Populist political discontent is sweeping the world and coming on US shores as well. American’s are witnessing the most “unhappy moment politically” in modern history, Presidential Historian and Time magazine contributing editor Jon Meacham told an audience at the Futures Industry Association (FIA) Expo in Chicago. But there is a way out.

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Populist Photo by Britt Selvitelle

Populist angst- Distrust and an a high bar to obtain a middle class lifestyle are behind populism

How is it that Donald Trump has captured the nomination of a major political party and independent Bernie Sanders came close to unseating establishment stalwart Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary?

To Meacham, there are two numbers that tell the tale of current record political discontent: 19% and $135,000.

Trust in government to “do the right thing” is at an all-time low, Meacham noted, pointing to just 19% of the populace that trusts the federal government. On top of low trust, the government itself had previously defined “middle class,” the ability to lead a comfortable life in the US, as a family making $135,000 per year.

“There is an $83,000 difference between how the government defines a good life and the average annual income in the US of $57,000,” he said. It is in this environment circumstances are ripe for “a hijacker to take control of the plane and for the passengers to side with the hijacker,” pointing to the Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, taking control of a major US political party.

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Trump’s rise correlates with the rise of celebrity in the US, globalization concerns and the disintermediation of major media, allowing candidates to take to Twitter, for instance, and communicate without traditional filters, Meacham said.

A major problem is how society is siloed. People of different economic strata mostly mingle among themselves, with those most opposed to immigration, for instance, having little life experience with immigrants, Meacham said. “We filter news based on what confirms our beliefs,” and media content specialization has driven the trend.

From a national political standpoint, only near 10% of house seats are contested in the general election due in large part to how political districts are drawn. The concept that political leaders can be “primaried,” losing to radicals on both sides of the political spectrum in a primary, has exacerbated the divide as bi-partisan compromise has become a lost and risky political art.

There are solutions.

Pointing to President John F. Kennedy, Meacham says humility and learning from mistakes are important, as is the ability to listen to all sides of an argument and promoting open political debate.

Patience is key to understanding politics in a democracy – change happens incrementally and over time – but perhaps the most important feature in a leader is empathy. “Great leaders have the ability to view the world from the other side of the table and offer people a way out,” he said, citing President George HW Bush as an example of a dignified political leader who exhibited great empathy.