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Complete Conversation: The Track Back to the American Ideals of E Pluribus Unum

Do you think an activist cross-partisan constituency is necessary to the health and well-being of American democracy?

by The Cross-Partisan Action Network | 1.18.19

Read Rob Stein's complete conversation on cross-partisanship below. Then, take action above to share you opinion!


The Track Back to the American Ideals of E Pluribus Unum

By Rob Stein | January 2019

Americas’ national politics are dominated as never before by the two major political parties and the phalanx of non-party, non-profit issue and constituency groups that are aligned with them. This two-party political industrial complex now spends roughly $6 billion per election cycle (about $3 billion per side) to bombard us with self-aggrandizing imagery and negative messaging that is hardened and amplified by their respective echo chambers of talk radio ideologues, cable news partisans and tribal social media. 

This mutually reinforcing hyper-competition is alienating tens of millions of Americans who no longer identify with tired party labels, right and left political correctness, and stale policy nostrums that derive from twentieth century ideological certainties, many of which no longer apply to todays’ existential challenges. These millions of unorganized, “exhausted Americans” increasingly feel they have no effective political voice and no comfortable political home. Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”, Hawkins, Ludkin, Juan-Torres and Dixon, October, 2018. Self-governance will not thrive, and the vitality of our democracy may not survive, so long as these citizens’ legitimate interests remain muted and marginalized.

Thus, it is both newsworthy and hopeful that current and former Republicans, Democrats and Independents are growing capacities and working together to actively develop new political ideas, actions and arrangements. Although their explorations are still formative, these cross-partisan pioneers seek alliance across traditional political and cultural divides, are staunch defenders of democratic ideals, institutions and norms, honor open minded political debate, value fresh ideas and political innovation and are committed to working together to advance evidence-based solutions to human and communal problems. 

These organizations are poised to organize a constituency of millions of cross-partisan activists. Their purpose should not envision the creation of a new political party, nor the spawning of another single-issue movement aligned inextricably with one of the existing parties. Rather, their mission should be to become a force for change – a cause - which supports open-minded Republicans, Democrats and Independents passionately committed to a cross-partisan agenda that promotes country over party, rigid ideology, and/or a single-issue agenda.

Not all politics in America are hyper-partisan and dysfunctional.  In hundreds of communities, and a number of states, enlightened and capable mayors and governors from both parties (and independents) know how to engage conservatives, liberals and moderates, business and labor, and stakeholders from across traditional cultural and political divides in constructive problem solving. For those who despair that our national politics have become toxic, they should celebrate the cross-partisan facilitation skills of many local and state leaders in every region of our country. 

However, at the national level, our democracy is more vulnerable than many of us may have thought. It requires a foundation of truth, trust, reason and civility more solid than we may have understood. And, it is more dependent than we imagined on a national consensus that the whole of our nation ultimately must become a cause grander than the sum of our diverse parts – “E Pluribus Unum”. 

Whither America: “E Pluribus Unum” or “E Pluribus Pluribus”?

A distinguished committee comprised of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others, adopted the phase “e pluribus unum” in 1782 to adorn the Great Seal of the United States. These immortal words remain emblazoned on the national emblem of the United States, official U.S. passports, the seals of the President, the Vice President, the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Supreme Court and on all U.S. coins currently being manufactured.

The significance of “out of many, one” to our national identity and character has evolved over time:

"….the phrase offered a strong statement of the American determination to form a single nation from a collection of states…(and in time has become) a reminder of America’s bold attempt to make one unified nation of people from many different backgrounds and beliefs. The challenge of seeking unity while respecting diversity has played a critical role in shaping our history, our literature, and our national character." -----The E Pluribus Unum Project, Assumption College

Modernity frustrates the attainment of e pluribus unum.  It is profoundly difficult for democracies to retain a sense of nationhood in an increasingly mobile, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and social media saturated, narrow-cast world. Powerful single issue and constituency advocates on both sides of the political spectrum isolate political energies into silo-ed camps while fragmenting political messaging. The more aggressively we stoke our multiple differences, the graver the danger that our competing divisions will diminish our ability to clarify a national narrative and share a national purpose.

The two-party political industrial complex and its multi-billion-dollar arsenal are fueled by a powerful coterie of political professionals – data scientists and analysts, media specialists, pollsters, opposition researchers, messaging mavens and field generals – who charge vast sums to airbrush political images and manufacture negative impressions. Each side of this dueling two-party apparatus and its candidates, aligned non-profits and consultants for hire, ferociously seeks political advantage to enforce its will and overwhelm its adversaries.

