Historians in Aspen agree: It’s a slippery time for American democracy | AspenTimes.com
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Historians in Aspen agree: It’s a slippery time for American democracy

Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and historians in conversation with NPR's Scott Simon at Aspen Institute

Aspen Institute
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Given the United States is in the throes of a constitutional crisis, now isn’t the time for debates over who’s pictured on American currency and who’s memorialized with a statue on public property, two prominent historians told an audience in Aspen on Saturday night.

“What I care about is a huge chunk of this country is willing to violate the rule of law out of the devotion to a person and a party that has allowed itself to become a vehicle of this person who puts the wield of power above the common good,” said Jon Meacham, whose “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” won the 2009 Pulitzer for best biography. “And this is not a drill. I know we’re in Aspen where we think big thoughts, and that is the biggest.”

Meacham joined fellow presidential historian Annette Gordon-Reed on the stage at Paepcke Auditorium in a conversation with National Public Radio host Scott Simon as part of the Aspen Institute’s Summer Celebration honoring both writers for their “extraordinary contributions to the American historical narrative.”



Under the current backdrop of culture wars, political strife, the Jan. 6 investigation, and last week’s search for classified documents from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, “the currency, those things are trivial right now,” said Gordon-Reed, author of “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” also a Pulitzer winner.

Recent threats of violence have been made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and FBI director Christopher Wray are indicative of domestic unrest. Last week an armed man tried to breach the FBI office in Cincinnati before authorities killed him.




“Are we on the verge of another civil war?” Simon asked the two historians.

The possibility is there, Gordon-Reed acknowledged, but not along the geographic lines that divided the Union and Confederacy.

“We’re on the verge of something, but it’s not a regional thing,” said Gordon-Reed. “You go from Texas to Maine, there’s polarization among the people in these groups. There’s no Mason Dixon Line you can draw and find.”

Meacham said American democracy is in its “hour of maximum danger” that even tops 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt said the two most dangerous men in America were the populists Huey Long (a Louisiana U.S. senator and Democrat) and Douglas McArthur (a Republican general).

FDR “feared they could lead a populist revolt from the left or the right. That was perspective. We (now) have someone who’s leading a populist revolt from the right.”

The political will to take on that apparent revolt today, however, is missing, said Gordon-Reed.

“We don’t seem to have people; you would need people on both sides of the aisles, leaders, to say, ‘Hey, c’mon, we can have our disagreements, but we can’t do this,'” she said. “But I’m not seeing that. … I like to be optimistic and I always try be, but I’m not at this particular moment.”

She touched on last week’s events from the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid to Friday when House Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act — a $700 million domestic policy packages that addresses climate change, drug costs and taxes on big business — which Biden is expected to sign into law this week. Those events gave her slivers of hope, she said.

“This has been an amazing week and amazing period, and I just don’t know where we’re going to go from here,” she said.

Politically motivated violence is what “we seem to be headed toward,” and “it may or may not escalate,” she added. “I hope it doesn’t.”

Meacham said he is more hopeful that the violence does not escalate, but he conceded that he never dreamt the results of the 2020 presidential election would come under such attack.

“When you deny reality,” he said. “It is the slipperiest of slopes.”

Pritzker named board chair

Also on Saturday, the Aspen Institute board of trustees announced the election of Margot Pritzker to a three-year term as board chair. Pritzker, who has served as chair of the Aspen Institute Leadership Committee since 2009, succeeds James Crown, who steps down having served two three-year terms.

Pritzker recently served as executive chair of the Community Food Navigator, a co-designed digital platform targeting the food ecosystem in Chicago. She was elected to the Aspen Institute Board in 2004 and has served in a number of leadership roles, including chairing the Leadership Committee for the past 12 years and serving on the Executive Committee, according to a news release from the institute.

Under Crown’s leadership, the institute appointed Dan Porterfield as president and CEO, and moved to its current Washington, D.C., headquarters. Crown helped the institute realize the creations of the Aspen Partnership for an Inclusive Economy; Aspen Ideas: Climate; and the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies. He will remain on the Aspen Institute’s board and will chair the Trustee Affairs Committee.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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