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Opinion

Democracy Works: Jon Meacham on creating a more perfect union

Jon Meacham
Heidi Ross/Penguin Random House
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Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is one of America's leading thinkers on how the country's political history can inform the present. He recently visited Penn State to present a lecture on his 2018 book "The Soul of America" and joined us for a wide-ranging conversation on the war in Ukraine (and whether Zelensky really is like Churchill), American polarization polarization, the changing media landscape and more.

Meacham is author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University and co-chair of Vanderbilt's Project on Unity and American Democracy, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. His visit to Penn State was sponsored by the Center for Character, Conscience, and Public Purpose.

Episode Transcript

Jenna Spinelle
Hello and welcome to Democracy Works. I'm Jenna Spinelle. One of the best things about this podcast in my job at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy is that I get to interview some of the country's leading public intellectuals when they come to Penn State to speak. This week's guest, Jon Meacham definitely fits that bill. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner. And one of the best thinkers I've come across on how America's history can inform the present. John and I had a ranging conversation about his book, The soul of America, his biography of John Lewis, his podcast work, how he approaches partisanship, and much more. Thank you to the Center for character conscience and public purpose at Penn State for bringing John to campus and arranging this interview. We'll be back with our normal format next week. But for now, I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Jon Meacham.

Jenna Spinelle
Jon Meacham, welcome to democracy works. Thanks for joining us,

Jon Meacham
We're gonna test whether the title is actually true.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, Indeed, indeed. So, you know, your visit to Penn State. And in some ways, it's conversations about two years in the making you were scheduled to come originally in 2020. And, you know, we've been through a lot in those intervening two years pandemic and interaction more, you know, the sort of most poignant conversations about race we've had, maybe since the Civil Rights era, I could go on, but these are, you know, a lot of not unlike the moments of struggle and division that you write about in your book, The soul of America, where, you know, we've had to choose as Americans hope or fear, better angels or worst impulses. So I'm wondering, I guess, as you look back on this, you know, these recent events in this recent history, how have we done, you know, channeling some of those impulses?

Jon Meacham
I think we're doing better. Certainly, we're having a more this is a more congenial conversation than it would have been in March of April of 2020. For all the obvious reasons. At that point, we were just beginning the ones in the century pandemic, as you say, we were headed into a ferocious period about racial justice. And we had a president united states who would, within the year, attempt to thwart the will of the people. And so we're not there. So that's good. The point of democracy seems to me is not to arrive, but to struggle, and try to make tomorrow just a little bit better than today. And it'd be great if it were a lot better. But I'm a hopeless and hapless, Episcopalian believe we're all fall and frail and fallible. And a democracy is the fullest expression of all of us. And so the country is only as good as we are. And when people talk about character and conscience, and if it's really about us, it's about the daily and seasonal decisions that we make that become perennial ones. And so I am much happier today. That the incumbent president is the incumbent president, I think that we have the capacity to amend and reform to return to our imperfect country, as opposed to the country that we were living in, I think, from 2017 through the sixth of January 2021, in which nobody even wanted to try to be more perfect.

Jenna Spinelle
So you know, we're also watching the conflict in Ukraine play out and you and many others have characterize it as a conflict between democracy and an autocracy and, you know, kind of Western order versus, you know, threats of authoritarianism and things like that. And I think that that's you I don't think anybody listening to the show would would disagree with that. I guess I'm wondering what what a win for democracy looks like and how do you frame it in a way that, you know, resonates when people hear and perhaps other places don't necessarily agree on what democracy is or even if they think it's important or something sort of worth fighting for?

