The political divide that is wrecking America

By certain measures, we’re now a stronger country than in we were last century. We’ve made progress on a whole range of fronts. But we’ve abandoned the sense of common cause that defined our politics while facing down the Soviets during the Cold War.

In the absence of immediate tragedy, we’re a more rancorous nation, more riven by division and mutual antipathy. You see it in the impeachment hearings, but also in Washington’s repeated failures simply to pass an on-time budget. Republicans and Democrats simply refuse to work together, turning nearly every disagreement into a stalemate.

The shift has been most remarkable in Washington, where Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill once jabbed at one another in public before sharing a drink and working together on transformative legislation. But it’s not just in Washington. As Bill Bishop illustrated in The Big Sort, today we live in more polarized neighborhoods, liberal among liberal, conservative among conservative. And that’s as true in Texas as Massachusetts or California.

The dysfunction today is so bad and so ingrained that simply electing different leaders won’t be enough. We need, more fundamentally, to change the incentives that pull our leaders apart. We need, once again, to make it politically palatable to reach across the aisle and work with the other party. And while some of that work needs to be done in Washington, a great deal of it needs to begin across the country.

Recently, sensing that something needed to change in American politics — that nothing good would come from ratcheting up the tension between the left and right — former Democratic Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Harlan Crow, a prominent real estate developer who sits on the board of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, decided to come together to co-host an event introducing Dallas to the organization I lead in Washington, No Labels.

No Labels is the rare interest group not pushing a narrow policy agenda. We simply believe that the best ideas emerge when Democrats and Republicans work together to hammer out a solution both can abide. And because Rawlings believes that progress depends on his fellow Democrats working with Republicans, and Crow believes his fellow Republicans need to work with Democrats, the two decided to take up this cause, together.

No Labels is rooted in three truths. First, deep down, we know that most Americans want more bipartisanship, not more radicalism — that is confirmed in poll after poll. Second, most members of Congress want the same thing — they enter public service to get things done, not to fight with one another. Third, and most important, we know that every force in American politics today works to pull the parties apart. Campaign fundraising. Social media. Cable news. Even the filibuster. Our leaders are incentivized to fight, not fix.

It doesn’t have to be this way — and as No Labels makes progress, our message is spreading. Our work inspired the creation of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bloc of 48 lawmakers, evenly divided between the parties and committed to forging solutions across the aisle.

Already, the Caucus has emerged with collaborative solutions on gun safety, health care, and immigration and border security. They’ve managed to change the House rules, opening a new lane for bipartisan legislation. No Labels hosts regular bipartisan, bicameral meetings in Washington, creating opportunities for collaboration across the aisle.

We’ve managed in successive elections to defeat the most extreme members of both parties. And we’re now building out an effort to support bipartisan members in both parties who are challenged from the fringes.

For all our progress inside Washington, our movement’s fate ultimately depends on ordinary citizens. It shouldn’t take tragedy for America to come together — citizens of different stripes should be able to collaborate in the ordinary course of business. We’re grateful to those who will join us here in Dallas, and we look forward to developing deep roots here. Fifty-six years after one of America’s darkest days, we believe America needs to rekindle a long-lost sense of national unity and purpose. And we hope Texans of all stripes will join us in that mission.

Nancy Jacobson is chief executive and founder of No Labels.

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