January 03, 2013
Rebuilding America’s Public Square
With three months to go, the 2012 election campaign, as FactCheck.org 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.”
About Matthew Nisbet
Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication and Co-Director of the Center for Social Media at American University, Washington, D.C.. He has published over 70 studies, book chapters and monographs examining the communication dynamics of policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over science, the environment and public health. Nisbet has been a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Google Science Communication Fellow, and a visiting Shorenstein Fellow in Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Read more about his research at the Climate Shift Project web site.