Recent Congressional dealmaking may signal that a move to the center — a strengthening of bipartisanship — is gaining momentum.
Four days before the start of Hanukkah, a little miracle happened in Washington, D.C. Nancy Pelosi was not just nominated by Democrats to be Speaker of the House, a move that had been a bit uncertain after her party gained a majority of House seats in the midterm elections, but she agreed to rules changes sought by Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — changes that would make it easier to introduce bipartisan legislation and ease political gridlock.
Nine of the Democrats in the 40-plus-member caucus had threatened to withhold their support for Pelosi if she didn’t agree to the rules changes. House members will vote for the Speaker at the beginning of the next session of Congress, planned for Jan. 3.
The pre-Hanukkah maneuvering offers a ray of hope for a much-needed movement — what I call the rise of the Radical Middle — that has been gathering momentum, especially over the past year, in intellectual, political and academic circles. And yet, hardly anyone has heard about it.
Clearly, all the noise has gone in the other direction, with the manic tribalism that characterizes our age. Every episode of societal drama — from mass shootings to Supreme Court nominations to midterm elections — seems to elicit rage, incivility, violence and a deepening of hatred for “the other side.” The underlying reasons run the gamut from economic fear to identity politics to social media to a Congress that disincentivizes compromise — all of which have led to a knee-jerk partisanship that makes schoolyard bickering seem sophisticated.
Are there historical precedents for such polarization?
“In some ways this is unique, in other ways not,” said Rutgers University history professor David Greenberg, author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.” “Obviously, the period before the Civil War was just as, or more, divided than now. Politics in the Gilded Age were very divided. The late 1960s and early 1970s were very divided and uncivil.”
On some level, it’s reassuring to know that, aside from the Civil War, the country has been this divided before. The question is, have we reached rock bottom? Could it be, at a time when things seem so fractured, divisive and polarized, that bipartisanship — a strengthening of the center — could re-emerge?
The agreement won by the Problem Solvers Caucus may be a crucial first step. The caucus was inspired by a nonpartisan nonprofit called No Labels, which is led by volunteer founder Nancy Jacobson.
“I believe that people are less polarized than their elected representatives and would welcome a new spirit of conciliation,” said William Galston, a No Labels consultant and the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
Or as Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, put it: “We are evolved for tribalism, but we are capable of transcending it.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in his midterm-election victory speech: “We proved that unity beats division, that bipartisanship beats extremism, that progress beats obstructionism.”
“Americans are hungry for unity, and we’re working to ensure that’s what presidential candidates deliver in 2020.” — Nancy Jacobson
In 2010, Jacobson, then campaign finance chair for former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), saw a growing problem. “No one was taking the time to invest in the center,” Jacobson said. “The common goal of the country — what’s in the best interest of the country — was getting completely lost.”
Since then, of course, the problem has gotten much worse. “The parties have become like tribes,” she said. “The party leadership demands loyalty — deviation gets you into trouble. Compromise is not rewarded — you lose campaign funding, you are taken off committees, you don’t get phone calls returned. There is a competitive desire to win at all costs — to poison the other side. We need a reset.”
Jacobson created No Labels to foster that reset. From the beginning, the group had two primary missions: Re-create the center and focus on the country, not the parties. Its biggest achievement is inspiring the creation of the Problem Solvers Caucus — akin to a Freedom Caucus for the political center. Co-chaired by Gottheimer and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), the caucus proposed a package of bipartisan rule reforms called “Break the Gridlock” in July.
“Due to the House floor being controlled by a select few, most members of Congress are not able to bring their ideas and proposals to the floor for a fair vote that would allow us to begin solving some of the most contentious issues facing our country today,” Reed said.
A key provision in the rules package adopted by Pelosi, which drew upon several ideas from Break the Gridlock, would give fast-track consideration to any bill that is co-sponsored by two-thirds of House members or a majority of both of the parties.
Another reform would eliminate the “motion to vacate” provision, which previously allowed a single lawmaker to force a vote on ousting the sitting Speaker. Reform advocates say the tool has given too much power to individuals and small factions of the party, who dangle the threat of the motion over the Speaker’s head. Under the new rules package, it will take a majority of the party caucus to force such a vote.
“We’ve seen how our common-sense solutions get jammed up in a system built to empower the voices of a few extremists,” Gottheimer said. “Instead of letting obstructionists create roadblocks to bipartisan consensus, the American people deserve action on everything from infrastructure to immigration.”