Jon Meacham
Well, a couple of things. The struggle that President Biden is leading here is entirely consistent with the one that President Truman undertook from really the Fall of 1945 forward. If you look at the creation of NATO itself, for instance, it is entirely framed in the rhetoric that we're hearing now from the President. If you look at Harry Truman's inaugural address in 1949, if you look at his remarks, when the various treaties were signed at different steps, it is about democracy versus communism, Liberty versus slavery. And so the struggle is ancient. What is unique about this is this is the first time as we sit here in the late winter of 2022, where two nuclear powers of this scope and scale have been this close to each other. Now I accept the except effects the missile crisis, because that was at least a contained moment. Yeah, I want to come back to that, actually. But in Korea, and Vietnam, elsewhere, we were all each of us had a side. But we wasn't direct. This is different. And so the stakes are terrifying. You asked about how do you define democracy? I think it's a basic understanding that we were all born with an innate capacity and right to pursue our own path in life under the rule of law, which are, then the rule of law is established not by the fee out of the strong, but by some kind of collective action, however, manifested, however, expressed within the protocols of politics. And so a victory for democracy would be Vladimir Putin not controlling Ukraine, pretty straightforward. And there are children and women and men who are dying and suffering at this hour because of the most elemental kind of conflict that is unfolding in an advanced century where we have the capacity to destroy ourselves many times over.

Jenna Spinelle
Right. And on that point, I was listening back to your episode of hope, their history about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy and Khrushchev. And, you know, one of the points you made, there was that, you know, Kennedy was really a student of history and figuring out how he was going to approach a situation. You know, I'm wondering if the Biden White House is doing the same thing, if they're also looking to perhaps some of the same history? Or if perhaps, what Kennedy did in 62, is now a part of that cannon of how we had to move forward here?

Jon Meacham
It's a great question. I've not talked to anybody specifically about the 62 analogy. But the basic vernacular in which we're speaking, is fully and deeply excuse me appreciated at the White House. Remember, Biden has lived a big chunk of this, alright. I mean, he's almost 80 years old. He was born during World War Two. And so and he spent a lot of time looking at particularly how both the Cold War world and the post Cold War world can operate. And so I think, not unlike George Herbert Walker Bush, I think that what we've seen in the diplomatic response is an appreciation of the value of diplomacy and understanding of complexity while remaining in a principled position. And one of the things as you know about history and politics is you never get credit for giving bad things from happening. And so, and that's the price you pay, right? That's when you when you go into office, you got to accept them.

Jenna Spinelle
So the other kind of historical comparison we've seen a lot recently is comparing Zelinsky in Ukraine to Winston Churchill. I'm wondering, well, I guess one where that comes from? It's an easy like, hot take to put out on Twitter. Right. But you know, where does that come from? And do you agree?

Jon Meacham
I think the Churchill of May 1940 is a vital figure to understand not only because of his defiance, and his insistence that, as he put it, according to Hugh Dalton, in the in the war cabinet. If this Long Island story of ours is to end it last let it in. We are choking upon our blood upon the ground. It's all great stuff, right? It's Gary Oldham in the movie. We will find the beaches we should find the landing grounds is swipe growing strength and growing confidence in the air we shall never surrender. But the last part of that speech, which nobody quotes is, even if this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving then our empire beyond the seas armed and guarded by the British fleet would carry on On the struggle until in God's good time, the new world and all its power and might will step forth to the rescue and liberation of the old. It ends with a diplomatic appeal to Franklin Roosevelt and to the United States. And so the Churchill example is implacability. But understanding that you have to have the people with you to be implacable. And then you have to be practical. And certainly the first part of that President Zelensky has done an amazing job. And my sense as events unfold is that he seems to be doing the other as well. The Churchill example also is a great one in human nature, because Churchill got almost everything in life wrong, except Adolf Hitler. And if you're going to get one thing right opposing Adolf Hitler's the one to get right. And so he was 65, when he was became prime minister in May of 1940. We can never know too much about that period. And I don't know if Solinsky studied it. I don't know if it's intuitive to him. He certainly echoed the rhetoric of it. The speech to the Congress was quite brilliant in that it linked terror from the air coming in, in the on the two great moments to tragic moments, it happened in the United States. And so, others Alinsky knows a lot of American and British history or he's got somebody near him who does and it doesn't really matter. Because here's a guy who has put on a master performance in rallying your people in the face of aggression.