Most entrenched partisans are unlikely to reform or re-imagine American politics. They frequently are intellectually and temperamentally enmeshed in a self-perpetuating machinery devoted to oppositional certainty. In the process, they are reducing our democracy to an increasingly meaningless cacophony, a veritable “E Pluribus Pluribus”.

Nor should we expect most partisans to set aside their passionate perspectives or to engage with others with whom they disagree. Partisanship is a natural and necessary feature of democracy that provides an outlet for impassioned feelings, a conduit for opposing world views and a point / counterpoint for political debate.

Natural and necessary, yes, but not sufficient. The foundation of the ideal of E Pluribus Unum, as well as for the vitality of democracy, is allegiance to a cause larger than that trapped in duopolistic certitude and petty power struggles, grander than political party and more noble than yet another single issue or constituency movement dependent entirely on one or the other party’s support.

A shared national identity requires honoring differences while accepting mutual responsibilities for our common destiny. While tribes create a sense of belonging that is essential to the psychological well-being of our species, democracy requires that we also belong to a cause larger than our personal tribe. “Unum” – a belief in nationhood - in the context of the twenty-first century’s magnificent diversity is as vital today as it was in the America of 1782 when the thirteen colonies were attempting the somewhat more modest, albeit fraught, task of birthing a new nation.

Realizing the Ideals of “E Pluribus Unum” is Dependent on Building A Sustainable Cross-Partisan Constituency

Fortunately, not all Americans are irretrievably enmeshed in the tentacles of the two-party political industrial complex. There is growing evidence (See specifically, the "Hidden Tribes" report, and more generally, current public opinion research by the Pew Research Center, the Gallup Organization, and others) that millions of open-minded people - including Independents, and disappointed and/or disaffected Republicans and Democrats - want efficient, effective government that embraces ideological diversity, collaborates productively across political divides, and forges constructive cooperation among the public, private and non-profit sectors to address critical human and community problems.

These patriots want to elect leaders, regardless of party affiliation, and promote policies, regardless of ideological derivation, who and which serve the country rather than one party or a single ideology. 

A new generation of organizations is emerging that are organizing citizens and voters around these values and cross-partisan agendas. The majority of these groups remain relatively small and currently lack a shared strategic vision, integrated operations, the data analytics or financial resources necessary to build a sustainable constituency. However, in the aggregate, they represent a potentially powerful alliance because a meaningful number of them have respected managers, board members, supporters, programs and capacities, are ready to expand their operations and are poised to mobilize a potent new cross-partisan constituency.

There are far more cross-partisan groups engaged in politics, policy development and citizen and organizational “bridge-building” than can be listed in one essay. The following is a representative sampling of the range of established and emerging groups with cross partisan programs and/or sensibilities:

Democracy Reform/Legislative Action: One category of cross-partisan activity is focused on protecting democratic ideals, institutions and norms, reducing the influence of money in politics, promoting fair elections (ballot access for non-party candidates, open primaries, rank choice voting, fair redistricting and etc.) and reforming Congressional rules and procedures. Examples of organizations that are pursuing democracy reforms and cross-partisan policy agendas primarily through state and federal legislative and executive action include: Committee for a Responsible Federal BudgetIssue One/Reformers CaucusNational Institute for Civil DiscourseMillennial Action ProjectNo Labels/Problem Solvers CaucusProtect Democracy; and Represent.Us.

Elections: A second category of organizations is working to recruit, train and/or to help elect, at all levels, Republicans, Democrats and Independents who seek a new, more open politics and cross-partisan political arrangements that support evidence-based solutions to human and community problems. Examples of groups in this category that will actively support open-minded candidates in 2019/2020 include: Defending Democracy TogetherLeadership for Educational EquityUnite AmericaWith Honor; and Stand Up Republic/Patriots United.

Bridge-Building/Civility Training: A third category of groups is utilizing a variety of processes and techniques to engage people (including students on high school and college campuses) across traditional ideological and cultural divides to develop cross-partisan skills, enhance civility, promote civic education and address pressing community and national problems. Examples of groups focused primarily on national level cross-partisan problem solving include the Bipartisan Policy Center and Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. Others engage students and citizens in their communities – e.g., Better AngelsBridgeUSALiving Room Conversations; and Welcoming America.

Ideation/Policy Development: Central to the near- and long-term success of a new cross-partisan ecosystem are fresh, substantive, evidence-based ideas that animate citizens, activists, organizational leaders, candidates and voters. There are a number of better established, as well as several emerging, centers of economic, domestic and foreign policy thought which are developing a spectrum of ideas with cross-partisan appeal for solving pressing community and global problems. Although these groups currently are identified as either more aligned with Republicans or Democrats, they all have cross-partisan sensibilities and are developing thought partner relationships across traditional political divides. Examples include New America FoundationNiskanen CenterR Street InstituteThe New Center; and Third Way.

Communications/Dissemination: Shared information and connectivity are essential for sustainable constituency building and mobilization. Notable examples of on-line cross-partisan information sharing communities are Countable.us, a cross partisan news and current affairs information platform; The Firewall, a new, on-line publication/community devoted to democracy reform efforts, and The Topline.com, a recently launched news and opinion aggregator for the cross-partisan, American democracy movement.

Alliances and Forums: A number of the democracy reform and bridge-building organizations listed above, and many others, are members of two promising cross-partisan alliances - The Bridge Alliance and the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers - which aspire to work with their affiliates to build community, improve cross fertilization among their groups, develop strategies and forge productive collaboration. Moreover, a dynamic forum, Patriots and Pragmatists, is facilitating cross partisan dialogue about the future of democracy and evidence-based problem solving among conservative, progressive and moderate organizational leaders, journalists, pundits, strategists and donors.

These groups, and others that exist and will be formed over the next several years, are the institutional backbone necessary to recruit, organize and mobilize millions of cross-partisan activists in every region of the country. In order for this force for change to achieve its near- and long-term policy and political objectives, these groups - pursuing their own institutional missions and collaborating as appropriate with others - must enhance their operational capacities in order to build a sustainable grass-top and grassroots constituency throughout the country. 

Building capacities, achieving operational scale, recruiting and mobilizing millions of activists requires leadership, data management and analytics and the financial support of millions of followers. For this force for change to have demonstrable political and policy impact within the next few years, it must raise hundreds of millions of dollars per year (compared to the billions spent every year by the two-party political industrial complex) in order to expand and diversify its leadership, strengthen its management, expand its programs and geographic reach, and deepen its capacities to recruit, train and mobilize at least three to five million cross=partisan activists who represent the ideological and cultural diversity of America.

With sufficient size and operational scale, these activists would have the wherewithal to inspire millions of passionate citizens to support local, state and federal evidence-based policies and tens of millions of voters to elect a new generation of leaders with cross-partisan commitments, skills and substantive agendas.

Conclusion

A significant infusion of growth capital into cross-partisanship would impact the character and trajectory of American politics by forging a new common cause committed to a grander national purpose, not because of ideology, party or special interests, but because the well-being of democratic ideals, institutions and norms require the constant vigilance of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

This cross-partisan cause would be devoted to securing our common destiny, not because of purely partisan advantage, but because evidence-based solutions to education, healthcare, immigration, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, protecting the environment, stimulating economic growth, enhancing research and development, providing life-long job training, securing better wages for America’s struggling middle class and strengthening our social safety net are necessary to meeting basic human needs and to achieving a good society and a healthy nation.

These critical issues, and many others, will not be addressed until the passions and perspectives of millions of cross-partisans are mobilized to contribute to our national political dialogue.

Thus, individual activism is central to building the cross-partisan cause. What is needed now is for every open-minded American who is committed to country over party, ideology and special interests to join one or more cross-partisan organization(s), recruit others, take actions in their community to promote cross-partisan supported policies, petition Congress, and work and vote for Republicans, Democrats and Independents who are committed to cross-partisan policies and promote the ideals of e pluribus unum.

America is not the only democracy currently reeling from hyper-partisanship and dysfunctional governance that is failing to address its citizens’ needs. But America is the only country on earth with abundant political philanthropy sufficient to innovate political renewal and give voice to those ready and willing to challenge the partisan gridlock of our two-party political industrial complex.

America is at an inflection point. The 2019/2020 Presidential election season – with its guaranteed hyper-partisan frenzy – will crystallize the reality that the two parties, and their allies, are not the sole custodians of ultimate wisdom. While parties are a necessary and permanent fixture in our political system, they no longer are sufficient vehicles to express the full diversity of American thought or to innovate policies and elect candidates devoted to a larger national purpose derived from our mutual responsibilities and shared destiny.

We have an unprecedented opportunity in this charged political moment to elevate alternative, open-minded voices in our public squares, solidify the influence of cross-partisanship in American politics and chart a track back to the ennobling ideals of E Pluribus Unum.


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Rob Stein is a former Senior Strategist, Democratic National Committee (1989-1992); Founder, Democracy Alliance (2005); Co-founder, Committee On States (2007); and currently committed to building an enduring cross-partisan constituency to chart the track back to the ideals of E Pluribus Unum.

The Cross-Partisan Action Network

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