DeKALB – Northern Illinois University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences hosted the latest in its Rebuilding Democracy Lecture Series this week, with discussion covering the current state of democracy, highs and lows of the presidency, elections and presidential influence on America’s standing across the world.
The virtual event, moderated by NIU dean Robert Brinkmann, featured a special guest appearance by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
It also included a Q&A session to engage those on hand for the event.
“On a local level, I feel things function in a sense that we’re not pointing fingers at each other at a football game or a Little League game,” Brinkley said.
But at the federal level, the public’s view of government isn’t always so rosy, he said.
Brinkley said the public’s understanding of federal government shows that the nation has a problem on its hands. He said it’s prompted some to demonize the federal government and what public officials are doing.
“That’s why believing in free and fair elections so that our voting is real matters so much,” Brinkley said.
Brinkley acknowledged that people may have fear about the future of democracy after the 2020 election but said the state of the nation isn’t uniquely oppressive.
He gave several examples, including the time when Abraham Lincoln’s name failed to appear on the ballot in seven Southern states.
“Imagine you’re living in one of those seven states and the guy who’s president wasn’t even on the ballot,” Brinkley said. “That spelled a lot of dysfunction.”
When asked if there’s anything good to take away from the legacies of former Presidents Warren Harding, Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, Brinkley said it’s complicated.
Brinkley said the three former presidents are in the “doghouse of history” right now.
“Those three presidents, for many people, are all about corruption,” he said.
Nixon often is known for his part in the Watergate scandal that involved a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Much like Nixon, Harding became the subject of scandal by engaging in business dealings with friends that led to him pinning the blame for a major corruption on a fall guy.
Brinkley said it’s too soon to tell whether Trump will remain in the doghouse for what he did while in office.
“Trump’s hard to judge because we don’t know if he’s a one-off asterisk president who served one term,” Brinkley said. “But if he got reelected, it means now there’s something more. He’s kind of a movement, Trump, more than just a president. His idea is to kind of destroy the institution of the presidency.”
But Brinkley said he believes Trump has helped Nixon’s legacy and is helping pave the way for him to revise his presidential history.
“I don’t think his revision will ever go too far,” Brinkley said.