Jacobson said that when the Democrats won the House majority, the Problem Solvers Caucus saw its opportunity. “The Democrats will not have a huge margin of control, which makes Josh Gotthiemer more able to influence legislation with his band of Problem Solvers,” she said.
In that regard, Gotthiemer said: “Our most important mission is to govern and find a way to get to ‘yes’ on the most critical issues facing our nation, including infrastructure, gun safety, health care, immigration and the opioid crisis. No Labels and the Problem Solvers Caucus believe in putting people above party, and working together to find common ground to move our country forward.”
I asked Gottheimer if the rules changes Pelosi agreed to implement will have a trickle-down effect on the intense hyperpartisanship of the general public.
“Yes, we certainly hope so,” he responded. “We’re working to change the culture in Washington, and the Problem Solvers Caucus is becoming a testing ground for big ideas that can be enduring because they have bipartisan support. For instance, a few months ago, we hosted Jared Kushner, CNN commentator Van Jones, and president of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist to discuss working together to pass prison reform, and soon after helped pass the First Step Act to take the first step toward reforming our criminal justice system.
“We have to take the time to get to know one another and focus on where we agree rather than where we disagree,” he continued. “One of the biggest benefits of the Problem Solvers Caucus is spending time with someone from a different part of the country — over a meal or even a bipartisan workout — to understand his or her point of view. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Jacobson calls the group’s mission a “disruption from the center.”
“The parties have become like tribes. … We need a reset.” — Nancy Jacobson
Meanwhile, other groups in the political realm are also working to rebuild the center. For example, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution gathers stakeholders from across the political spectrum and gets them working together on common visions — such as teachers-union leaders with charter-school heads.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Washington think tanks are undergoing a fundamental evolution. A lot of them, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, were built to advise parties that no longer exist. They were built for a style of public debate — based on social science evidence and congressional hearings that are more than just show trials — that no longer exists. Many people at these places have discovered that they have more in common with one another than they do with the extremists on their own sides. So, suddenly, there is a flurry of working together across ideological lines.”
Before the midterms, Greenberg, the Rutgers history professor, said he was skeptical about attempts to pull American politics to the center: “One reason groups like No Labels may fail and someone like Michael Bloomberg won’t get the Democratic nomination is because the base won’t allow it,” Greenberg said. “Same with someone like John Kasich in the GOP. In the U.S. system, what historically happens is that one party moves to claim the center. The Democrats did this from 1933–1968. The Republicans did better with Independents from 1968–1992. Since President Clinton, we have been split and there’s been no majority party. Hillary Clinton seemed poised to rebuild the Democrats as a big-tent party, but instead both parties have moved to their extremes.”
After the election, Greenberg said he was more optimistic.
“What’s interesting about the Democrats who picked up GOP seats is they are liberal-to-moderate — people like Conor Lamb [of Pennsylvania], Max Rose or Antonio Delgado [both of New York], the New Jersey candidates. These people rejected ‘Abolish ICE’ and single-payer [health care]. So the Democrats have an opportunity now to reclaim the center-left. Who gets the presidential nomination in 2020 will matter. [Former Vice President Joe] Biden or [New Jersey Sen. Cory] Booker sends one signal; [Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth] Warren or [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders sends another.”
He added: “I think Pelosi winning shows that there is a liberal center between the far-left progresssives on one side and the moderates on the other. Pelosi has her flaws, but she talks about the Democrats as a capitalist party, has no patience for ‘Abolish ICE’ rhetoric, is pro-Israel, and is generally going to play it safe. So for now, the party has not lost its head.”
Clearly, ideology plays as much of a role in the rise of the Radical Middle as rules changes. However much centrists might find President Donald Trump unappealing on a personal level, they’ve been finding the push toward illiberalism on the left — restrictions on free speech, lack of due process, a biased press — even less appealing.
As New York Times political columnist Bret Stephens recently put it: “The day Democrats take charge in the House would be a good opportunity to stop manning imaginary barricades and start building real bridges to the other America.”
Which is why what’s happening outside of Congress is so important.
Haidt, the moral psychologist, formed the Heterodox Academy in late 2015 as a way to counter what he saw as some of the major problems on university campuses — an orthodoxy of opinion, a lack of tolerance for viewpoint diversity, an inability to have constructive disagreement, a reduction of complexity, and an increase in emotional reasoning — that have found their way into the larger national discourse.
“What is a liberal education?” asked Haidt, who recently co-authored “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” “Liberal means freedom. Well, what if you’re not free to express your opinions and ideas? It is Talmudic, really: Out of debate, we advance; out of argument comes truth.”
