Updated at 9:57 a.m. on January 18.
It would be easy to dismiss recent calls for civil discourse in politics as starry-eyed idealism. After all, voters themselves are fired up, and they’ve elected lawmakers who champion their passionate convictions on both the left and right.
But members of Congress who take divisive conflict to an extreme may pay a political price, say organizers of a small but growing movement to champion bipartisan cooperation. For activists at peacemaking groups such as the grassroots nonprofit No Labels and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank toiling with lawmakers to eke out legislative compromises, the business of comity goes way beyond politesse.
Lawmakers ignore calls for cooperation at their peril, agree some analysts who point to growing disgust with Congress and with the national political parties. Voters don’t want lawmakers to make nice so there will be less shouting on TV. They want politicians to work together so they can solve problems like unemployment and the deficit. Some argue that growing voter frustration may even fuel a third party movement that could impact the 2012 election.
There are multiple caveats, of course. The nation’s two-party system is institutionally hostile to outsiders, and only one third-party presidential candidate – Ross Perot, who sought the White House in 1992 and 1996 – has won any traction in recent decades. Even Perot captured only 19 percent of the vote in 1992. And moderates have been losing ground, both among voters and elected officials, as the nation’s electorate has become more polarized.
Still, consider the following: Nearly 1 in 3 Americans – a higher percentage than at any point in the previous 15 years – say that the two-party system is broken and that a third party would be good for the country, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last year.
Voters don’t want lawmakers to make nice so there will be less shouting on TV. They want politicians to work together so they can solve problems like unemployment and the deficit.
At the same time, more third-party and independent candidates ran for the House last year than in any midterm since 1934, according to the University of Minnesota blog Smart Politics. Such candidates totaled 443, a close to 57 percent increase over the last midterm in 2006. Several third-party gubernatorial candidates also grabbed attention for their wild-card potential in 2010.
The time may even be ripe for a third-party presidential candidate in 2012, some argue. Voters’ low opinion of and dwindling identification with the two major parties; the viral organizing power of the internet; the potential for a polarizing nominee, particularly on the GOP side; and slim congressional majorities all lower the odds against a third-party White House bid, New York Times political analyst Nate Silver has noted.
There is “an increasing mismatch between the party systems and the shape of the electorate,” said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who is a founding leader of No Labels, a month-old group that is organizing in all 50 states and 435 congressional districts to gin up grassroots pressure on lawmakers to work together.
Galston has been at pains to point out that No Labels is neither a third-party incubator nor a stalking horse for an independent candidacy. Some have speculated that No Labels will furnish a platform for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spoke at the group’s kickoff event last month. (Bloomberg has said he will not run.)
GOP strategist Mark McKinnon, another No Labels founder, expressed doubts about a third party, but added: “If there is one, it’s going to be because the parties have failed to recognize this great appetite for what Americans really want in politics today,” namely “to know that their elected officials are putting aside party politics and working for the best interests of the country.”
For organizers at No Labels and other conciliation-minded groups, the point is not nice words and decorum; it’s encouraging lawmakers to spend time together so they can stand to be in the same room long enough to write a bill.
“You can’t have a government that’s actually functioning and that deals with society’s problems where you are trying to kill each other all the time,” said Dan Glickman, a former House Democrat from Kansas who was Agriculture Secretary under President Clinton. “Being civil is important because that way you can do the people’s business.”
Champions of the middle have a challenge on their hands, of course. Moderation and civility are not exactly rallying cries for fiery activism. But some see an opening in polling data that show, increasingly, that voters want the two parties to work together.
“We firmly believe that there is a new moment for centrist politics,” said Anne Kim, domestic policy director for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. Among other projects, Third Way has set out to convince Democrats that it’s in their party’s interests to enfranchise swing voters and to articulate a moderate ideology and agenda.
In the end, talk matters less than action. Let lawmakers shout at one another, as long as they go out for a beer (or a legislative huddle) afterward. Noted Indiana Law School professor John Lawrence Hill: “I don’t think it’s the discourse which is causing the political problems. I think politics itself is generating the discourse.” And hot political winds can blow in unexpected directions.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report should have said nearly 1 in 3 Americans say a third party would be good for the country.
This article appears in the Jan. 18, 2011, edition of National Journal.