I became a public historian because I find that the world of the anthropocene (the age of human dominance on the planet) can easily become overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. Humans and our societies are interconnected in countless ways, and our actions impact people and places that we cannot see and often can barely imagine.
Economist Friedrich Hayek called this complex human web of interconnected systems “the extended order”, coining the term in his 1988 book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. In it, he insisted that the extended order, resting on a foundation of personal freedom and open exchange, yields a more prosperous society than alternatives predicated on greater degrees of social and governmental control. Yet, with more than 330 million residents empowered to influence government in a democratic society, three quarters of them as eligible voters, the United States challenges Hayek’s vision of a natural system unaffected by mass biases and coordinated decision-making. A sustainable democratic system relies on a set of shared values and an abiding tolerance for tolerance. In the United States, the systems that promote and sustain these values are under pressure from multiple sectors of our society. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand how we got here and what tools may be at our disposal to strengthen the necessary systems and clear a way forward.
As a public historian, I see my role as a bridge-builder between the past and the present. I create pathways of understanding between those who laid the foundations for our present moment, and those of us who live in it. I joined the board of The American Leader because I respect the educational mission of the organization and believe that the work of untangling the political, social, and economic threads that threaten to ensnare our democracy is the best kind of public history. The Leader’s storyline on the steady expansion of voting rights in America is a good example. I know that I’m not the only one who sometimes feels overwhelmed by all we do and don’t know about living together in a land of liberty and community. I also know how important it is not to be intimidated into a paralysis that imperils the prospects for improving the humane democracy we strive to build in the United States. Our union may be imperfect, but the only way to perfect it is to see it for what it is and to support the work of leaders and workers in every sector seeking solutions to the problems we face in our interconnected world.
It is my hope that The American Leader can be a resource for anyone seeking the understanding necessary to make good decisions despite (and within) complexity. We can’t escape the vast web of Hayek’s extended order, but we can bring our best selves to the work of building a better world. That work starts with striving for understanding, and I hope that my contribution to The American Leader will be a valuable part of that work.