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. 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 & American Democracy will examine these moments in history as evidence and elevate 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 & American Democracy can make a meaningful contribution to solving society’s most pressing challenges and bridging our deepest differences.
A message from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier:
“Stand up for facts: How universities can lead America back toward reasoned debate.” (As seen in USA TODAY, Feb. 2021)
RESEARCH AND EVIDENCE
In 1876, America weathered an economic roller coaster, a questionable presidential election and social unrest. Many envisioned the nation’s colleges and universities as the institutions best equipped to maintain the bonds between citizens and their elected government. However, a major in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rather than a professor or college president, would provide the framework which enabled American colleges and universities to rise to global preeminence, when Henry Martyn Robert published the first edition of his Robert’s Rules of Order.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to offer humanity enormous benefits, but ensuring that its progress aligns with democratic principles and human rights will require extraordinary coordination—political leaders engaged with technology leaders as partners, not adversaries—to craft a flexible regulatory framework.
This five-part audio series explores the question of how fear conquered truth, the history and origins of the strong grip misinformation and disinformation have on our politics, and how we got here today. The way forward isn’t about nostalgia, it’s not about sentimentality, it’s about seeing things whole.
When profiling diverse leaders across America—the bridge builders, who do not accept the status quo of bottomless rage toward others—I discovered that these bridge builders are countercultural. They do not accept buzzwords. They do not use labels. They choose nuance over caricature, realizing that when they box people in, they box themselves out of the possibility of meaningful connections that can lead to genuine change.
Instead of being a force of division as argued by many pundits, religion can be a balm to a polarized country if we are willing to separate religious beliefs from their accompanying practices and ethics. Besides anchoring faith, religious practices and ethics can embody and enliven a democratic community by showing us how to live in and between different politics of sacred value.
For more than 55 years, White House Fellows have made important contributions to American democracy, and this program can serve as a model for those seeking to push back on polarization.
Viewed through the lens of developmental psychology, the United States can be seen as a late-stage adolescent as opposed to a nation in decline. This analogy may help explain some of the recent vicissitudes in American popular and political culture, and theories of developmental psychology may help chart a path toward reducing polarization.
"Divided and Angry," an excerpt from Faithful Presence: the Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square
The place of faith in public life has been hotly debated as promising and perilous since our nation's founding, and the relationship of church and state remains contentious to this day—and for good reason. Too often, Christians end up shaping their faith to fit their politics rather than forming their politics to their faith. They seem to forget their calling is to be used by God in service of others rather than to use God to reach their own desires and ends. Faith can be a redemptive, healing presence in the public square—as it must be, if our nation is to flourish.
The Constitution requires a president to deliver an annual message to Congress, but it does not impose any specifications. As the history of this paramount speech has evolved over 200 years, the presidents’ words matter, but increasingly theatrics and Congress’ response influence the American people’s perception of leadership. Unlike the oath of office, which remains unaltered since its drafting by the founders, the style, substance and schedule of this annual tradition continues to evolve. As Biden prepares to address Congress, visual cues from attendees may provide more clues than the speech’s text about the trajectory of the Biden Administration’s relationship with Congress.
The gears of democracy seemingly have seized up on both sides of the Atlantic, with members of Congress and Parliament unable to abandon entrenched partisan positions to forge legislative solutions. Deliberative democracy, a method of eliciting specific and informed policy recommendations from the general public, has proven effective in breaking legislative logjams. Rooted in the democratic traditions of ancient Athens, deliberative democracy can inject new lifeblood into the seemingly ossified political systems of Western democracies.
Republican leaders and political analysts have widely embraced and promoted that Donald Trump uniquely attracted working-class voters to the GOP. New research including survey data on voting behavior going back to the 1980s contradicts this assumption. In fact, Trump’s term in office stalled a long-term trend of White working-class voters moving to the Republican Party.
Digital technology allows for the frictionless spread of information, including false and manipulated content. As a nation that has enshrined freedom of speech in the First Amendment of our Constitution, the policy levers available to U.S. officials to confront the free flow of dangerous misinformation—whether pertaining to COVID-19, elections or other matters of existential significance to lives and our democratic institutions—are necessarily circumscribed. Thankfully, misinformation scholars have proposed policies that comply with Constitutional limitations and have the potential to mitigate the hazards of misinformation.
Political philosophers from the Greeks to the framers of the U.S. Constitution to Abraham Lincoln all warned of the mortal danger that demagogues pose to democracies. Vital to their understanding of that danger was their familiarity with Greek and Roman history and political philosophy. These foundational principles of democracy should not only be taught to students in Civics 101 but deserve continued emphasis to Americans of all ages.
The Nashville model is a replicable model — if not in all its details, then certainly in its principles — for contemporary justice movements. It shows that clearly articulated objectives are crucial to building credibility. The effectiveness of the Nashville campaign was rooted in the intensive workshops on nonviolence that preceded the actual sit-ins.
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.
Committee chairs in the 116th Congress in the House and Senate continue a trend of decreasing lawmaking effectiveness as consistently reported in the Center for Effective Lawmaking comprehensive dataset (1973-2020). Perhaps restoring some of their prominence would offer opportunities for Congress to address America’s greatest public policy challenges. As seen in The Hill with the title "Committee chairs continue their lawmaking decline" (March 26, 2021).
Minimizing the personal and economic costs of a global pandemic requires the coordination of federal, state and local governments. When it comes to implementing stay-at-home orders with the simultaneous and competing goals of minimizing community spread and business dislocation, our data-driven analysis demonstrates the value of public policy discretion at the state and local level.
America’s political fractures reach beyond polling places and into the church pews. Christian church leaders and laypeople should heed their faith’s fundamental creeds to foster “big tent” congregations where church members can practice what they preach by listening and modeling civil dialogue.
Donald Trump’s presidency was one of the most tumultuous in U.S. history. His four years in the White House were a cavalcade of crises, scandals, lies and norm-busting. But through all the drama, public opinion was remarkably unmoved.
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.
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Former Governor of Tennessee
Former White House Fellow and Research Professor of Political Science and Law
Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in American Presidency
Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science
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.