Jenna Spinelle
Yes, many, many books to be written about him. And there's the situation in future generations, I'm sure. I also don't blame listeners if they want to hit pause and look up implacable. So I thought this was academic it is jarringly academic. So maybe it's just me that wouldn't you take all

Jon Meacham
this place? The Vanderbilt of Central? Oh, well, yeah. You know, and

Jenna Spinelle
on that, actually, we've also heard, I noticed this theme of unity is something that's been in your work a lot over the past two years, you started up a project at Vanderbilt on unity and American democracy. It's also I think, it's all working don't. And it's also something I think we've heard from President Biden as well trying to promote this theme. And you've also talked about this idea of unity, not unanimity. If you could could unpack that a little bit.

Jon Meacham
Look, unity to me is not that we're all going to be at the Brookings Institution and agree on you know, means testing. So security, or whatever the compromise the moment is, it's basically a common ascent a SS e NT, to the rule of law. My view is you can't love your country only when you win. And as long as we accept the protocols of politics, if we accept the rules of the road, if we accept, pick your, you know, analogy, then we can argue, and this country is always at its best, this country's at 6040. That's massive unity, right? 40% of the country never voted for Franklin Roosevelt. In the three great landslide elections from night from the second world war until now. 40% still voted the other way. 1964 1972 in 1984. So what we're really looking at, I think, is 6040 is the goal, or the historical measure. Right now we're at 50.5 to 49.5. Right? So how can we at least get to maybe 5347, and 5347, which is what say, George HW Bush got in 88, or something. We would sit around thinking the country has come together, both big and there's a lot of political science on this the structural nature of polarization that we can talk about if you want. But I think this is an eminently doable, because we're not talking about that many people. And all I mean, I mean, I don't care if you disagree totally with me on everything. In fact, most people do, I would imagine. But you got to say the election was fair. Right? That's the that's the threshold. If you're going to participate in what is functionally an unfolding, plot, to undermine governance, then that's not unity. If you if we're all in it, and we fight, but we accept the rules. That's a whole different thing. That's what we're supposed to do.

Jenna Spinelle
So getting from that, you know, getting to that 53-47 Or You know, somewhere closer to that 60-40? How much of of getting there is top down? And how much of it is bottom up?

Jon Meacham
Great question. That's the central question of politics in history. Right? At what point is the leadership, the elected leadership and the people? At what point? Are they makers are mirrors? And whether the issue of slavery or emancipation in the 1860s, or the social safety net in the 1930s, whatever the question is, it's, it is a mix. Because it is true, that know that as tempting as it is, for people like me to act this way, it's very unusual for there to have been an American president standing on Olympus deciding something that's just it just doesn't work that way. That American president can stand on Olympus and do something brave. But I bet that's because 45% of the country was with them, not 51. And so I think it's both. I think that the country has broadly put the country has to decide significant portion of the country has to decide what they want, and then entrust that power and mission survey, which is what we're supposed to do. And I think it happened in 2020. And, you know, I don't believe polls much anymore, Bart, for all kinds of technical reasons. I don't believe that 60% of Republicans think the election was stolen. I think 60% of people in that poll may have told someone that to kind of own the LIBS or whatever. But I think that what you saw in 2020, was a decision by enough people to say, we do not want to repeat the experience of the last four years. And I'm a firm believer in the following point, which is that presidential elections are not referenda, their choices. Very few people think it's not as though we went to the country and said, Do you want Donald Trump to be president? And they voted on that that's not the way it went? It was do you want Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Do you want Joe Biden or Donald Trump? And that's what elections are, they're not ratifications. And so any question about presidential politics has to be answered in context.

