The War On Partisanship

How fighting polarization became its own cause.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a No Labels Problem Solver convention, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Manchester, N.H. 
AP Photo/Jim Cole
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Rebecca Nelson
Oct. 30, 2015, 5 a.m.

ON A RE­CENT Sunday even­ing in Manchester, New Hamp­shire, 170 people con­vened for din­ner at the Cur­ri­er Mu­seum of Art. Among the at­tendees were Wash­ing­ton semi-celebrit­ies (Joe Lieber­man, Jon Hunts­man, GOP strategist Mark McKin­non) as well as an odd as­sort­ment of D-list Hol­ly­wood types (Wayne Knight, who played New­man on Sein­feld; char­ac­ter act­or Richard Kind; Dean Nor­ris, the broth­er-in-law from Break­ing Bad; act­ress Rose McGow­an).

The din­ner served as the kick­off for the “Prob­lem Solv­er Con­ven­tion,” the brainchild of the Wash­ing­ton-based group No La­bels. The goal of the gath­er­ing was both straight­for­ward and ex­traordin­ar­ily am­bi­tious: to set in mo­tion a plan that would re­duce grid­lock, po­lar­iz­a­tion, and par­tis­an­ship in Wash­ing­ton.

Yet even at this event, it wasn’t al­ways pos­sible to keep par­tis­an­ship at bay. At one point dur­ing the Sunday night din­ner (which cost No La­bels $68 per plate), McGow­an—best known for her role on the early 2000s show Charmed—In­s­tagrammed a video, taken from what ap­peared to be the angle of her lap. In it, she rolled her eyes and looked gen­er­ally dis­gus­ted. The cap­tion read: “Tell me all about it rich white male re­pub­lic­ans.”

Minutes later, McGow­an spoke to the group. “What I see is a very, very white room,” she scol­ded. “Which is shock­ing.” She talked for at least a minute about how No La­bels was well-in­ten­tioned but had lost its way (while also adding something about how she was a busi­ness­wo­man who owned homes in four coun­tries) be­fore one of the group’s co-founders at­temp­ted to cut her off with a tim­id, “We ap­pre­ci­ate your com­ments.” Pump­ing a hand in the air, McGow­an shouted, “And I ap­pre­ci­ate you!” Then she dis­ap­peared in­to the Manchester night.

This illustration can only be used with the Rebecca Nelson story that originally ran in the 10/31/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.  George Bates

The un­wel­come specters of par­tis­an­ship and di­vis­ive­ness again hovered the next morn­ing, when Don­ald Trump ad­dressed the con­ven­tion. Des­pite the signs next to him ur­ging politi­cians to “stop fight­ing, start fix­ing,” he de­livered his sig­na­ture caustic rhet­or­ic. All of his op­pon­ents, he boas­ted, were look­ing “lousy” in the polls, Pres­id­ent Obama had “bombed” his re­cent 60 Minutes in­ter­view, and so on.

Look­ing down at a sheet of pa­per, Trump went through the list of No La­bels’ four over­arch­ing policy goals. It soun­ded like he was read­ing them for the first time. “I look at your dif­fer­ent things that you have, things that you want to do: ‘Cre­ate 25 mil­lion jobs.’ … ‘Bal­ance the fed­er­al budget by’ ”—he paused, scoff­ing in­cred­u­lously—“2030! 2030? That’s an easy one.”

A tense ques­tion-and-an­swer peri­od fol­lowed his speech. One wo­man asked wheth­er Trump was con­cerned that some of the di­vis­ive lan­guage he uses on the cam­paign trail un­der­mines his abil­ity to solve prob­lems. “I went to Ivy League schools,” he re­spon­ded. “I know what’s di­vis­ive, and I know what’s not di­vis­ive.”

In total, eight pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates—Trump, Lind­sey Gra­ham, Chris Christie, Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, Bernie Sanders, George Pa­taki, John Kasich, and Jim Webb—ad­dressed the group. None of the oth­ers were as com­bat­ive as Trump, and many spoke to the vir­tues of com­prom­ise. (Nearly every­one, it seemed, felt com­pelled to in­voke the bi­par­tis­an spir­it of Ron­ald Re­agan and Tip O’Neill.) But the es­sen­tial mes­sage of many of the speeches seemed to boil down to: Here’s my agenda; I hope it can hap­pen via com­prom­ise.

