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The Idea of Change in American Politics: A Meaningful Concept or an Empty Promise?

Recorded on September 11, 2008

Location: The Heritage Foundation's Lehrman Auditorium

There is no ignoring or dismissing abstract appeals to "change" in the rhetoric of both presidential candidates.  But a close examination of these appeals reveals that they are neither new nor fresh.  On the contrary, they reprise familiar and well-worn themes of constant transformational change, of ceaseless experimentalism, and of the endless quest to fulfill America's promise - all of which have come to be understood as integral parts of the American ethos.  But these themes represent serious and often willful misunderstandings of concepts and dispositions that lie at the very foundation of American life.  The current presidential campaign provides us with an opportune moment to revisit these misconceptions, and replace them with better and more fully grounded ones.

Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also Professor of History.  He has also taught at Georgetown University, Tulane University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Dallas, and is Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.  He has served since 2002 as a member of the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He is author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (1994), which won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians.