A grass-roots answer to gridlock
As President Obama and congressional leaders struggle to establish a working relationship, they should ponder the sentiments of the real - and very frustrated - American majority.
A Pew survey taken after the midterm election found that 55 percent of respondents wanted Republican leaders in Washington to "try as best they can to work with Barack Obama to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some groups of Republican supporters." Sixty-two percent wanted Obama to work hard to cooperate with Republicans, even if it meant disappointing some of his supporters.
But what the people want and what they expect are very different. In Congress, the center has collapsed, and ideological overlap between the parties has vanished. Although 30 percent of grass-roots Republicans consider themselves moderate or liberal, and 60 percent of Democrats consider themselves moderate or conservative, their voices are muted in the nation's capital. As increasingly polarized media feed centrifugal forces, potential primary challengers stand ready to punish deviation from party orthodoxies. Only 22 percent of the Pew respondents thought that cooperation was likely to happen under these circumstances.
On Dec. 13, more than 1,000 citizens from the 50 states will convene in New York to change the odds. They are founding a movement - No Labels. Among them will be Democrats, Republicans and independents who are proud of their political affiliations and have no intention of abandoning them. A single concern brings them together: the hyper-polarization of our politics that thwarts an adult conversation about our common future. A single goal unites them: to expand the space within which citizens and elected officials can conduct that conversation without fear of social or political retribution.
Their movement rests on the belief that the real American majority wishes to reassert control over a political system mired in brain-dead partisanship. Those traveling to New York are going at their own expense. No Labels is gaining a thousand fans on Facebook each day. Citizens across the country are asking how they can get involved.
Will politicians listen? Here's why they should.
Our political system does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary. At a time of national economic emergency, when Americans are clamoring for positive action, our government is routinely paralyzed by petty politics. Through the summer, as the economy teetered between recovery and stagnation, the Federal Reserve lacked a quorum because a single Republican senator took it upon himself to block Obama's appointments. Republicans were only doing unto the Democrats as the Democrats had done unto them: In January 2008, as the country geared up for an epoch-making election, the Federal Election Commission lacked a quorum because one Democrat had put holds on President George W. Bush's nominees.
Nor does the political system work if politicians treat members of the other party as enemies to be destroyed. Labeling legitimate policy differences as "socialist" or "racist" undermines democratic discourse.
Over the next 12 months, No Labels plans to organize citizens' groups in every state and congressional district. Among other activities, these citizens will carefully monitor the conduct of their elected representatives. They will highlight those officials who reach across the aisle to help solve the country's problems and criticize those who do not. They will call out politicians whose rhetoric exacerbates those problems, and they will establish lines that no one should cross. Politicians, media personalities and opinion leaders who recklessly demonize their opponents should be on notice that they can no longer do so with impunity.
Here's why the political parties should take note: In another bipartisan post-election survey, fully 61 percent of independents - whose shifting preferences made much of the difference between the Democratic victory in 2006 and the Republican resurgence in 2010 - endorsed the proposition that "Governing is about compromise, and I want my elected officials to work with the other side to find common ground and pass legislation on important issues." Only 32 percent chose the contrary proposition that "Leadership is about taking principled stands, and I want my elected officials to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means that legislation on important issues does not pass." The majority of independents are calling for a new politics of problem-solving. Both political parties ignore this majority at their peril.
That's what No Labels is. Here's what it isn't: It is not a nascent third-party movement. It is not a stalking-horse for an independent candidacy. And it is not a front for anyone's agenda. In an act as old as America, citizens are coming together out of frustration and patriotism to give their country a better future. The challenge is enormous. But as Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
William A. Galston and David Frum are among the founders of No Labels. Galston was deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton for domestic policy from 1993 to 1995. Frum was a speechwriter and special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.