In the age of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, of Fox News and MSNBC, of total partisan warfare at all levels of government, No Labels is, to put it mildly, out of step with the zeitgeist of U.S. politics. 

Dur­ing the af­ter­noon, after some of the can­did­ates had spoken, I found my­self talk­ing to Ju­lie Mc­Cutcheon, a re­tired com­puter pro­gram­mer from Marl­bor­ough, New Hamp­shire. She’d come with a friend, who had got­ten an email about the con­ven­tion from a cam­paign-fin­ance-re­form group. Mc­Cutcheon seemed frus­trated at just how out of sync some of the can­did­ates were with the No La­bels mes­sage. “It says a lot about the can­did­ates that some of them ap­par­ently didn’t read the as­sign­ment,” she said. “Be­cause they didn’t do the home­work.”

It also, however, said a lot about No La­bels and the up­hill battle the group is fight­ing. In the age of Don­ald Trump and Bernie Sanders, of Fox News and MS­N­BC, of total par­tis­an war­fare at all levels of gov­ern­ment, No La­bels is, to put it mildly, out of step with the zeit­geist of U.S. polit­ics. “I think there are some winds that we’re try­ing to make pro­gress against,” former White House chief of staff and No La­bels vice chair Mack McLarty told me. “I think the way we fin­ance our cam­paigns, ger­ry­man­der­ing and how we di­vide our dis­tricts, … a more di­vided Amer­ica, the In­ter­net re­in­for­cing ideas and so forth, the cable chan­nels that cer­tainly re­in­force a silo…” He drif­ted off, be­fore adding: “We’re try­ing to pen­et­rate through that.”

No La­bels is hardly alone: They are just one of nu­mer­ous or­gan­iz­a­tions that have made it their mis­sion—maybe ideal­ist­ic­ally, maybe ab­surdly—to end or at least mit­ig­ate polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion. I re­cently talked to the people be­hind a num­ber of these groups. Of the 11 or­gan­iz­a­tions I spoke with, most had star­ted in the last five years; the old­est began in 2006. Each has slightly dif­fer­ent ideas on what’s caus­ing hy­per­par­tis­an­ship, what should be done to fix it, and even what to call their pre­ferred al­tern­at­ive. (Some pro­mote “de­pol­ar­iz­a­tion,” oth­ers fa­vor the term “bi­par­tis­an­ship,” while still oth­ers claim to ad­vance “trans­par­tis­an­ship.”) But all share a ba­sic out­look that sees ideo­lo­gic­al di­vi­sion and polit­ic­al grid­lock as ur­gent prob­lems. What I hoped to learn was how, pre­cisely, these groups are go­ing about tack­ling their seem­ingly her­culean task—and wheth­er any of it can ac­tu­ally work.

U.S. POLIT­ICS, AS every­one knows, is in­sanely po­lar­ized. Ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Pew study, voters have more in­tense an­im­os­ity for the oth­er side than at any point in the last 20 years; many even think of those in the op­pos­ing party as a “threat to the na­tion’s well-be­ing.” Amer­ic­ans are balkan­ized geo­graph­ic­ally, too. “We have built a coun­try where every­one can choose the neigh­bors (and church and news shows) most com­pat­ible with his or her life­style and be­liefs,” the journ­al­ist Bill Bish­op writes in The Big Sort: Why the Clus­ter­ing of Like-Minded Amer­ica Is Tear­ing Us Apart. “And we are liv­ing with the con­sequences of this se­greg­a­tion by way of life: pock­ets of like-minded cit­izens that have be­come so ideo­lo­gic­ally in­bred that we don’t know, can’t un­der­stand, and can barely con­ceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

This image can only be used with the Rebecca Nelson story that originally ran in the 10/31/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Jon Huntsman (left) and Joe Lieberman are serving as co-chairs of No Labels. The group faces an uphill battle, to say the least, and even Huntsman acknowledges that it may not succeed. Darren McCollester/Getty Images

With­in the ma­chinery of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, mean­while, po­lar­iz­a­tion has be­come a giv­en. The num­ber of im­port­ant is­sues stuck in con­gres­sion­al grid­lock, ac­cord­ing to a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­port from last year, has ris­en stead­ily over the past half-cen­tury.

