Research News

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

Project debuts with conversation series featuring Al Gore, followed by Condoleezza Rice and led by Jon Meacham, streaming Thursday, Jan. 14, at 4:30 p.m. CT

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

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 policymakers 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,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “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 will debut on Thursday, Jan. 14, at 4:30 p.m. CT/5:30 p.m. ET 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 will 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 will provide the framework for the project’s approach to advancing unity through evidence-based analysis and relevant historical studies.

Meacham will then examine the project’s first case study of evidence-based policymaking in a conversation with Condoleezza Rice, the 66th U.S. Secretary of State. They will discuss 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’s Lecture Series and are open to the Vanderbilt community and the public. Click here to register.

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, the project also will highlight 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 longstanding 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,” he added. “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 and 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 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.”

To learn more about the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, visit