Michael Beschloss ’73 Examines Potential for Presidential Elections to Debilitate or Consolidate America’s Democratic Tradition

“We are in danger of losing our democracy,” said Michael Beschloss ’73, author, historian, and Emmy Award winner, during Andover’s second featured speaker event as part of the Presidential Speaker Series held on Friday, October 16 via Zoom. Emphasizing the risk of losing our democratic system, Beschloss warned that the 2020 presidential election plays a decisive role in charting the course of U.S. history, and quite possibly the world.

According to Michael Barker, Director of Academy Research, Information, and Library Services, the event was co-organized by Hijoo Son, Instructor in History and Social Science, and Derek Curtis, Programming and Digital Content Producer for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library (OWHL), in joint effort with the PA Sustainability Coalition (PASC), the Department of History and Social Sciences, and the OWHL. 

This is a unique and perhaps unprecedented election—or so many have claimed. One of the goals of the speaker series was to explore that claim, and there may be no better tool at our disposal to do so than leaning on the historical analysis or expert historians to contextualize this election. Mr. Beschloss is a world renowned presidential historian and also a person that knows our community very well as a former student here. He seemed a perfect person to include in the series, and we were so fortunate he was willing to join,” wrote Barker in an email to The Phillipian.

When addressing what the 2020 presidential election reminded him of in American history, Beschloss highlighted three elections, each 80 years apart: the elections of 1860, 1940, and current 2020. According to Beschloss, Americans risked losing their democratic system all three of these years.

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Beschloss described how pivotal this election and the following Civil War were in American history and democracy.

“Virtually everyone who voted in the election that year knew that there was a chance depending on who won and what happened after that, that we might not live in a democratic system based on a union of all the states that the Founding Fathers had thought of decades before,” said Beschloss. 

Beschloss continued, “[Lincoln] loved democracy so much that it began as a president who was fighting not only to bring North and South back together, but he knew so much about democracy and he loved democracy, loved the union so much and also came to feel so strongly about liberating African Americans that by the time the Civil War was over, this was no longer a war just to bring North and South together, realistically…[It] was a war to liberate African Americans and make this a better country.”

Beschloss proceeded by examining the election of 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt ran for a third term against Wendell Willkie, who opposed the declaration of war and “had a lot of mileage from this isolationist effort.” According to Beschloss, Roosevelt was “immensely courageous” for commencing the preparation of defense and involuntary draft for WWII, even though some critics deem his declaration of war “tardy,” since most of Europe had already succumbed to the Axis powers. 

For the 2020 election, Beschloss addressed Trump’s claims on deserving a third or fourth term and his apparent lack of reverence for democracy or checks and balances. 

“You have to take the things he does and says seriously, because as the founders said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. You have to ask the question: is this someone who shows the kind of respect for preserving democracy that George Washington would have liked to see. I would say tonight there is substantial reason for worry,” said Beschloss. 

Beschloss continued, “The last few years, we’ve seen personal corruption and effort to merchandise and squeeze money out of the presidency in this president that George Washington would be turning over in his grave. A desire to ally with dictatorships in various countries in the world that would’ve appalled Thomas Jefferson if he came back to life…  If we fail to preserve our democracy, not only will we lose it in this country and our system, but it may be extinguished around the world, especially if you have a president who doesn’t feel very strongly about trying to strengthen democracy around the world.”

Derek Jacoby, Instructor in Music, attended the talk in pursuit of expanding his knowledge on the topic. He concurred with many of Beschloss’ points and highlighted the fact that Beschloss has never publicly endorsed a particular president.

Jacoby said, “I watch [Beschloss] on NSBC a lot, so I see him on a regular basis. I watched his track records over years, proving to be really fair and balanced. I found it poignant that [Beschloss] said something to the point of never publicly endorsing a president in his professional life. His norms of conducting himself professionally are getting stretched by the dramatic situation of this election.” 

Curtis hopes that Beschloss’ talk will introduce and incorporate the past into discussions about the fate and longevity of the American democracy. 

“I hope students take away from Mr. Beschloss’ talk the need for a deep engagement with U.S. history if they want to think rigorously about the complex terrain of U.S. politics. I hope this series spurs students to spend more time talking with each other about the issues addressed and other issues of vital importance to them as emergent actors in the democratic project,” said Curtis.

Beschloss concluded, “[To] everyone who’s listening to the sound of my voice, my generation has failed you. We have made some very bad decisions which have led to the fact that we are now in jeopardy of losing our democracy. All I can say is we are depending on you, younger people, to save this country and save our democratic system.”