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To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. — Jon Meacham

21st century American democracy is struggling amid deep polarization, and the divisions we see today have undermined trust in the foundational institutions of the United States. While disagreement is the oxygen of democracy, not since the Civil War have so many Americans held such radically different views not just of politics but of reality itself.  Months ago, Vanderbilt scholars began to explore how we could play a productive, active and meaningful role in helping heal our national fissures and seek a path towards a more united states. How do we get there?

Embracing unity is like exercise: A great and noble idea, but difficult and all too easy to forego. Yet the history of American democracy has proven that in extraordinary moments of unity, Americans can accomplish extraordinary things.

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy will examine these moments in history as evidence and elevate the role of research and evidence-based reasoning into the national conversation. Drawing on original content, conversations and curriculums from Vanderbilt’s world-class faculty and visionary thought leaders across America’s political, cultural and societal spectrums, The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and Democracy can make a meaningful contribution to solving society’s most pressing challenges and bridging our deepest differences. Read the concept paper »

Research and evidence

Words Matter: What an Inaugural Address Means Now

by Vanessa BeasleyAssociate Professor of Communication Studies and Vice Provost of Academic Affairs

SUMMARY: Presidents’ words create national identity. For better or worse, presidential rhetoric tells the American people who they are.  Ultimately, a president’s voice must provide the American people with a concrete vision of how—and more importantly, why—to move forward together. READ MORE

To Prove Yeats Wrong

by Michael Eric Dyson, Centennial Chair and University Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts and Science and University Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society in Divinity

SUMMARY: Joe Biden, a “sensitive soul, equal parts poetry and politics” represents more than the sum of his past policy positions to Black voters. The President-elect’s “simple, direct, yet profound humanity” and personal and honest experience with profound, soul-testing grief have cemented the bond between most of the Black electorate and Biden. READ MORE

The Republic of the Inattentive

by Eunji Kim, Assistant Professor of Political Science

SUMMARY: Despite conventional wisdom, behavioral evidence repeatedly suggests that most Americans are not avid consumers of political news. Instead, they are spending an astounding amount of time engaging with entertainment media. It is time to face the extent to which politics and non-political media consumption are closely intertwined. The role of ‘The Apprentice’ in the rise of President Trump is one such example. Going forward, politicians need to rewrite the standard political playbook to reach an inattentive public. READ MORE

Polling Problems and Why We Should Still Trust (Some) Polls

by Joshua Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried Chair and Professor of Political Science

SUMMARY: Elections indicate who wins, but not why. Public opinion polling, done right, remains the best way of obtaining citizens’ opinions. While some suggest two consecutive polling “fails” in presidential elections destroy trust in the process, policy makers in a representative democracy should pause before branding all polling data with the same mark. READ MORE

Making Government Work Part I: Dispelling Myths About Civil Service

by David E. Lewis, Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor of Political Science

SUMMARY: The poor response of the federal government during the current pandemic, including the public health agencies, illustrates the importance of an effective bureaucracy. Yet both parties have paid too little attention to government capacity. This short paper explains why Republicans and Democrats have underinvested in the departments and agencies of the federal government with focus on persistent myths about the bureaucracy. READ MORE

SUPPORT THE PROJECT to elevate research and evidence into the national conversation on unity. Your generosity helps us generate compelling conversations, new courses for students and alumni, and key scholarship to advance the nonpartisan foundations of our democracy.

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Bill Haslam

Bill Haslam
Former Governor of Tennessee

Samar Ali

Samar Ali
Former White House Fellow and Research Professor of Political Science and Law

Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham
Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in American Presidency

John Geer

John Geer
Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science

Gray Sasser

Gray Sasser
Executive Director

Former Governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam co-chairs the Project along with faculty members Samar Ali—a leading voice at the intersection of civil rights, national security, and economic development—and Jon Meacham, an acclaimed scholar on leadership and the American presidency. The co-chairs will provide strategic advice and engage a diverse spectrum of scholars and thought leaders to advance the conversation about unity and American democracy.

The Project is under the management of John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, the project’s Executive Director Gray Sasser, JD ‘98 and former partner at Frost Brown Todd LLC in Nashville. He previously served as senior vice president for congressional affairs of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.