Jenna Spinelle
So the other thing, the other sort of factor that amplifies This, of course, is the state of our media environments. And I wonder, I've been thinking a lot lately about what Al Franken has described as the dehumorizer, he talks about it in the context of trying to, you know, basically having anything he says, put through this right wing filter, right? He thinks about it, they're stripping the the humor out of it, but I think about, you know, any time President Biden or other politicians say something, it goes through the looking glass on, you know, right wing media. And so I guess I, I wonder if that's something that you think about in the the work you've done with President Biden about how it's going to be perceived in that world, or that just gets you so far down the rabbit hole, you can drive yourself crazy, I would think, trying to game out all those scenarios?

Jon Meacham
Well, let me answer in general, I don't want to be specific of anything about the President Biden, in general. It is a perennial truth. As you know, the newspapers were partisan in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were, you know, and I'm pretty sure I can't prove this with data, but I'm willing to bet the mortgage payment that there were not a lot of planters in South Carolina, poring over the liberator. And there weren't a lot of people who were reading the Liberator who were reading the Charlson mercury. And if they were, they were just reading it to get mad in both cases. So the existence of a partisan media is has the effect of Vaught the following effect. It creates a machinery of perpetual conflict, which goes to your point and Franken's point. And it doesn't really matter what the quality of the fuel is, the machine has to work. So any comment anything, because they have to publish or broadcast or tweet or whatever it is, nobody at any cable network gets up at 5am and scans the wires and says, oh, there's nothing to fight about today. We're just going to go dark. Right? It's so you have an infrastructure that values conflict, no matter what. And if, and the conflict may not need to happen. And you see this sometimes is this hilariously stupid? Yeah, The Daily Show is brilliant at this, you know, my favorite is Obama wore a tan suit once right and there anything that's going on that day, so the tan suit was the thing? What worries me So that's that's the highbrow answer, right? It's always been like this. It is different in that the written culture however sulphurous operate on a different part of the brain than people looking at something coming in on their phone. I think one of the reasons the divisions persist at the same level is COVID. It forced people and an event that should have produced a sense of common purpose forced people inside and onto their screens. And when they're on their screens, they just get mad. And there are people who have an economic political motive to make the mat. And the The only good news about this is that it is a van, it is a smaller proportion of the people, we just happen to know all of them, and are part of it. Right. But I think I'm right 75% of the country's not on Twitter. Right. And if you take the cable news audience at its biggest, you're talking about 10% of the country, maybe right? So a difference there, of course is every congressman, every senator, every political operative is in that universe. So it has an outsize effect. But I think it's one of the reasons actually, that I date, the modern sort of congressional politics era to 94. It's why I think the Wise Guys, you know, the people who are paid to follow this are often a little more surprised than they think, than they expected to be, simply because they can judge accurately, what 25 or 30% of is going on. But if other people show up, they're probably showing up out of a different impulse. And sometimes it's harder to see that impulse in real time. Mm hmm.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, that gets me to, I've been thinking a lot about the podcast, you did fade a fact. Yeah. And that to me. So I have been on panels and even sat in this very studio and said things like, you know, podcasts are our way out of this political media problem in some way, because they allow for more nuanced discussion. And you know, all those things. And the longer time has gone on, I'm starting to think that maybe that's not true. Maybe that was like a delusion of grant. Add in it. Because it's also such a, like all of our other media today. It's it's self selecting. So how are people? Are people going to seek out content that they know that they might deliberately, that they might not readily agree with? And it strikes me that your show fader fact tried to maybe do some of that tried to and tell me if that's wrong, but you were maybe trying to reach people who might need to hear a message they might not? Otherwise?

