values. But we
survived that crisis, at least in part because those social protest movements were so
fragmented. There was no single dividing line polarizing the country.

That is not so today. Trump supporters do not communicate with Trump critics.
With the exception of some critical comments by yourself and Senator Murkowski,
as well as from retiring public servants like Senator Flake and Corker, the
Republican party has been shamefully silent, even as the programs of President
Trump explode countless Republican “principles” like opposition to deficit spending.
No matter how many lies President Trump tells, how many social values he violates,
whether it be groping women, or calling his political opponents “dogs,” the
Republican base seems blindly loyal to the president. For the first time in our
history, I believe, there is the potential for America to move in the direction of

Our government was established based on a separation of powers. But what
happens when bi-partisan cooperation in Congress becomes verboten, when the
president acts arbitrarily, even in opposition to his own cabinet officers, or when the
Supreme Court becomes a partisan embodiment of views that represent only a
minority of the people.

During the 1930s, the Supreme Court almost fell into that trap. It invalidated the
two most critical legislative reforms enacted by the New Deal – the National
Industrial Recovery Act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. It then went on to
rule as unconstitutional minimum wage laws for women in New York. The
government was falling apart. Democracy was imperiled. President Roosevelt
responded in 1937 by urging that three judge be added to the Supreme Court – his
“court packing” plan.

In response, the Court reversed itself on minimum wages for women, this time
voting 5-4 to uphold the constitutionality of such laws – “the switch in time that
saved nine.” The crisis was averted.

But what happens if President Trump appoints a judge to the Supreme Court who
will ensure for decades that an independent judiciary ceases to exist. What happens
if this court reverses Roe v. Wade, sanctions partisan and racial gerrymandering in
different states, and acts in opposition to the political views and values of the
majority of the American people.

Senator Collins, you are in a position to help the country avert such a disastrous
course. The future of our democracy, of our very ability to function as one society,
depends on your preventing the Supreme Court from becoming an arm of right wing


William H. Chafe
Alice Mary Baldwin Professor, emeritus, Duke University