January 15, 2019

In politics, it’s always darkest before the dawn

By Nancy Jacobson, 1/10/19
Washington, DC

To witness the rancor in our politics you might assume the American people had become more partisan. But the slings and arrows being thrown in Washington obscure a surprising truth: Far from stampeding into the two parties, ordinary people are moving in the other direction. Millions of Americans are responding to the vitriol by walking away from the Democratic and Republican parties altogether.

Here are the facts. According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, since 2001 the percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans has fallen from 32 percent to 26 percent. The percentage who identify as Democrats has fallen from 36 percent to 33 percent. But the percentage who identify as independents has actually grown from 27 percent to 37 percent, making them a larger percentage than both the Democrats and Republicans. Independents are the biggest group out there.

So what does this mean? First, it suggests you should be wary whenever someone argues that Democrats moving to the left and Republicans moving to the right represents a titanic shift in our politics. Are some Americans becoming more radical? Sure. But that’s in large part because millions of former partisans are abandoning both parties. So those who remain affiliated are more ideological, creating the illusion that the country, rather than the parties, are moving to the political extremes. By and large, we’re not—it’s just that many more moderate voters and independent thinkers are choosing to disassociate themselves from the parties altogether.

Second, it becomes clearer every day that Washington is offering an attitude and an approach to governing that most Americans don’t endorse. That’s not an accident. For the last several decades, powerful networks of think tanks, interest groups, media personalities, and donor networks have coalesced to pull elected Democrats to the left and elected Republicans to the right. All too often members of both parties are dissuaded from working in a bipartisan manner explicitly because they fear the backlash from more radical members within their own caucus. Courageous bipartisanship gets punished within both caucuses, and if you’re too independent these networks will run candidates against you in a primary who are more willing to toe the party line.

So here’s a question: What if those of us who believe in collaborative problem solving began to do for “bipartisans” what the networks of the far left are doing for Democrats and what networks on the far right are doing for Republicans? What if writers and thinkers and advocates and, yes, funders began building a movement designed to reward problem solving and punish extremism? What if we had a new opportunity to encourage our leaders to embrace the possibility that better ideas would flourish if they engaged across the aisle?

I believe we’re on the cusp of this actually happening. Why? For one, Washington’s partisanship has now curdled into a crude tribalism that is making even basic governance impossible—the ongoing government shutdown being Exhibit A. Second, to her credit, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) embraced changes to the House rules which will make it easier for bipartisan bills to be considered and voted on in this Congress. Third, those of us who believe in bipartisanship have the examples established by the far left and far right to use as models for a movement from the center.

Fourth, and likely most important, we have a huge, untapped population of frustrated Americans itching for an opportunity to steer things back on track. These aren’t the people sniping at one another on social media, or sharing incendiary articles with one another on email. These are, for the most part, people who have tuned out of the everyday ins and outs of politics—who don’t watch Fox News or MSNBC—but vote in each cycle for the candidate they trust most to do what’s right for the country, no matter which party nominates them. They want Washington to work—and, in most cases, they believe the key is for leaders in both parties to put problem solving above politics.

These are frightening days in American politics—but as the saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. The embarrassment on display in Washington didn’t emerge on its own. It was created and cultivated by determined partisans, and it can be reversed. To the degree that tribalism has infected Washington, it does not define America. And in that, there is hope.

Nancy Jacobson is a founder of No Labels, a national organization of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to a new politics of problem solving.