“Not left, not right, forward.” That’s the motto of No Labels, perfectly expressing the aims of the problem-solving and reform-minded citizens’ group that held its kickoff meeting in New York City today. 

But one might ask: In a polarized and ideological time, is there really any reason to be hopeful about an effort to lower voices and encourage cooperative problem-solving on urgent national problems?   If partisans on both sides have been taking the cudgels to each other for so long, why should they stop the cudgeling now?   The answer: If past is prologue, then a “cease-cudgeling” is possible.  The precedents, as we shall see, are instructive–and encouraging.   

On the campus of Columbia University, speakers as different as Evan Bayh, Democratic Senator of Indiana; Bob Inglis, Republican Congressman from South Carolina; and New York’s independent mayor, Mike Bloomberg, all gathered in one room to share common ideas and sentiments about the need for constructive civility.   Bayh, retiring after two terms in the US Senate, lamented that normal cooperation between the two parties had broken down: “In the Senate today, Democrats and Republicans barely see each other.”  It is, indeed, difficult to imagine how problems can be solved in the absence of communication. 

And yet the problem of hyper-partisanship is not just endemic to Washington, as another speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, made clear. Recallng his time as an elected official in Sacramento as well as in LA’s city hall, Villaraigosa declared, “You can’t get things done when you’re screaming at each other.”

As bad as the situation might sound today, it’s been worse in the past.  There have been times, after all, when Americans weren’t just screaming at each other–they were shooting at each other.  The American Revolution, for example, was fought between Americans, as well as against the British.   And yet as the infant republic struggled to form itself, George Washington set a new standard of visionary and pragmatic leadership.   David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, noted at Monday’s session, that “the Founders had a code of gentlemanly behavior that enabled them to reach agreement”–to draft and ratify a Constitution.  What the Founders all shared, Brooks added, was “love of country.”  Such shared patriotism enabled them to hammer out profound agreements–and painful compromises–that established the new nation. 

Addressing a common question about NoLabels, Brooks added, “We don’t need a third party; we need a social movement under the parties.” In other words, activists should seek to inspire and invigorate Democrats and Republicans.  Indeed, as Nancy Jacobson, the driving force behind No Labels, has long asserted, No Labels is not asking people to give up their partisan label; it is merely asking people to think beyond their partisanship.  And of course, any constructive movement in a pluralist society is premised on the common bonds of affection.   “How can you love your country,” Brooks asked, “if you hate the other half of it?”

Yet in spite of the best efforts of patriots, the Constitution has been severely threatened more than once in the 222 years since its ratification.  One stormy period of US history, the late 19th century, is particularly instructive, providing illuminating parallels for today.   The Civil War surely stands as the greatest period of crisis and division in our history.  By 1861, eleven states, representing almost 30 percent of the US population, had seceded from the Union.  The resulting conflict left more than 600,000 Americans dead, wrecking and dislocating much of the country.  The goals of preserving the Union and ending slavery were well worth the sacrifice, of course, but bitter feelings lingered for many decades.   And sharply divided partisanship lingered as well: In those days, the North was mostly Republican, while the white South was overwhelmingly Democratic. “Vote as you shot” was the oft-heard political rallying cry. 

Moreover, in the decades after the Civil War, the country went through the further traumas and stresses of Reconstruction, industrialization, and mass immigration.   One result was the rise of new political movements, some radical–populism, socialism, anarchism.  It was a violent epoch; three US presidents were assassinated in just 36 years. 

Yet amidst these grave challenges, a new and hopeful movement was emerging.  It was a movement consciously aimed at healing divisions and solving social problems.   That movement was progressivism, and it emerged in both parties. 

On both sides of the aisle, Democratic and Republican, progressives embraced for many of the same issues and causes, beginning with clean government.  Yet in addition to cleaning up corruption, the progressives focused on bread and butter concerns that appealed to the immediate concerns of ordinary people: greater regulation of abusive industry practices, pure food and drug laws, wage-and-hour regulations, workmen’s compensation, public health, and public safety.  The result was a movement of ideas and ideals that proved resoundingly popular with voters. 

What is now remembered as the Progressive Era peaked in 1912, when Democratic progressive Woodrow Wilson ran against Republican-turned-third-party progressive Theodore Roosevelt.  The Republican Party’s nominee in that year, a non-progressive, finished an embarrassing third in the balloting.   In other words, the progressive victory was complete. 

Can the same thing happen today?  Can the traumas and stresses–and scandals–of our time inspire a new movement of reform and progress?   It’s too soon to tell, but the No Labels meeting  provided food for though.  Perhaps a future Wilson or Roosevelt was at the No Labels meeting today, or watching it on streaming video, or following it via social media.  

And as William Galston of the Brookings Institution reminded the audience, all popular  movements start from the grassroots–from the progressive movement, to the civil rights movement, to the right-to-life movement.  

Without a doubt, the idealistic elements are in place.  As Daily Beast writer John Avlon said,  “We are here to reaffirm that vital message–e pluribus unum.”   Out of many, one.  That’s an inspiring sentiment in any century.  

And as Cory Booker, the dynamic 41-year-old mayor of Newark NJ, declared in a rousing closing speech, “We drink deeply from wells of freedom that we did not dig.”  That is, this generation has inherited much from the sacrifices and accomplishments of the past.  So now it is time to see if Americans today can live up to the high standards of George Washington and all the other greats, famous and obscure, who bequeathed to us our beloved but now troubled  country.   The present might be cloudy, but as the greatest Americans have all said, in their own way, the issue isn’t right or left–it’s forward.