Jon Meacham: American Democracy is at Maximum DangerJune 1, 2022
- American democracy has grown more individualistic, sparking a crisis.
- Many people believe a crisis would bring communities together circa the Great Depression, but evidence of post-911 and COVID-19 show this is not accurate.
- Consider the “portrait test” – what do you want people to say about you in five to 50 years when looking at your portrait – when contributing to society today.
The state of American democracy is in a crisis, according to Jon Meacham, presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, or, as he put it during his 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference keynote address, “we are really in the moment of maximum danger for American democracy.”
Meacham did not choose the word “crisis” to describe the state of America by chance either. He specifically chose it because of its history. It was a Greek medical term that originated from Hippocrates, a Greek physician, to describe “a moment of decision in the course of a disease where a patient lived or died,” according to Meacham.
Meacham believes it is a sign for how serious public life was considered in the past. “When we talk about the body politic, we’re talking about something as vital to the public wheel as our own health is to ourselves,” he said.
But if you look at society and the state of American democracy today, it is clear that public life is not considered as strongly.
“In 1965, 79% of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing some or most of the time,” according to Meacham. Today, he said the percentage would not fill a room. Further, Meacham discussed the drastic income gap between the classic post-World War II middle-class aspiration and the reality of life for a family of four today. To achieve that middle-class dream with two cars, savings, and vacations, Meacham shared a family would need to have a household income of $135,000 – a drastic difference from the $57,000 average household income reality.
“That’s, in many ways, I think at the root of where we are today – too many Americans fear that a mythic vision of an America that they think existed once can, by this election or that election, come into being again,” said Meacham. “I’m here to tell you that there was never a once upon a time in American history, and there’s never going to be a happily ever after. And why is that? Because history is us. It’s a human enterprise.”
Meacham further elaborated on his perspective of American democracy during his post-keynote interview with Christy McDonald, Detroit Public TV anchor. During that, he highlighted the Great Depression as a time when there was “a lot of communal experiences that show a stark difference to today’s individualistic culture.”
“People were more willing then to lend a hand. And there are folks that think that if we’d had a crisis, we’d all come together. Well, what’s it going to take?” said Meacham. “It didn’t really happen after Sept. 11. I didn’t get a warm ad fuzzy feeling about how we reacted to COVID. I think part of it is this lack of a common sense that you don’t have to agree with everybody all the time. That’s not going to happen. But you do win some and lose some.”
Thank you to PNC Bank for sponsoring this session.