The groups that are seek­ing to fight these trends of­fer a broad range of pos­sible ap­proaches—loc­al and na­tion­al, per­son­al and sweep­ing, grass­roots and elite. One non­profit, called the Vil­lage Square, is try­ing to re­cre­ate com­munity meet­ing places that once oc­curred more nat­ur­ally. The or­gan­iz­a­tion—which is based in Tal­l­a­hassee, Flor­ida, but has chapters in four cit­ies—hopes to build “a cen­ter of grav­ity in­side a com­munity,” says Liz Joyn­er, the group’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. “We cre­ate that space where neigh­bors con­nect up with each oth­er to cre­ate the civic glue that makes demo­cracy work.” It’s al­most like so­cial-net­work­ing in real life—so it makes sense that the group is fun­ded, in part, by Linked­In co-founder Re­id Hoff­man.

Earli­er this month, the or­gan­iz­a­tion ar­ranged for a 504-foot-long table that would stretch down two city blocks in down­town Tal­l­a­hassee. At the gath­er­ing, dubbed the “Longest Table,” 400 loc­al res­id­ents mingled over bar­be­cue. Sheets of pa­per bear­ing con­ver­sa­tion starters and fill-in-the-blanks—“Race re­la­tions in our com­munity are _____”—ad­orned the table.

A sim­il­arly grass­roots pro­gram is called Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions. Fun­ded by grants from the Hew­lett Found­a­tion, the Cali­for­nia En­dow­ment, and oth­er smal­ler found­a­tions, the ini­ti­at­ive en­cour­ages av­er­age Amer­ic­ans from op­pos­ite ends of the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum to get to­geth­er for can­did con­ver­sa­tions about polit­ic­ally charged top­ics: edu­ca­tion, men­tal health, race, in­car­cer­a­tion.

“This is an entrepreneurial startup enterprise,” Jon Huntsman says. “And like any entrepreneurial startup enterprise, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get to the promised land.” 

Joan Blades—a former di­vorce me­di­at­or and co-founder of the lib­er­al group Mo­ve­—co-foun­ded Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions in 2010. She be­lieves the in­tim­acy of the liv­ing room is key to over­com­ing par­tis­an ran­cor. “When you’re a host and a guest, people abide by so­cial norms” and de­vel­op re­la­tion­ships that, ideally, tran­scend ca­ri­ca­tures, she says. Blades has tried to set an ex­ample her­self: Two years ago, she hos­ted Tea Party Pat­ri­ots co-founder Mark Meck­ler—along with two oth­er con­ser­vat­ives and two oth­er lib­er­als—for a three-hour con­ver­sa­tion that covered edu­ca­tion, crim­in­al-justice re­form, and the Glass-Steagall Act.

Blades may come from the left, but oth­er anti-po­lar­iz­a­tion ef­forts have ori­gin­ated on the right. Dav­id Blanken­horn of the right-of-cen­ter In­sti­tute for Amer­ic­an Val­ues has launched a new ini­ti­at­ive called Bet­ter An­gels, which, among oth­er ef­forts, is es­tab­lish­ing an in­dex of de­pol­ar­iz­a­tion (sim­il­ar to the coun­try’s eco­nom­ic in­dic­at­ors) and pre­par­ing a na­tion­al re­port on the prob­lem of hy­per­par­tis­an­ship. “There is something with­in us that wants to be a com­munity,” he says. “There’s a part of us that real­izes that we can do bet­ter than this, and we should do bet­ter than this.”

The Boulder-based In­sti­tute for Cul­tur­al Evol­u­tion is tak­ing a more philo­soph­ic­al ap­proach to po­lar­iz­a­tion. The group is pub­lish­ing pa­pers, such as one called “De­pol­ar­iz­ing the Amer­ic­an Mind,” and hold­ing con­claves with “in­flu­en­cers” to brain­storm solu­tions for what Steve McIn­tosh, the group’s pres­id­ent, de­scribes as a cul­tur­al prob­lem. “Our tech­nique is to find ex­ist­en­tial prob­lems that can’t be solved at the level of think­ing that cre­ated them—Ein­stein’s fam­ous quote,” he says. “Those ex­ist­en­tial prob­lems are where open­ings for new ways of think­ing ex­ist.”

