Rebuilding America’s Public Square

August 16, 2012 | Matthew Nisbet

With three months to go, the 2012 election campaign, as recently editorialized, can best be summed up “by the cavalier disregard for facts on both sides,” and by a “bitter and trivial” focus that fails to “engage the public in a fact-based discussion of the hard choices” that face the country.
Sadly, things are only likely to get worse.

Modern campaigns have rarely focused on the issues, but in 2012 the level of moral outrage and anger is unprecedented.  Even before the election, America was divided, but come next year, either Obama or Romney will face a Congress more polarized than at any time in history.

And the most politically engaged voters are as split as their elected officials, many holding a belief that “those on the other side of the partisan divide are not just mistaken but immoral and evil,” writes Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz in a recently published book.

At the Public Square, I will be investigating how all of us together – liberals and conservatives, intellectuals and journalists – have managed to so deeply damage our civic culture and to lose sight of a common purpose in American politics.

Launching the conversation is an article today that I co-authored with Dietram Scheufele at the Breakthrough Journal.  In “The Polarization Paradox” we argue that although extreme polarization serves well the goals of conservatives, by pursuing similar political strategies, liberals have seriously jeopardized their own electoral and policy ambitions.

In the aftermath of the November election, we write that it is time for liberals to “turn more attention and resources to rebuilding our civic culture….re-forming our civic and political institutions in ways that create some possibility for moderation, deliberation, and crosscutting discourse,” recognizing “that without a functioning civic culture, there can be no progressive governance.”

Drawing on research, expert voices, and feedback from readers, my main focus at this blog will be on identifying and evaluating investments that enable us to once again understand and negotiate our political differences.  In our article, we highlight several places to start.

We argue for reforming the Congressional primary system in a manner that allows a greater number of moderates to run for and win office.  We also suggest ways to reduce the demand for spending in election campaigns.  But most importantly, we urge a change in mindset and approach to politics, arguing that compromise is more effective than relentless ideological confrontation.  As we conclude: “For better or worse, as the party of government, liberals have greater incentive than conservatives to reach across the aisle and pursue pragmatic solutions to America’s problems.”


  • Good luck. What you are trying to accomplish is great. There is a bi-partisan group named “No Labels”—who has similar objectives. I am sure you know about them.

    By Rajat Sen on 2012 08 24

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  • Hi Rajat,
    I definitely plan to be looking closely at and writing about No Labels in posts this Fall at The Public Square.

    By Matthew Nisbet on 2012 08 29

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  • You can’t under-estimate much larger forces at work in this process. Since the end of WWII the glue that held both domestic and international relations frozen in a appearance of cohesion was the Coldwar. The shared enemy without for the american establishment and the USA’s position as leader of the ‘free world’ gave a purpose and some certainty to america even through the most divisive days of civil unrest and Vietnam. The idea that technical fixes to the political process are the solution is just like trying to paint over the cracks. A broader understanding of the processes in play here would be a much more useful start.

    By Thanks for this on 2012 09 03

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  • @Rajat, I’ve heard of the “no labels” group as well. Glad to hear that there will be some more coverage. I write about various political issues on my own Vancouver based blog. In our city, many many political firestorms. Makes life easy for me!

    By Gord Jr. on 2013 02 12

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About Matthew Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses, including those on Environmental Politics, Communication, and Advocacy; and Health, Debates, Communication, and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.

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