Symposium: Thinking through American Polarization

co-sponsored by the Provost's Office and the Center for Humanities Research

Friday, November 18, 2022 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM EST
Hybrid Event: Merten Hall 1201 or via Zoom (registration required, link below)


This symposium will be a hybrid event. The in person portion will take place in Merten 1201 and you may also join virtually, on Zoom. Registration is required for both.

Panel 1: 1-3 pm ET

Coffee Break in Merten 1204: 3-3:30 pm ET

Panel 2: 3:30-5 pm ET

Sponsored by the Provost’s Office and the George Mason University Center for Humanities Research

Symposium Description:

America’s deep political and cultural polarization is widely acknowledged, and most frequently explored through its symptoms, how it manifests itself, rather than through its causes. In this state of deep polarization, the tendency is to vilify rather than to intellectually engage with the “other side.” This symposium seeks to delve into the histories, root causes, and mechanisms of polarization—diagnosing the problems that have led to such deeply entrenched positions. Why now? What distinguishes current polarization from previous divisions in American life and why/how has it become unusually pervasive and bitter? What has happened to previously unifying values (a belief in the nation, a commitment to the common good)? To what extent does political and media polarization cause further division? To what extent is polarization a response to more basic social and economic changes in American life? To what extent is it connected to longstanding inequalities in American life? American polarization is of course not unique in the contemporary world, but it does seem unusually charged, and some comparative analysis with other national contexts may be an appropriate part of the overall evaluation.

The symposium will combine a panel of external presentations (each planned for 15-20 minutes) and conversation with a second panel led by Mason faculty, with ample opportunity for group discussion.

Panel One Speakers (in order of presentation):

dDaniel Rodgers (Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus, Princeton University), "What's New About Polarization?"

Dan Rodgers is a prize-winning teacher and author whose histories of American ideas, arguments, and culture range from the seventeenth century to the present. His Age of Fracture, a pioneering story of the "thinning" of social thought since the 1970s, won the Bancroft Prize in American history in 2012. His most recent book, As a City on a Hill, unearths the forgotten history of that highly malleable, and now newly controversial part of the American "canon."


jfJulius Fleming (Associate Professor of English and Director of English Honors, University of Maryland, College Park), "Black Patience: On Race and the Problem of Waiting for Freedom"

Julius B. Fleming, Jr. is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he also serves as Director of the English Honors Program. Specializing in Afro-Diasporic literatures and cultures, he has particular interests in performance studies, black political culture, diaspora, and colonialism, especially where they intersect with race, gender, and sexuality. Fleming is the author of Black Patience: Performance, Civil Rights, and the Unfinished Project of Emancipation (2022), published by New York University Press.

aAllyson Shortle (Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Oklahoma), "The Polarizing Role of Christian Nationalism in American Politics" 

Allyson Shortle is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, where she studies group identity in the context of American political behavior. She runs OU’s Community Engagement + Experiments Laboratory (CEEL), Oklahoma City’s Community Poll (Exit Poll), and OU’s Democracy Survey of OU freshmen. She is the co-author of The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics (2022, Cambridge University Press).


rDavid Rand (Erwin H. Schell Professor, MIT), "Rethinking the link between motivated reasoning and polarization"

David Rand is the Erwin H. Schell Professor and Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. Bridging the fields of cognitive science, behavioral economics, and social psychology, David’s research combines behavioral experiments and online/field studies with mathematical/computational models to understand human decision-making. His work focuses on illuminating why people believe and share misinformation and “fake news”; understanding political psychology and polarization; and promoting human cooperation. David regularly advises technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter in their efforts to combat misinformation, and has provided testimony about misinformation to the US and UK governments.


Panel One will be chaired by Alison Landsberg, Professor of History and Art History and Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Humanities Research at Mason.


Panel Two Speakers (in order of presentation):

Supriya Baily, "Battling for Control - Polarization and Education in the US"

Supriya Baily is Professor of Education in the College of Education and Human Development. Her research focuses on power, education and gender and more recently she has been exploring the impact of nationalism on educated women in India.

Stefan Wheelock, "A Polarizing Truth: Warnings from Ida B. Wells"

Stefan Wheelock is an associate professor in the English department. He earned his PhD in English from Brown University in 2001. He specializes in the study of Atlantic history and culture with a specific focus on early African-British and African-American literatures.

David Bernstein, "The Growth of Executive Power as a Cause of Divisiveness"

David E, Bernstein holds a University Professor Chair at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, where he reaches constitutional law and evidence. A prolific scholar, his most recent book is "Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classifications in America" (Bombardier Press 2022).

Richard Rubenstein, "Class, culture, and conflict resolution"

Richard Rubenstein joined the faculty at George Mason through the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and served as its director from 1988-1991. He is University Professor at the Institute's successor, the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.


Panel Two will be chaired by Peter Stearns, Professor of History and Art History and Provost Emeritus at Mason.



This symposium has been organized by Mason's "Culture Crisis" Committee.


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