Today, Heterodox Academy boasts a membership of 2,300 professors of diverse politics. Most academic faculty in the U.S. are in the liberal left, “but fearful”; with only a small minority in the illiberal left, according to Haidt. It is Heterodox’s mission to help embolden the liberal left to speak out against illiberal education, he said, as well as to change the underlying ideology that has led to much of today’s intense polarization.
On another front, what’s come to be called the Intellectual Dark Web is more blatantly disregarding today’s political norms and re-intensifying civil discourse. Intellectuals and activists Eric Weinstein, Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz are all purposefully going against cultural norms to break the illiberal orthodoxy that has taken over much of the left. They are focused on the same goal as Heterodox, and are speaking across the country and around the world to sell-out crowds.
Clearly, people are hungry for civil discourse, respectful disagreement and tolerance of political diversity. The more we can implement it in the culture, the easier it will be to change the political dynamic.
“I believe that people are less polarized than their elected representatives and would welcome a new spirit of conciliation.” —William Galston
Unfortunately, the least progress toward a Radical Middle has been made in the realm of culture. In short, everything from media to theater to sports remains politicized; meaning, one must accept the leftist orthodoxy or risk being shunned and shamed.
The most disheartening realm for me is journalism. Real journalism — unbiased, just-the-facts journalism — barely exists. The blatant inability of media like The New York Times and CNN to report on Israel in a professional, unbiased, journalistic manner is just the most extreme example. One needs to read from two or three sources before one feels as though one has gotten the full story on a subject.
The inability to separate art from politics is also disheartening. Of course, some art has always had a political component. But today, politicization is nearly a requirement for an artist to get produced and shown. I have come to embrace children’s movies because, as yet, they are not required to pass a political test and are still allowed to have good win over evil — something that’s seen as politically incorrect in other realms.
One shining triumph of the Radical Middle is the new online magazine Quillette. Edited by Claire Lehmann in Australia, Quillette unabashedly takes on “dangerous” ideas like differences between the sexes and is beloved worldwide by readers hungry for objective, untheorized articles. The New Republic and Slate (two publications I used to write for) used to do precisely that. In fact, that was the norm just two decades ago. Sadly, when magazines like The Atlantic venture off of the politically correct grid with just one article, they need to respond with a deluge of apologies and cultural Marxist gymnastics.
“It used to be that sensible professionals served as gatekeepers at the networks and newspapers and magazines,” said Greenberg, who I worked with at The New Republic. “They kept extreme politics sidelined. The internet and social media have encouraged the spread of conspiracy theories, hate groups, partisan screeds and the like.”
“Now it’s our time to bind up our nation’s wounds,” Gottheimer said. “It’s our time to come together and move forward, remembering that extremism, on either side, holds our country back. Division isn’t the answer. Neither is obstruction for the sake of it, or attacking success and old-time class warfare.
“Now, more than ever, we must work together, united, as one nation under God, to solve the challenges we face and seize upon the opportunities ahead. We must sew together the flag that some have tried but failed to tear apart.
“Our most important mission is to govern and find a way to get to ‘yes’ on the most critical issues facing our nation, including infrastructure, gun safety, health care, immigration and the opioid crisis.” — Josh Gottheimer
“But we need a vision for what we’re for, not just for what we’re against. At our core, we believe in opportunity for all and responsibility from all. In good jobs and a good education, in fighting crime and terror to keep our communities safe, in looking out for one another, in taking care of our children and our seniors.”
Said Greenberg: “I think the next president (or maybe the next one after that), regardless of party, will run as a statesman, the way Obama did. He or she will appeal to the better angels of our nature. People will be sick of Trump and the “progressive” left and yearn for a decent, respectable leader like Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, even Eisenhower — men who appealed to common purpose and patriotism. I think there is a yearning for this and the right candidate, from either party, could win by running on such a platform.”
No Labels intends to test this proposition as the group is now turning its attention to the presidential race. It has launched a Unity 2020 campaign, which will call for the presidential candidates of both parties to make specific procedural and policy commitments – like naming a bipartisan cabinet and a commitment to start working on a bipartisan immigration bill immediately upon entering office – that No Labels believes are essential to promote the cause of national unity. Although the Unity platform is still under development, the effort will culminate on November 3, 2019, in New Hampshire – the first presidential primary state – when No Labels hosts a Unity Convention that will feature the presidential candidates and 2,000 citizens.
“I believe the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided is a false one,” said Jacobson. “Americans are hungry for unity, and we’re working to ensure that’s what presidential candidates deliver in 2020.”
Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.