Jon Meacham
I think that for what it's worth, I think that if you just tell people, they're wrong. It makes you feel good. And your people feel good, but didn't do any good. Right. And so one of the things that when I'm lucky enough to be asked to do commencement speeches, I one of the things I say, and the grandparents and parents love it, the kids are hung over a course. So they don't, they're not paying attention. And I'm mainly talking about Twitter, as a just because you have the means to express an opinion quickly does not mean you have an opinion worth expressing quickly. And what I try to do every day is judged before I say something and try to figure out is this going to add to the sum of human knowledge or not? And most of the time it's not. And so I'm sometimes I'm good about not doing it, and sometimes I know it, but I do it anyway. I think it is hard for people to, as you say explicitly seek out something that they think might change their mind. It is to be totally personal for a second, it is the reason I do what I do. I believe that history has the capacity to appeal both to the broadly put liberal love of experience in data and the conservative appreciation of tradition. And that may not be dispositive. But at least it opens the aperture just enough that you might get something done. And when you begin to and that was that was part of the fade effect thing. Part of my part of the argument there was I disagree with those who say that the Trump ification of the Republican Party was the inevitable result of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, etc. I don't think that's true. I think it's the opposite. I think that Nixon, Reagan, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush actually didn't deliver for those folks. And so they said, Alright, if you're not going to deliver, we're going to send a professional wrestler. And so I think that's interesting. I don't know what quite, I don't know if it's actionable and some way, but to your podcast point, I think I hadn't thought of it. But that's very interesting that you do have the ability to curate and create conversations and content that are a little bit like preaching a sermon. You never know who's gonna listen.

Jenna Spinelle
But it does. I do wonder, you know, when you like, just how you think about audience when you're, you're writing a book versus making a podcast? And and has it changed? You know, over time?

Jon Meacham
It's a good question, Has it changed? I don't think my I don't think my goal, I know, my goals haven't changed, have the means changed. And I tried to, I try to create as an old David McCullough point, I, I try to create the kind of stuff that I like, and that I would like to read or hear. And I'm not a partisan, I'm not a political operative, you know, is a clearly I would like to speak to the moment. Because I think there is a moral utility to history. By which I mean that if you understand the past due, if you have an understanding of the past, it can be elevating, in that you realize that they were not perfect people walking around doing great things. And I find that very liberating. This is the most familiar of points, right? You know, flawed people doing good things. So I my sense is that, I get that it's a polar view, obviously, it's a polarized climate. I don't know. I don't want to ever purposely talk down to people. And I believe that, for instance, when I am lucky enough to be asked to speak on things, I can go an hour and not mention the 45th President's name. And I find, I don't know, if you find this in your work, I find that there's a greater power to things, there's a greater power in admitting that you're listening to a sermon from a sinner and not a saint. And secondly, trust the audience, whether it's a classroom or or civilians, to get the argument by implication. So if I describe Joe McCarthy, I don't need to push really hard about why that matters, about what that means. And George Wallace, you know, and I think that that I think the audience then feels is more open to the argument because they feel they've made the connection.

Jenna Spinelle
Right. And the elephant in the room is only the elephant in the room if you make it that.

Jon Meacham
Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Jenna Spinelle
So you know, we talked earlier about, you know, people in democracies obviously have have choices, but there's also you and the soul of America, talking about a list of actions are more kind of concrete things people can and should do. I wonder if you could talk about some of those things?

