Earlier that same year, four black girls in Birmingham, Ala., were killed by a racist bomb attack during Sunday school. Then Malcolm X was assassinated. Then Martin Luther King Jr. Then the murdered president’s brother, who was a senator and likely to be the next president.
Our cities were torn by riots and fires. Troops were deployed — at least those who weren’t half a world away in Vietnam, being killed by the thousands in a war few understood. Many thousands of young men fled the country rather than be drafted to join them. Thousands more marched to protest the war, often burning flags and battling police or counterprotesters. Unarmed students were killed by soldiers. White Americans violently resisted desegregation. War and death and disorder dominated the news.
There is a natural human tendency to think we live in the hardest times, that our challenges are uniquely difficult. As British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay said almost 200 years ago, “We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point — that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason.”
Understandably, millions of Americans today see darkness. Our president is a bad person and an incompetent leader. He lies constantly, stokes flames of racial division, tries to obstruct justice and represents much of what our Founders feared about a self-interested demagogue.
Since the beginning, the United States has built a system with bad and incompetent leaders in mind. In 1866, during the era of our first impeached president, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said: “Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. . . . We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.”
The test of our shape is underway. The House impeached the president, and though the Senate will likely acquit, the American people can witness the whole thing. The free press fostered and protected by the genius of the First Amendment has let Americans know the truth, if they wish to. They can see the facts and the process, and they will be shaped by that, both now and for the long term.
In November, Americans, fully informed, will have the chance to decide what kind of country we are and what we expect of our leaders.
I don’t buy the stuff about the United States’ democracy dying. Its death has been predicted regularly for two centuries. Yes, a lot of Americans vote for people of poor character who then don’t act in their interest, but that has been true to varying degrees throughout our history. Yes, a lot of Americans believe the lies they are told and attach their own identity to a president in ways that are both inappropriate and irrational. But that’s the nature of people and has been a feature, to one degree or another, of the United States since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were lying about each other and predicting the death of the republic if the other were elected president.
It has always been ugly and a little nuts in our huge, complicated country. We last had a relatively stable consensus during George Washington’s first term — and even then, our first president personally led troops to put down a rebellion by Pennsylvania’s whiskey distillers. Since then, right and left in the United States regularly vie for and lose power, frequently giving us deeply flawed leaders. And the world doesn’t end, even though it sometimes feels that way.
As I grew up, I started to see the narrative pattern: Democrats were going “extinct” in 1972 with Richard M. Nixon’s landslide. Republicans were “finished” after Watergate and the 1976 election. In 1984, Democrats were really “doomed” this time, wiped out by the “Reagan Revolution.” Of course, the way Republicans are acting today means they will inevitably lose power, and for a very long time — an exile they will richly deserve.
But neither party will disappear because the American center — that great lump of us clustered around the middle — always holds. Where the center is, exactly, moves over time — we changed the world by embracing same-sex marriage, for example — but it never goes away. That lump is our national ballast. To survive, our two political parties compete for that center, forcing them to change as we do. They regularly miss the mark, which is why the parties, not the United States, suffer repeated near-death experiences, always followed by miraculous revival.
When I was a kid, the United States didn’t come apart. It won’t now.