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2029th Stated Meeting:
Fear and Democracy: Reflections on Security and Freedom

Watch video of this event.

On December 7, 2015, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion convened at the Italian Academy at Columbia University about how representative democracies can be strengthened to govern more fairly and effectively, in light of increasing threats to national security.

This discussion, convened in partnership with the Social Science Research Council, served as the 2029th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2029th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

We are pleased to be here at Columbia University. This year we were proud to elect five Columbia professors in our 2015 class: David Albert (Philosophy), George Lewis (Music), Edward Mendelson (English and Comparative Literature), and from the Law School, Jane Ginsburg and Philip Hamburger. That brings the total to 144 current members from the Columbia University faculty and 374 since the Academy was founded in 1780.

This is the Academy’s third Stated Meeting on the Columbia campus. Our first meeting was in 1990 on the topic of “From Reform to Revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union” and the second was held in 1994 on “The Many Unifications of Germany.” We are pleased to continue our collaboration with Columbia today and look forward to doing so again in the future.

As many of you know, the American Academy was founded during the American Revolution by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock and other scholar- patriots to promote a “strong and virtuous” nation through the “pursuit of useful knowledge.” Our founders believed that the key to America’s long-term strength and survival was, in the words of our charter, “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” The Academy has pursued the vision of our founders by convening leaders in academia, business, government, philanthropy and more to address issues, current and abiding, in search of sensible policies based on evidence, not ideology.

Throughout the Academy’s history, democracy and the study of democratic principles and theory have remained constant themes. The Academy seal was designed in 1781 to “represent the state of a new country” where “the sun above the cloud represents, not only our political state in 1780 when the Academy was first incorporated, but also the rising state of America.” And the seal’s motto “Sub Libertate Florent” conveys the belief that arts and sciences flourish best in free states. The Academy’s seal and motto reflected the promise of independence, freedom, and the principles of democracy in a new America.

The Academy’s founder and second President of the United States John Adams wrote in 1780, “The science of government, it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences. I must study politics and war [so] that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” Throughout our history, the Academy has examined the “science of government” in its studies, projects and publications. Let me give you a few recent examples.

In 1980, the Academy conducted a comparative study on religious and ethnic pluralism in the United States and Great Britain, and in 1988, we convened a conference on immigration policy and political institutions in the United States. In 2002, the Academy published an issue of Dædalus titled Restoring Trust in American Business, on how to rebuild the trust upon which the American system of capitalism depends. And in 2014, the Academy concluded its project, Stewarding America, which tested the health of the institutions critical to inspiring and modeling good citizenship. The project focused its analysis on government, courts, media, military, corporations, and education systems and its findings served as a basis for the Dædalus issue, American Democracy & the Common Good.

Tonight, we are pleased to continue to examine democratic institutions. The Social Science Research Council, like the Academy, works on topics important to democracy and representative governments. The SSRC’s “Anxieties of Democracy” program asks how representative democracies can be strengthened to govern more fairly and effectively. The program is motivated by a concern about whether the core institutions of established democracies—elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, social movements, and, legislatures—can address complex problems in the public interest. Essays contributed by participants of the “Anxieties of Democracy” program have been gathered in a digital forum called The Democracy Papers, which I encourage you to visit on the SSRC website.

The questions the Democracy Papers pose and the insights they offer helped me think about the underlying causes of campus unrest we are seeing across the country, from the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College to Yale and Princeton. No doubt this generation of students is anxious about the state of our democracy. Can it adapt to a fast-changing, complex world? Can it bring our society closer to the founding values of our charter documents and advance a more just and peaceful world with opportunity for all?

I close with an observation from Harvard physicist and Nobel Laureate Percy Williams Bridgman who said, at our 1,374th Stated Meeting in April 1954:

It seems to me that from the long-range point of view it may turn out that the most serious scar left by our encounters with Nazism and Communism will have been inflicted by our defense of our democracy as a finished institution. We have forgotten to regard it as a growing thing, evolving to meet our evolving conceptions of ourselves and our place in nature.

I think his words will echo through our discussion this evening. Our democracy is still a work in progress at home and we have much to learn about how democratic principles can be useful to other countries and cultures.

The Academy is grateful to Ira Katznelson and his colleagues at the Social Science Research Council for organizing our exploration this evening focused on the “Anxieties of Democracy.” Ira and I made common cause at the New School in the 1980s, encouraging scholars in East and Central Europe in their quest for a democratic opening. He is a valued member of the American Academy’s Board and is the President of the Social Science Research Council and the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University. He is the author of the recent book Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. We are pleased he will be joined tonight by Samuel Issacharoff, the Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law, who is the author of a recently published book entitled Fragile Democracies.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Ira Katznelson and Samuel Issacharoff.

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