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04/27/2021

Historian Meacham examines lessons of history on Day 2 of NACDS Annual 2021

Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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We’re in the midst of a systemic and existential crisis for American democracy. It is the self-evident evidence of our eyes given where we were on January 6, 2021, and where we could still go. 

So said presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, during his keynote for Tuesday's Business Program at the 2021 virtual NACDS Annual Meeting. 

Disorienting as the time we find ourselves in now, Meacham stressed that what has to drive us to make moral distinctions, and political decisions that have moral elements, is the capacity to use reason, instead of simply following passion. "The capacity to check and marshal our appetites and ambitions because democracies are as fallen, frail and fallable as the rest of us,” he said.

Meacham went on to explain that a democracy is the fullest manifestation of our individual disposition of heart and mind, and said that the Framers intentionally made things to be hard. "We make things hard to do quickly in this country because if we could  move quickly we’d move in the wrong direction quickly,” he said.

There are certain elements that define moments of crisis, and there are certain characteristics that "you and I as citizens and leaders, that can enhance the chances that we will press on to a more perfect union as opposed to seeing a systemic collapse," he said.

Meacham went on to say nativism, extremism, racism, isolationism, didn’t begin in 2016. "They are perennial. The test comes in how we manage those. Do they flow or do they ebb? What is the soul of the country? It’s not wholly, good or bad," he said. "Every day, every week, every month, every year, every generation is defined and shaped by whether the better angels went out over worst instincts. It’s an unending battle. This is a contentious, inherently difficult process.”

Meacham advised attendees to think about their own lives. "In your life every day battle you between what’s right and convenient, what might be difficult and easy. In my life, if I get things right 51% of the day, that’s a good day. The country cannot be any different," he said. "The country is the fullest manifestation of all of us. It's scary, because what we think and do and feel matters. It’s also empowering. If enough of us decide we want x, we can organize and pursue x. There’s not some foreign alien force that shapes us. We shape ourselves."

Finally, Meacham identified three characteristics that the country an embody to embody its better half. 

The first is curiosity. "We have to be more open to hearing other people and understand broader forces shaping the world." The second is candor. "We need to be more honest with each other and broadly in our civic conversations about the scope and scale of massive public enterprises," Meacham said. The third characteristic, he noted, is empathy. "Empathy is the oxygen of democracy. If every single day of our politics and common life is a struggle against the other we don’t have any time, or any oxygen to build out."

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