Curiosity, candor and empathy.
Those are three key qualities American writer and biographer Jon Meacham told Westmont students we need more of in today’s political landscape.
The presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winner addressed “The Architecture of Endurance: Building a Republic that Stands the Test of Time” on Friday afternoon, in a virtual event from Westmont.
He aimed to discuss the current division in the country, disagreement, democracy and politics from a nonpartisan, historical perspective.
While he gave his speech prior to the declaration of Joe Biden as President, he discussed the tight race and its implications.
“What does it mean that this election is so close? What does it mean that the Republican nominee for this office has, by his own admission, self-evidently tried to govern in as unconventional a way as possible?” Mr. Meacham asked during his speech. “It tells us that a lot of the forces that a lot of people wish would be ebbing are, in fact, flowing in American life and always will.”
He expressed the importance of disagreement, calling it “part of the oxygen of democracy.”
“America often is at our best in that moment when we think, ‘Huh, maybe they have a point,’” the historian said, touching on his first key theme: curiosity. “We have to be more curious and more open to understanding the experiences and views of our neighbors far and near than we have been in recent years.
“We have to climb out of our closed information ecosystems and engage with reality as other people see it. America itself is a product of curiosity.”
Mr. Meacham said candor is important — not yelling and asserting, but just being candid.
He quoted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in February of 1942, saying, “The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.”
He tied in examples such as the American Revolution, women’s suffrage, World War II, the civil rights movement and more to highlight the significance of empathy.
“From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have always grown stronger the more widely we open our arms and we reach out as opposed to clenching our fists,” Mr. Meacham said. “There’s nothing partisan about what I just said.”
He then addressed the current divide between Republicans and Democrats.
“Many of those folks who voted for Donald Trump… believe that the choice of Vice President Biden, and particularly Biden’s party, represented a perspective threat and the perspective threat in what was seen as a socialistic swerve,” he said. “The perspective threat outweighed the self-evident reality of the president’s performance.”
Mr. Meacham pointed out the dangers of hostility between the two parties.
“To dismiss the cares and concerns of 47.5% or more of Americans — it’s civically unthinkable,” he said. “That means that almost every second person you and I see fundamentally disagrees with whatever you did.
“Are we just gonna say, depending on where we are, that those people we see are hopelessly irredeemable? I’m not in the business of deciding who’s irredeemable.”
Finally, when asked about his thoughts and predictions on the election results, he said he believes if President Trump won again, “We are in for a period of exacerbated division.”
For Mr. Biden, Mr. Meacham said, “I do think that he is singularly well-equipped to try in these hard times, amid these competing currents, to lower the temperature, to try to resolve a couple of problems.”
“Politics has been at the center of our daily lives for the last four years, and a healthy society is politically engaged but not politically obsessed,” Mr. Meacham said in his speech. “One of the virtues of a possible Biden presidency would be a return to where other topics might have some competitive shot at our mind share.”