Print Friendly and PDF

A Discussion with Douglas Brinkley: The Shift in American Politics from the 1930s to Now

The Nation’s Changed a Lot Since the FDR Era:
Here’s What Historian Douglas Brinkley Thinks You Should Know

Key Takeaways

  • America’s political landscape can be partially attributed to the lack of military experience among our most recent leaders.
  • In the 1980s to 2016, Americans were taught that the government is not your friend.
  • More people of color should get engaged in the political process to help Americans regain trust in democracy and the government.
  • Conspiracy history is really reigning strong right now and, unfortunately, we all have appetites for it.
  • Getting Americans back on the same page is ridding the level of misinformation occurring.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot around the United States over the past year and a half. But, according to Douglas Brinkley, historian and best-selling author, that’s not all that’s changed.

During A Discussion with Douglas Brinkley during the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference on Tuesday, Sept. 21, the historian shared how politics has also changed. While its shift began before the pandemic, the pandemic seems to have only exacerbated it.

Brinkley said the shift in America’s political landscape can be partially attributed to the lack of military experience among our most recent leaders.

“One of the two things in presidential history that we used to be able to judge people on was military service. We used to screen leadership, the military…that’s gone now. I mean, Bill Clinton didn’t serve in the military. George W. Bush didn’t. Donald Trump didn’t. Barack Obama didn’t. So, where are we finding our leaders from? The part I am most worried about is we’re picking who has the most Twitter followers or Instagram. We’re looking for celebrities,” Brinkley said.

Another reason Brinkley said politics have changed is that from the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to 2016 during Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans were taught that the government is not your friend.

“One reason we’re in the wild west of politics right now is that in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt won all the way to 1980s, we believed that the federal government is your friend and is here to help you. Since 1980, it became the age of Reagan…saying government is not your friend. There’s corruption, they’re charging you too much, tax cuts, tax cuts, government is the problem. Too much government is the issue,” Brinkley said.

Now, we’re in an era of distrust and are trying to figure out how to move into a better political environment. When Zoe Clark, program director at Michigan Radio and moderator of Brinkley’s session, asked Brinkley how we can get Americans back on the same page, he so aptly said, “By now we need an Earth shot,” which is in reference to his book “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Rate.”

Brinkley also believes more people of color should get engaged in the political process to help Americans regain trust in democracy and the government.

“There’s a backlash that, unfortunately, is taking place where a lot of white America’s fearful that they’re losing their privilege or that they’re losing their monopoly on the political order. And so, I think encouraging more and more people of color to get engaged in politics far and wide is going to be important,” Brinkley said.

Also, important to getting Americans back on the same page is ridding the level of misinformation occurring. Brinkley cited his time spent as Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks’ autobiographer about how bad misinformation is getting. During that time, Parks frequently expressed her concern about misinformation to young people when they’re around 12 to 14-years-old.

Misinformation has continued to spread over the years, particularly during the pandemic about the COVID-19 vaccine. Without mediation, Brinkley warns the “vax or anti-vax war” is going to dominate the documentation of this historic time.

“Conspiracy history is really reigning strong right now and, unfortunately, we all have appetites for it,” Brinkley said.