The Manichean dichotomy that separates America into red and blue partisan camps may be easy to understand. But the most salient schism in our politics isn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the pragmatists in both parties who want to engage across the aisle, and the purists in both parties who are content to engage in endless tribal warfare — a strategy that hasn’t worked for either side, and has left Washington mired in gridlock.
Today’s dysfunction has been a long time coming. The turning point may have been when President George H.W. Bush agreed to work with Democrats to point the nation toward a balanced budget nearly three decades ago. Ideologically inflexible partisans in his own party decided that this great statesman — a man who was doing what he thought was best for the country — had sold out by reaching across the aisle. Purists on both sides have been on the march ever since.
Today, pugnacious rigidity has become the most prized currency in our system. Primary elections, campaign fundraising, and social media reward partisan purity over bipartisan engagement. That’s the root of our problem. To save our democracy, we need to reverse the vicious cycle.
To be clear, the “my way or the highway” attitude is evident on both sides of the aisle. No Labels, the organization I founded eight years ago and have led as a volunteer ever since, was born after the 2010 “Tea Party” midterms, an election in which far-right conservatives prevailed by promising to do everything in their power to stand in President Obama’s way. We believed that attitude was bad for the country then — and we said as much. We believe it is bad for the country now, as forces on the left are becoming similarly intolerant and intransigent. Our mission is to unite our divided country, and that sometimes requires fighting back against people in both parties who are determined to torpedo any idea that emerges from across the aisle.
No Labels’ crusade for bipartisanship certainly isn’t popular among the conservative and progressive activists who, according to one recent study, together represent less than a third of the population. But our way of thinking is well-received among the two-thirds of Americans described in that same study as “the exhausted majority.” These are people who “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.” They tend not to write nasty, angry tweets, or search endlessly for opportunities to stick it to the other side. We are giving voice to a huge population that exists outside the political bubble dominating the conversation in Washington, D.C., and on the airwaves.
We carry the “exhausted majority’s” water on a host of fronts. It begins with ideas. In 2016, we released a series of 60 policy solutions supported by 60 percent of the population or more. It continued with our congressional reform efforts, which began with a 2011 book, published after Republicans had taken control of the House and titled “Make Congress Work!” This work continued with our successful campaign to support the Break the Gridlock rule reforms championed by the House Problem Solvers Caucus, changes that will make it easier for substantive, bipartisan legislation to get fair consideration on the House floor. Much to her credit, Leader Nancy Pelosi has embraced those changes, and we salute her for it.
In 2016, allies of No Labels funded an effort to intervene in two races — one in Kansas, where we took on Freedom Caucus agitator Tim Huelskamp in a Republican primary, and another in Florida, where we worked to support Darren Soto’s bid for a Democratic nomination. We won both. This year, we scaled up, spending more than $8 million to support 17 Democratic House candidates and more than $7 million to support an equal number of Republicans. Of the 34 races, 25 No Labels-backed candidates won.
Our opponents are now trying to spin an entirely inaccurate story about our mission and how we go about achieving it. For years, partisans dismissed us as a paper tiger who merely made plaintive calls for civility and then got rolled. With this last election cycle, we’ve demonstrated that we can hold our own. More than that, we won’t be cowed by the very individuals who have been dividing this country for so long.
Our organization simply wants Washington to get back to the business of working across the aisle again. And we believe that when our leaders engage one another, they’re more likely to make progress on issues that ordinary people care about: health care costs, infrastructure, and immigration reform, among them. Our crusade may not fit the red vs. blue mold that’s so familiar to Washington insiders. But we’re proud of the impact we’ve had. And we’re just getting started.