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Political turmoil nothing new
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Gray Sasser, executive director of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, spoke to The Rotary Club of McMinnville Thursday on the hyper-partisanship of today's political climate and its parallels in American history.

If you elect that man president, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced” in America, they thundered.

And “the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes,” the source gravely warned.

Sounds like political virulence in 2022 social media?

Actually, that partisan diatribe was printed in a newspaper in the heat of the 1800 election war between incumbent President John Adams and his erstwhile friend and ally Thomas Jefferson.   The media attack was levelled at the latter candidate.

Jefferson would later win election as our third chief executive.   

Gray Sasser, executive director of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, related that history to The Rotary Club of McMinnville at its weekly luncheon Thursday at First Presbyterian Church.

“Something doesn’t feel right in America today,” Sasser opened, noting that a recent YouGov survey found that “40 percent of the population thinks that civil war is somewhat likely in the next decade.”   The poll, conducted in collaboration with The Economist, found that “Repbublicans are more likely than Democrats to expect civil war.” 

But the hyper-partisanship and acidic rhetoric are nothing new.  

“American politics has always been a raucous affair,” the speaker remarked.  The big difference between now and 1800 is the explosion of internet-accelerated social media where anybody can say anything completely free of the restraints of truth.  

A public service arm of Vanderbilt University, the Project on Unity and American Democracy was launched in December 2020 with the aim of promoting reasoned, respectful and evidence-based discussion of social and political issues.  An attorney who once served as senior vice president for Congressional Affairs at the Export-Important Bank of the United States, Sasser was formerly executive chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party and adjunct professor at Belmont University.

The project invites public involvement through its website  The site offers highly condensed white papers written by Vanderbilt professors and researchers, as well as monthly roundtable discussions by top experts in their fields.  

Like a thin ray of sunshine breaking through storm clouds, there is cause for hope that the American democracy might heal from some of its wounds. he suggested.   And then our society would benefit from healthy argument over political opinions, but an argument where the parties agree on a common set of facts.

Co-chairs of the Vanderbilt Project, he noted in an interview recording for McMinnville Public Radio 91.3-WCPI, are former Republican Governor Bill Haslam and Vanderbilt historian and author Jon Meacham, who is often consulted by President Biden.   While the two maintain different views on much of public policy, they are firmly committed to the underlying values of openness, honesty and fairness in American politics, Sasser emphasized.    

That half-hour conversation airs Tuesday at 5:00 pm; Wednesday, 5:00 am; Thursday, 1:00 pm; and Friday at 1:00 am.