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Ohio State hosts National Conversation on American Unity

October 15, 2013

Amid a federal government shutdown, Ohio State hosts a conversation on American Unity. "Today, more than ever, we need solutions that bring people together and set aside partisan rancor," says Interim President Joseph A. Alutto.

Ohio State hosts National Conversation on American Unity

What makes a democracy work? How can both parties better work toward common goals? How can we have more respectful political conversations?

The federal government shutdown has given these questions a sense of urgency. And this week, Ohio State was at the center of the national conversation, hosting a National Conversation on American Unity sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. (Check out Ohio State's Storify to see how the event unfolded in real time.)

"I cannot think of a better time for Ohio State to convene some of the country’s foremost experts in political science, history and law for the purpose of studying what makes a democracy work and what threatens it," says Alan C. Michaels, dean of Ohio State's Moritz College of Law.

Ohio State was the only university to host one of the four National Conversations. Given Ohio’s importance in national elections and the university’s leadership in the study of democracy, Ohio State was a natural choice, says Professor Edward B. Foley, who leads Moritz College of Law’s nationally renowned election law program and worked to bring the event to campus.

"The greatness of Ohio State is its strength and size--the breadth at which we study these issues--which makes the state’s university well-positioned to be a leader in handling questions about governance in our society as a whole," Foley says. "We are in a state with a rich history of being important politically."

Foley is the director of Election Law @ Moritz, a nonpartisan research, education and outreach program that examines the way elections are held--from voter registration laws to absentee voting to the ways recounts are conducted across the U.S. Formed in 2004 and run by law professors and student researchers, Election Law @ Moritz has established itself as a national center for election law expertise. Lawyers, academics, journalists, lawmakers and others have turned to the program’s scholars for answers and resources.

The highly contested 2000 presidential election highlighted the fragile U.S. electoral system, Foley says, but historians can point to close races and bitter partisanship that presented threats to voting and the foundations of American democracy in the past.

"Extreme polarization has contributed to a culture that currently encourages the demonization of political opponents," Foley says. "We’re going to have reasonable disagreements; it’s a sign of a healthy democracy. But it’s how we handle those disagreements that’s critical, and we seem to be less able to do that institutionally and culturally."

That was the impetus for professors across campus to create a multidisciplinary approach at Ohio State to studying democracy. The Moritz College of Law, the Mershon Center for International Security Studies and the Departments of History and Political Science collaborated to present a two-year speakers series examining democracy, electoral institutions, rules governing the legislative process and legislative paralysis caused by partisan polarization.

Those talks led to the launch of the Democracy Studies Program this year. The program served as a co-sponsor for the Conversation on American Unity and other events covering related topics earlier this fall, and that's only the beginning.

Says Michaels: "Obviously, Ohio State is contributing to this National Conversation on American Unity, but we have been contributing to that conversation for some time and will continue to do so with thoughtful study aimed at finding solutions to problems the country faces."