This wasn’t the only time that par­tic­u­lar Ein­stein quote came up dur­ing my con­ver­sa­tions with ad­voc­ates of bi­par­tis­an­ship. The Bridge Al­li­ance (also based in Boulder) is a sort of meta-bi­par­tis­an group that is seek­ing to con­nect all the act­ors work­ing in the anti-po­lar­iz­a­tion space so they can col­lab­or­ate. Co-founder John Stein­er told me, “You can only solve a prob­lem if you’re in a dif­fer­ent kind of con­scious­ness”—a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the Ein­stein max­im. “So the polit­ic­al con­scious­ness that we’re talk­ing about is ba­sic­ally a dif­fer­ent con­scious­ness, or a dif­fer­ent aware­ness than we read about in the me­dia that the polit­ic­al parties are of­fer­ing.”

Then, of course, there are the more tra­di­tion­al Wash­ing­ton groups. The D.C.-based Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter brings to­geth­er “prin­cipled, proud, ag­gress­ive par­tis­ans” to hash out policy solu­tions for tough prob­lems. They’ve tackled im­mig­ra­tion policy, debt re­duc­tion, hous­ing, and oth­er areas, with a myri­ad of former politi­cians—Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Con­doleezza Rice, Henry Cis­ner­os—lead­ing the charge.

Foun­ded by four former Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­ers, BPC was born out of the Na­tion­al Com­mis­sion on En­ergy Policy’s ad­vocacy for a “con­struct­ive cen­ter” on en­ergy re­form in the early 2000s. (The NCEP’s 2004 re­port on “end­ing the en­ergy stale­mate” made re­com­mend­a­tions that were sub­sequently ad­op­ted in­to law in 2005.) Get­ting people to reach a com­prom­ise on an is­sue can take up to two years, says Jason Gru­met, the non­profit’s pres­id­ent. Once they reach a solu­tion, BPC’s 501(c)4 lob­bies for the pro­pos­al on the Hill. It’s a pro­cess, Gru­met says, that “re­flects the ideal­ized ima­gin­a­tion of how Con­gress would work” if mem­bers reached across the aisle.

In a sim­il­ar vein to BPC, the Con­ver­gence Cen­ter for Policy Res­ol­u­tion brings to­geth­er stake­hold­ers to dive deep in­to long-term pro­jects—tack­ling everything from edu­ca­tion to U.S.-Pakistan re­la­tions. Maja Kristin, a former lit­ig­at­or in Cali­for­nia and Con­ver­gence Cen­ter board mem­ber who has giv­en close to $1 mil­lion to the non­profit’s ef­forts, calls that pro­cess “ma­gic.” She ex­per­i­enced it her­self, she says, dur­ing a meet­ing on nu­tri­tion and well­ness with Richard Land, pres­id­ent of the South­ern Evan­gel­ic­al Sem­in­ary. “I’m an old fem­in­ist,” Kristin told me, ex­plain­ing that she knew she wouldn’t agree with Land on abor­tion rights. But listen­ing to him talk about how obesity was af­fect­ing the poor in his home state, she real­ized, “We may not agree on one sub­ject, but boy, we can make head­way on this oth­er sub­ject.”

There are still oth­er ef­forts afoot. The Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course, based at the Uni­versity of Ari­zona, works with law­makers in state le­gis­latures around the coun­try to pro­mote col­lab­or­a­tion between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats. Be­cause so many Wash­ing­ton politi­cians start their ca­reers at the state level, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Car­o­lyn Lukens­mey­er says, “we see that as a pretty high-lever­age, long-term op­por­tun­ity to shift some of what’s hap­pen­ing in Con­gress.” There’s also the Cent­rist Pro­ject, which aims to elect five “in­de­pend­ent-minded cent­rist” sen­at­ors by 2020, and the As­pen In­sti­tute Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gram, a non­par­tis­an ini­ti­at­ive that or­gan­izes sum­mits between law­makers and policy ex­perts.

OF ALL THESE groups, however, No La­bels is the most prom­in­ent. The or­gan­iz­a­tion star­ted in 2010 as a refuge for Amer­ic­ans frus­trated by the di­vide between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats. Its philo­sophy, says Nancy Jac­ob­son—the CEO of the or­gan­iz­a­tion and a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive—is to bring politi­cians in Wash­ing­ton to­geth­er around a “new the­ory of goal-set­ting.”

