The pride and spirit of the proverbial “Shining City On A Hill,’ in Ronald Reagan’s illuminating phrase, has been battered by an unprecedented confluence of overlapping crises that have created a collective anxiety as oppressive as rancid smoke.
But even as the stature of political leaders seems to diminish in the face of our growing challenges, a few voices ring out above the maddening cacophony and summon our ‘better angels.’ They offer the calming reassurance that America has weathered such storms before and will prevail again.
In this episode, Common Ground with Jane Whitney assembles a series of one-on-one conversations with influential thinkers and public policy experts who have studied how the country has survived its most challenging moments and whose voices ring out with the moral clarity that inspires a broad cross section of Americans.
“The leading interpreter of our dark times.”
So said The Guardian in a profile of Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian who has helped millions understand today’s geopolitical conflicts by illuminating their eerie parallels to many of history’s darkest moments.
A scholar of 20th century Europe who focuses on the Holocaust and Eastern Europe, Snyder has turned his study of history and his prolific writing into a personal mission: to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
An expert in how societies scapegoat minorities and delegitimize institutions, Snyder focuses on how both governments and everyday people contributed to some of Europe’s most alarming chapters and warns that we are as vulnerable as ever to demagogues and dangerous group-think.
“We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” he writes in his 2017 book, On Tyranny, a common-sense treatise on fighting authoritarianism. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
Though Snyder has authored 15 books, it was On Tyranny that elevated him into a celebrated national institution. An instruction manual on defending democracy, On Tyranny encourages readers to “choose an institution” – such as a court, newspaper, or a law – “and take its side” as a way to become personally involved in the battle to save democracy. The book, which became an intellectual totem, remained on The New York Times bestseller list for over 80 weeks and was so popular that MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow joked that “everybody you know has been reading and re-reading On Tyranny”- even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who last year met privately with Snyder to discuss freedom and Zelenskyy’s choice to stay in Ukraine during the war against Russia.
Zelenskyy is far from the only leader consulting Snyder on how to defend democracy. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Real Facebook Oversight Board, Snyder in 2022 testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee about American threats to free speech and in March of this year testified before the United Nations Security Council to explain and rebuke Russian propaganda.
In recent years, Snyder has focused his anti-authoritarian lens on Trumpism and the rise of totalitarianism in the United States. A consistent voice on CNN and NPR and in The New York Times, Snyder argues that our abandonment of truth, the acceptance of “alternate facts” and the political coalescing around an authoritarian strongman proves fascism has already found its way into American politics.
In the face of these threats, Snyder still works to empower individuals with knowledge that can bolster democracy. In a TEDTalk called “Is Democracy Doomed? The Global Fight for Our Future,” he encourages people to resist fears of inevitable chaos by recognizing that democracy is created by individuals and not abstract forces.
Snyder’s work has been translated into 40 languages and has received numerous prizes, including the literature award of the American Academy of Art and Letters, the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, and the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding.
Reconciling the fundamental paradox of America’s commitment to freedom and its history of slavery and racism, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed has rewritten America’s narrative, exposing its accepted history as a founding myth and changing the way we think and talk about our past.
In rewriting our past, she has revised who we are.
The Harvard professor is perhaps best known for her seminal 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which affirmed the historical debate on whether Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, had fathered the children of Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved. The followup, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, chronicled the lives of Hemings and her children and earned her a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in history.
The two tomes forced Americans to examine the ways in which the nation’s history is inextricable from slavery and to reconsider the accepted historical narrative. “What if American historians during the aftermath of Reconstruction had not been white supremasists?” she wrote in a 2015 Atlantic article. “A different type of society, and a different type of education about that society, would have given young blacks and whites an opportunity to learn another narrative about black people’s place in America.”
While Gordon-Reed’s early work focused on two of America’s foundational families, the Jeffersons and the Hemingses, her 2021 book On Juneteenth weaves together her own personal memoir with a larger American history. Using Texas and her family as a microcosm of America, she chronicles the road to racial equality, recounting emancipation, its subsequent commemoration, and the celebration of a persecuted peoples’ ability to endure and flourish.
Gordon-Reed’s roots run deep in Texas. She is the descendant of enslaved people brought to the state in the 1850s and grew up in the racially segregated town of Conroe in the 1960s, becoming the first Black child to enroll in an all white school. Origin stories, she writes in On Juneteenth, “inform our sense of self; telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe in.” Gordon-Reed has been a catalyst for reaching this more aspirational version of history, of the U.S.’s own origin story, where we better understand our past in order to imagine a more promising future.
Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University. She is the recipient of many prizes and honors, including a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship for her scholarship on Thomas Jefferson, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, the National Humanities Medal, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the George Washington Book Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011.
In our disquieting and tumultuous political moment, David Brooks has become one of the most cogent and distinctive voices in the public square, a moralist who uses his column as a pulpit to inspire our better angels.
In his two decades of writing op-eds for The New York Times, Brooks has emerged as America’s communitarian, a short-form sociologist and psychologist offering diagnoses and prescriptions for society’s most bedeviling ills — namely isolation, social distrust, and community breakdown.
But his work, both in columns and a raft of books, focuses on a core question: what is driving Americans apart and how can we bring our country back together?
Brooks’s answers have evolved with a Kafkaesque political and religious metamorphosis. While he had a secular Jewish upbringing, a midlife crisis in 2013 led to a spiritual awakening and a subsequent conversion to Christianity. And in 2021, Brooks, once a leading conservative voice, forswore the right’s shift to Trumpism and came out as a self-declared moderate Democrat.
Many of his eight subsequent books have, like his columns, sought to interpret the political crisis through his faith and communitarian spirit. In his view, the current zeitgeist is “over-politicized and under-moralized, and so we talk too much about every poll and not enough about how to feel gratitude, how to do forgiveness, how to do ritual,” he told The Atlantic in 2019. “So I try to shift the public conversation a little over in the direction of moral and relational life.”
In recounting his personal road to Damascus in his 2019 book, The Second Mountain, Brooks disavowed the American elevation of individuality over community: “I no longer believe that the cultural and moral structures of our society are fine, and all we have to do is fix ourselves individually. Over the past few years, as a result of personal, national, and global events, I have become radicalized… I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe.”
Despite warning of impending calamity, Brooks retains an all-American optimism. His latest book, How to Know a Person, is an examination of character, morality and connection, a probing analysis of the country’s psychological state. "We're living in the middle of some sort of vast emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis,” he writes. “It is as if people across society have lost the ability to see and understand one another, thus producing a culture that can be brutalizing and isolating."
Brooks prescription is connection, both personal and at the neighborhood level. Local communities, he says, can create a foundation to bring Americans together by helping to build bridges across all types of divides. He has put his words into action by teaming up with the Aspen Institute to co-found Weave: The Social Fabric Project, which is dedicated to combating social isolation and hyper individualism while supporting change-makers who are fostering community on a local level.
Alongside his work for The Times, Brooks is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a #1 New York Times best selling author and commentator on PBS Newshour, his articles have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Forbes, and The Washington Post. Brooks also teaches at Yale University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.