Jon Meacham
Well, democracies don't work without citizenship. And one of the things we have learned in the last five years is that citizenship is not a passive, but an active state. My argument is that citizenship is best practiced if you're in the arena, as painful and awful and unpleasant as that can often be if you understand that, facts can't be changed. One's reaction to them can be but facscan You have to have, you actually have to engage with people who disagree with you. Eleanor Roosevelt, once advised people to go to the other parties meeting every once in a while she's the only person I can think of who would ever actually do that. But and and obviously, I would think this that having a sense of history, arms you for both mental health as you engage in all this and might give you a sense of what's possible. So it's, you know, I have a broader sense of what leadership means than, you know, sort of FDR in the wheelchair, lighting a cigarette. It's, it's all of us making, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, decisions about how we want the world around us to look. And I believe fervently that when the people have given eras in the United States have decided to advance the meaning and application of what Jefferson wrote the Declaration, as opposed to keeping it in one place or pulling it back, that those are the eras that we ought to commemorate and celebrate. And they are the eras that most people if they are not, in a more warped place, would admit that's when they want to be that's where they want to live. You know, it's pretty straightforward. You know, do you want to be Joe McCarthy? Or do you want to be Margaret Chase Smith? You know, do you want to be Jefferson Davis? Or do you want to be Abraham Lincoln? You know, it's just it's just, it's there. And maybe it's overly simple. But I don't really think so.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, I think this to wind us all the way back to the the notion of, you know, democracy is the struggle to make tomorrow better than today. I thought about your work on John Lewis, you were talking about that. I feel like this is this is something he really, you know, embodied in his work. I wonder if you could talk more about that and where that notion came from for him?

Jon Meacham
Well, John Lewis was on that bridge in Selma and was on the buses for the Freedom Rides and got arrested, I think 41 times in his career, because a of the Gospel, the New Testament gospel, to love your neighbor as yourself, and be an innate revulsion against segregation, against the idea that human beings should be treated differently based on how they look, which was a violation in his view of failure to carry through on, you know, the fundamental promise of creation, which is both theological and more secular in the declaration. And Congressman Lewis is a marvelous example of this, he he's a saint, and we're not. In my in my view, though, the reason to talk about saints is not to make them unapproachable, and their work seem like something as if there was something we could not do. But just put them on a pedestal so more people can see them. And so let's say my other thought about this is theater. Parker's great line from the middle of the 19th century is that, which is this Dr. King paraphrase it, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But it's not going to bend unless there are people insisting that it swerve. And John Lewis insisted that it's worth and not all of us can be John Lewis. But we can say, That's what x is what I want the country to look like, I want more people to feel they have a shot. So take a step back. How do you do that? I'm describing it. What's so funny about this era, of course, is that this is all like describing the wallpaper. Right? This is what we're supposed to do. And because of the designs have a particularly autocratic element within American politics, we are forced back to these first principles and first things to talk about and defend. But that's what we're called to do.

Jenna Spinelle
Last question. There is, I think, a thread of hope that runs through your work. Are you are you a hopeful person by nature?

Jon Meacham
No. I'm not. I say that to be cute. Sure. How, if you're me, sort of how could you not be? Right? I'm a boringly heterosexual, white, Southern male Episcopalian. You know, things work out for me in this country. I was born in this remarkable place. I've been given these remarkable opportunities. And so it seems to me intuitively, that one is called that sounds overly grand that one should Make sure that the promise that created the world that I have benefited from that that promise is extended to all. And I am hopeful partly because to leaving that, that's a personal hatchet. I'm also hopeful because 55 years ago, we lived under functional apartheid in this country. 100 years ago, you couldn't vote. You know, 56 years ago, we were still living under an immigration system that have been passed in 1924, which is the excuse the federal government used not to allow in more refugees from Nazi Germany, there would be people alive today if our immigration laws had been changed. So, you know, I, I know we're in the middle of this great debate about 1619 or 1776, or 1865. I'm a big believer, if I were a better person, I'd write this book, but I'm not that really we were founded in 1965. This country is 57 years old as we know it. 1968 was the first integrated electric 1968 This is a long time ago. You're young, I'm getting old. This seems very day before yesterday to me. And I knew a man and was honored to write a book about him. Who in that year, nearly died. Because he wanted the provisions of the 15th Amendment, which had been enforced for 90 years to actually be applied. I knew him. So what are we talking about that somehow this was all easy until 2016? I don't think we do ourselves any favors by romanticizing a pre Trumpian world?

Jenna Spinelle
Well, John, you've given us lots to think about thank you so much for joining us today.

Jon Meacham
Thank you.