Cur­rently, the group is cru­sad­ing on be­half of four goals, which to­geth­er form their “Na­tion­al Stra­tegic Agenda”: Cre­ate 25 mil­lion new jobs over the next 10 years; se­cure So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care for an­oth­er 75 years; bal­ance the fed­er­al budget by 2030; and make Amer­ica en­ergy se­cure by 2024.

In Janu­ary, No La­bels will award a Prob­lem Solv­er Seal to each pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who signs on to these goals and agrees to hold a meet­ing—with­in his or her first 30 days in of­fice—with House and Sen­ate lead­ers from both parties to start work on at least one of them. If the next pres­id­ent has agreed to these con­di­tions, they’ll have sup­port from mem­bers of the con­gres­sion­al Prob­lem Solv­ers Caucus (the pres­id­ent’s bi­par­tis­an “army on Cap­it­ol Hill,” Hunts­man ex­plained to me). Right now, that caucus con­sists of 70 House mem­bers and three sen­at­ors—Flor­ida’s Bill Nel­son, South Dakota’s John Thune, and New Hamp­shire’s Kelly Ayotte.

More than 1,500 people turned out to No La­bels’ con­ven­tion a few weeks ago in New Hamp­shire. Among them were about 300 col­lege stu­dents, clad in green “Prob­lem Solv­er” T-shirts and sta­tioned on bleach­ers be­hind the stage, ap­par­ently flaunt­ing their youth­ful zest for com­prom­ise. Every so of­ten, speak­ers, such as Sen. Cory Gard­ner of Col­or­ado, en­gaged them in a round of gim­micky call-and-re­sponse (Speak­er: “What are you do­ing? Prob­lem—” Stu­dents: “Solv­ing!”).

The stu­dents were brought to the con­fer­ence from across the coun­try by No La­bels, with all their travel ex­penses paid. I spoke to three of them, all of whom have led No La­bels chapters on their cam­puses—Frank­lin and Mar­shall in Pennsylvania, the Uni­versity of Ari­zona, and the Uni­versity of Texas at Dal­las. All were con­tac­ted by No La­bels and en­cour­aged to start a chapter. En­rico Tre­vis­ani, a sopho­more at the Uni­versity of Ari­zona, told me that No La­bels got in touch with him about start­ing a chapter last school year, after he’d in­terned with the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course. It was es­pe­cially im­port­ant to get the group up and run­ning by com­mence­ment, he says, be­cause the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s co-chair Jon Hunts­man was speak­ing at the ce­re­mony.

“Many, many people in my gen­er­a­tion, many mil­len­ni­als, have sort of grown up with this dis­dain for the polit­ic­al pro­cess be­cause for as long as we can re­mem­ber, we’ve seen Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats fight­ing each oth­er and not get­ting any­thing done, to a large de­gree, es­pe­cially with this grid­lock in Con­gress,” Tre­vis­ani told me. “It’s simple, and yet so many people who are in­grained in the polit­ic­al pro­cess don’t seem to listen, and I think that for people in my gen­er­a­tion, it seems like a simple solu­tion that’s not only pos­sible but has already gained a lot of trac­tion in Con­gress.”

The most con­spicu­ous young per­son at the con­fer­ence was Zach Fox, a 21-year-old ju­ni­or at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania, who was dressed in a black cape and green span­dex bear­ing the No La­bels logo. Fox per­forms the du­ties of “comedi­an, video­graph­er, good-look­ing per­son in tights” for No La­bels—for which he gets paid $1,500 per month. On You­Tube, you can find a num­ber of videos Fox has made for No La­bels. (In one, filmed at the Iowa State Fair, he eats fried cheese curd on a stick, goes down a gi­ant slide, and asks people who they might vote for in 2016. The Iow­ans in­ter­viewed, un­sur­pris­ingly, hold vastly dif­fer­ent ideo­lo­gic­al views. It’s nev­er quite made clear how the ex­ist­ence of the video con­trib­utes to the group’s lofty goals.)

