Vanderbilt project on Unity and American Democracy aims to heal societal divisions

After months of exploring how higher education could play a meaningful and active role to bridge long-standing partisan fissures, Vanderbilt University has launched the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, which aims to strengthen the nation’s democratic institutions by advancing evidence-based research into the national discourse on unity.

(top row l-r) Condoleezza Rice, Bill Haslam, (bottom row l-r) Samar Ali, and Jon Meacham.

Drawing on ongoing research by Vanderbilt faculty and other thought leaders from across the political spectrum, the project will regularly disseminate original scholarly content aimed at supplying policy makers and the public with the tools needed to restore a more unified commitment to the nonpartisan foundations of American democracy.

“At a time of deeply troubling division within our country, universities are uniquely positioned to help unite our country through the advancement of research, scholarship and compelling dialogue,” said Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. “There is an urgent need to supplant ideologies and inflammatory rhetoric with facts and evidence to advance our democracy and restore legitimacy to the institutions that support it.”

The project debuted with a conversation between Vanderbilt faculty member Jon Meacham and Al Gore, the 45th vice president of the United States and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. This exclusive discussion was used to set the project’s tone by focusing on the importance of evidence and reason in political discourse, a theme presciently addressed in Gore’s 2007 book The Assault on Reason (2nd edition revised, 2017).

The conversation with former Vice President Gore provided the framework for the project’s approach to advancing unity through evidence-based analysis and relevant historical studies.

Meacham then examined the project’s first case study of evidence-based policy making in a conversation with Condoleezza Rice, the 66th U.S. Secretary of State. They discussed her experience marshaling the facts necessary to secure bipartisan support for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest global health program focused on a single disease in history. The program has saved more than 18 million lives to date.

These virtual events are in partnership with Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Lecture Series.

The project is headed by co-chairs former Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; Pulitzer Prize–winning presidential biographer and Vanderbilt faculty member Jon Meacham; and former White House Fellow and Research Professor of Political Science and Law Samar Ali, BS’03, JD’06. It also highlights key moments in American history that inform potential solutions to today’s pressing problems.

“American life is at a particularly fraught moment as the nation struggles to find its footing amid polarization, the pandemic, concerns about economic and racial justice, and loss of faith in institutions,” said Meacham, who holds the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in American Presidency at Vanderbilt. “By creating a uniquely compelling platform for thought leaders to deliver empirical findings, Vanderbilt can advance the national discourse and strengthen American democracy.”

The project will generate and disseminate original empirically driven scholarship, convene conversations with prominent figures from across the political spectrum, and generate new courses for students and alumni.

“Tennessee has a long-standing tradition of electing candidates focused on solving problems rather than scoring political points,” said Haslam, who served as mayor of Knoxville before his two terms as governor and was a distinguished visiting professor of political science at Vanderbilt.

“Unity does not mean that we always agree on solutions or that fundamental philosophical differences will not continue to animate passionate Republicans and Democrats. However, we can aspire to a national consensus of a unified and abiding faith in America’s ongoing democratic experiment.”

“Given its geography and history, Vanderbilt University is ideally suited to advance the national conversation on unity,” said Ali, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty earlier this month and serves as president/CEO of Millions of Conversations.

“This project maintains the spirit in which the university was founded in the post–Civil War South,” Ali said. “Nashville, with its storied roles in the civil rights and suffrage movements and its current dynamism as a ‘blue’ city in a ‘red’ state, provides a natural home to convene this important discussion.”

The project will be housed and led in the College of Arts and Science, but it will tap into the vast expertise across the university’s 10 colleges and schools. Gray Sasser, JD’98, former partner at Frost Brown Todd LLC, has been named the project’s executive director.

“Our country is at an inflection point—one that challenges the premise of the American experiment,” said John G. Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of political science. “There is no vaccine for polarization, but through its ongoing work, the project will shine light on what binds Americans together, allowing it to illuminate the path toward that more perfect union.”