No La­bels has 22 paid staffers, with four on the ground in New Hamp­shire. Lead­ing up to the con­ven­tion, their ground game in the state was fo­cused solely on get­ting voters to at­tend the daylong event, which, if you re­gistered in ad­vance, was free of charge and in­cluded break­fast and lunch. Now, they’re fo­cused on build­ing “a cam­paign without a can­did­ate,” No La­bels spokes­man Ry­an Clancy told me. Staffers in New Hamp­shire are knock­ing on doors, mak­ing phone calls, go­ing to cam­paign events, “all the kinds of things you would as­so­ci­ate with a cam­paign.”

And what are the staffers say­ing when someone an­swers their knock? “Either re­cruit­ing people in­to the move­ment, get­ting people to be­come a part of No La­bels, or to help cre­ate the crit­ic­al mass to get the can­did­ates” to sign on to the Na­tion­al Stra­tegic Agenda, Clancy says. The end game, he ex­plains, is to get a pres­id­ent to back the goals of the agenda and the sub­sequent meet­ing with Con­gress. Jen­nifer Aaron­son, No La­bels’ New Hamp­shire state co­ordin­at­or, told me that the group hopes to get voters to sign on to the “Prob­lem Solv­er Prom­ise,” a pledge to only vote for can­did­ates with the “Prob­lem Solv­er Seal.”

Throughout the con­ven­tion, No La­bels stressed the im­port­ance of how—as in, how will policy pro­pos­als ac­tu­ally be­come real­ity? The word was even em­blazoned on the hand­books they gave out to every at­tendee. But thus far, the mech­an­ics of get­ting policies en­acted have not been easy for No La­bels. Over the past five years, lan­guage from just two of their pro­posed bills has been in­cor­por­ated in­to law. One, which set a time line for the De­fense and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs de­part­ments to merge their on­line re­cords sys­tems, was passed as part of the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act in 2013. And while Con­gress did pass No La­bels’ “No Budget, No Pay” act—which stip­u­lated that mem­bers wouldn’t get com­pensated if they didn’t pass a budget—it proved to be mostly an empty vic­tory: The bill’s fi­nal lan­guage spe­cified that, should law­makers fail to pass a budget, they would in fact get paid, just not right away.

Go­ing for­ward, even Hunts­man ac­know­ledges the real­ity that his group may not suc­ceed. “This is an en­tre­pren­eur­i­al star­tup en­ter­prise,” he says. “And like any en­tre­pren­eur­i­al star­tup en­ter­prise, there’s no guar­an­tee that you’re go­ing to get to the prom­ised land.”

AS WITH NO La­bels, many of the 10 oth­er groups I spoke with had trouble point­ing to con­crete res­ults. “In Tal­l­a­hassee, where we’ve ex­is­ted the longest, you can feel it,” says Liz Joyn­er of the Vil­lage Square, ad­dress­ing the ques­tion of how she can meas­ure pro­gress. “You can feel it be­cause you can do things like host a Longest Table pro­gram for the very first time and get more than 300 people re­gistered in, like, four hours. There are times in the news­pa­per where I’ll pick it up and some­body will have said, in the op-ed, something ‘wasn’t a very Vil­lage Square way to do things.’ ” With genu­ine, al­most ur­gent con­vic­tion, she again de­clares: “You just can feel it.”

Joan Blades of Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions knows of at least 100 con­ver­sa­tions in­spired by her group’s tem­plate. But, as in the case of the Vil­lage Square, it’s dif­fi­cult to meas­ure wheth­er those con­ver­sa­tions have any real im­pact on the prob­lem of po­lar­iz­a­tion.

Yet an­oth­er ini­ti­at­ive is try­ing to fill the need for met­rics. Spear­headed by the so­cial psy­cho­lo­gist Jonath­an Haidt—au­thor of The Right­eous Mind, a treat­ise on po­lar­iz­a­tion—the group, called Civil Polit­ics, works with Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions, the Vil­lage Square, the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course, and oth­ers to of­fer meas­ure­ments for their ef­forts. One tac­tic is a ques­tion­naire that par­ti­cipants in events can fill out be­fore and after; it tracks agree­ment with state­ments such as: “If I found out that a co-work­er of­ten gave money to sup­port con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates, I would be less in­ter­ested in be­ing friends with him or her.” (Though Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions has only used the met­rics on a pro­ject once, man­aging part­ner De­bilyn Mo­lin­eaux says they showed “marked im­prove­ment” in par­ti­cipants’ abil­ity to trust each oth­er after the event. Vil­lage Square, mean­while, has just star­ted toy­ing with how to em­ploy these meth­ods.)

Oth­er anti-po­lar­iz­a­tion act­iv­ists are gauging suc­cess dif­fer­ently. At the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter, Jason Gru­met cited the group’s re­com­mend­a­tions for health care re­form that ended up in the bi­par­tis­an-sup­por­ted doc-fix deal earli­er this year. At the In­sti­tute for Cul­tur­al Evol­u­tion, the fo­cus is more on “in­flu­en­cing the in­flu­en­cers,” ac­cord­ing to pres­id­ent Steve McIn­tosh. The group re­cently put on a polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion con­clave at Esalen, the stor­ied spir­itu­al re­sort in Big Sur that of­fers renowned mas­sages and nude hot springs, foot­ing all the ex­penses for the two dozen par­ti­cipants—in­clud­ing Blades, Joyn­er, Blanken­horn, and Civil Polit­ics ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Ravi Iy­er. For them, suc­cess means launch­ing their philo­sophy of de­pol­ar­iz­a­tion “in­to the na­tion­al mind, in­to what’s be­ing dis­cussed by pun­dits, and what’s be­ing tracked by the me­dia,” McIn­tosh says. “We’d like Dav­id Brooks to be able to say, ‘Here’s this in­ter­est­ing idea about a fu­ture left and a fu­ture right that’s a fresh way of think­ing about the prob­lem of po­lar­iz­a­tion.’ ” (The fact that I wrote a story about one of their con­fer­ences a few months ago in Na­tion­al Journ­al makes a dif­fer­ence, too, he says.)

For his part, Daniel Stid, the dir­ect­or of the Hew­lett Found­a­tion’s Madis­on Ini­ti­at­ive—which has plans to in­vest $50 mil­lion over three years in pro­jects that pro­mote “the spir­it of com­prom­ise” in Con­gress and so­ci­ety—pushes back on the “show me the res­ults” ques­tion. Changes in the coun­try’s polit­ic­al health might not be no­tice­able right away, he says. And, he freely ad­mits, they might not come at all. “Suc­cess is by no means as­sured. And, in fact, the odds are prob­ably long,” he ex­plains. From an in­vest­ment per­spect­ive, “the prob­ab­il­ity may be chal­len­ging, but the pay­off would be dra­mat­ic.”

Madis­on gave $400,000 to No La­bels and $500,000 to the Con­ver­gence Cen­ter this year. Last year, it awar­ded Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions a $50,000 plan­ning grant. But aside from that, says Blades, drum­ming up fin­an­cial sup­port for Liv­ing Room Con­ver­sa­tions has been a chal­lenge. “People want to sup­port a pas­sion,” she says. “Sup­port­ing get­ting people to sit down and talk about X or Y without say­ing, ‘This is the out­come that it’s go­ing to be’—it’s really hard to get sup­port for it.” (No La­bels wouldn’t tell me who their donors are, but last year Ya­hoo News pub­lished a list of people, drawn from the world of busi­ness and fin­ance, who had con­trib­uted to the group.)

The smal­ler or new­er or­gan­iz­a­tions I talked to were mostly re­ly­ing on people they knew—or them­selves—for fund­ing. The first $100,000 of fund­ing for the star­tup All­Sides, a web­site that of­fers news from left, right, and cen­ter, came from friends and fam­ily, founder and CEO John Gable told me. Oth­ers have re­ceived fund­ing from in­di­vidu­al donors. Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, for in­stance, has giv­en $75,000 to the In­sti­tute for Cul­tur­al Evol­u­tion.

The Demo­cracy Fund, the brainchild of lib­er­al ty­coon Pierre Om­idy­ar (who de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this art­icle), sup­ports the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter, No La­bels, the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course, and oth­er groups. Betsy Wright Hawk­ings, the pro­gram dir­ect­or for the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s Gov­ernance Ini­ti­at­ive, says the pro­ject of eas­ing hy­per­par­tis­an­ship (her pre­ferred ter­min­o­logy) is a long-term ef­fort. “It took the sys­tem a long time to get here,” she says, so ser­i­ous res­ults are “not go­ing to hap­pen overnight.”

Dav­id Nev­ins, a real-es­tate ex­ec­ut­ive from Pennsylvania who has donated to No La­bels, the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Civil Dis­course, and oth­er bi­par­tis­an­ship pro­grams, echoes that think­ing. “I don’t think in terms of ‘there’s a high prob­ab­il­ity that what I am go­ing to do is go­ing to have an im­me­di­ate res­ult.’ But I do feel im­pas­sioned about the fact that something has to change. So maybe I can do my small part to get this go­ing in the right dir­ec­tion. Who knows?”

THE “WHO KNOWS” theme re­curred with many of the people I talked to, in­clud­ing those I en­lis­ted to help de­term­ine if any of these ef­forts had a chance of suc­cess. “Do they have a pray­er? Yes, they have a pray­er,” says Robert Bar­on, a pro­fess­or emer­it­us at the Uni­versity of Iowa who has stud­ied pre­ju­dice and group in­ter­ac­tion. But, for many reas­ons, “it ain’t gonna be easy.”

Some of the im­ped­i­ments to de­pol­ar­iz­a­tion can prob­ably only be fixed by gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion. To af­ford the costs of run­ning for of­fice, can­did­ates are of­ten be­hold­en to wealthy donors, who, be­ing com­mit­ted enough to give money in sup­port of a cause, “tend to be ex­trem­ists,” Bar­on says. Ac­cord­ing to this lo­gic, only cam­paign-fin­ance re­form could ease the ef­fects of hy­per­par­tis­an­ship. The cul­ture in Con­gress is a factor, too. Start­ing in 1995, when Newt Gin­grich took con­trol of the House, new mem­bers were dis­cour­aged from mov­ing to Wash­ing­ton, “where they were likely to be­come more mod­er­ate as they (and their fam­il­ies) be­friended mem­bers on the oth­er side,” Haidt wrote earli­er this year in The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Then there are the deep­est factors driv­ing po­lar­iz­a­tion—the In­ter­net and geo­graph­ic­al di­vi­sions along ideo­lo­gic­al lines. In the last chapter of The Big Sort, Bish­op writes that “gen­er­a­tion­al change—which cre­ated the Big Sort to be­gin with—is the force most likely to break down” the like-with-like clus­ter­ing in Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies. When I spoke with Bish­op, I asked what he meant by that.

“Well, in a book,” he said, in a gen­i­al Texas drawl, “you’re al­ways sup­posed to find solu­tions, right?”

He wasn’t op­tim­ist­ic that any of the cur­rent anti-po­lar­iz­a­tion ef­forts could suc­ceed—partly be­cause po­lar­iz­a­tion has be­ne­fits for so­ci­ety, too. “We are get­ting something out of the sys­tem as it is,” he said. “It’s a way to define your­self and a way to find friends. Our polit­ics provides a ser­vice that we need. Un­for­tu­nately, it doesn’t provide a gov­ern­ment that we need.”

One pos­sible route out of the mire, Bish­op says, is for voters and law­makers to find something to unite be­hind. Dur­ing the Cold War, it was a com­mon en­emy; now, it might be crim­in­al-justice re­form, an is­sue that seems to be draw­ing bi­par­tis­an in­terest on Cap­it­ol Hill. Still, one cross-cut­ting is­sue can hardly be ex­pec­ted to out­weigh all the oth­er factors driv­ing po­lar­iz­a­tion.

So are all of these groups wast­ing their time? “Yeah,” Bish­op says mat­ter-of-factly. “It’s totally ir­rel­ev­ant to what I see and do here in La Grange, Texas. I don’t see the ef­fect out here.” But he con­ceded one thing: “I’m sure they have great con­fer­ences.”

Cor­rec­tion: This piece ori­gin­ally stated that more than 1,300 people turned out to No La­bels’ con­ven­tion. The cor­rect num­ber is more than 1,500.

Cor­rec­tion: This piece ori­gin­ally stated that there were just two mem­bers in the Sen­ate’s Prob­lem Solv­ers Caucus: Flor­ida’s Bill Nel­son and South Dakota’s John Thune. New Hamp­shire’s Kelly Ayotte is also a mem­ber.


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