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The 1,500 people who attended a half-day event in Manchester Sunday represented those who yearn for a rebuilding of trust in politics. They want elected officials to be able to follow common sense – and their conscience – when it leads toward compromise.
But even at the Problem Solver Convention, it was apparent just how challenging it is to forge a “third way” between political extremes. One couple, a Republican and Democrat who arrived already sold on the problem-solving message, left partway through – disappointed that they had heard little about actual solutions to issues they both agree need urgent attention, such as health care and the environment.
However, many attendees say that the event, which was sponsored by the group No Labels, did bring out some encouraging news of progress. Eight members of the U.S. House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus appeared onstage together to talk about bills they’ve co-sponsored and friendships they’ve forged.
David Stebenne, a history and law professor at Ohio State, sees some usefulness, though also limitations, in efforts like Sunday’s. “It’s almost like we need classrooms to teach citizens who’ve grown up in a more polarized age how not to think in excessively partisan ways,” he says.
“We have a rule that’s kept us happily married,” says Chris Hagen, a Republican whose husband is a Democrat. “We live on a street corner, and we don’t allow any political signs on our lawn,” she says with a laugh.
The Hagens represent a significant swath of Americans who fall in between the more vocal groups on the far right and far left.
The bipartisan couple joined about 1,500 people Sunday at the Problem Solver Convention in New Hampshire’s largest city. Part pep rally, part voter and candidate forum, the half-day event was sponsored by No Labels, a group that promotes working across party lines for the good of the country.
With impeachment dominating the news cycle and polarization growing, this crowd represents a deep yearning for a rebuilding of trust – for human connection that breaks down the tribal mentality evident on cable news and even at family gatherings. They want elected officials to follow common sense – and their conscience – when it leads toward compromise.
But the “how” of it can seem elusive.
Political and cultural structures – campaign funding, activist agendas, gerrymandered districts – often push candidates to appeal to the most liberal or conservative sides of the two major parties.
If the “vast center” of citizens who want a problem-solving approach would “get organized behind a movement and a core group of political leaders, then all of a sudden it would start to realign the incentives in our system,” Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist, says in an interview explaining the group’s vision.
A work in progress
The Hagens were already sold on the problem-solving message when they arrived. But their mild disappointment on Sunday indicates just how challenging it is to forge a “third way” between political extremes while at the same time taking pages from the political playbook.
After more than an hour of being encouraged to shake yellow plastic pom-poms at various notables’ statements about the virtues of compromise, the Hagens had heard little about actual solutions to issues they both agree need urgent attention, such as health care and the environment.
When the music pumped up and the canned intro began for U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first of four presidential candidates to speak in the large room flanked with American flags, Mrs. Hagen said it was time to go home.
“For being nonpolitical, it’s turning out political,” she says. “I am encouraged that this organization exists ... But they’re preaching to the choir, so preach some substance.”
The Problem Solvers Caucus from the U.S. House of Representatives did bring some encouraging news of progress, many attendees say. The 48-member group, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, is a spinoff of the No Labels effort. Eight members appeared on stage Sunday to talk about bills they’ve cosponsored and friendships they’ve forged.
“Everybody says, ‘Why don’t you just?’... There is no ‘Why don’t you just.’ Every problem is complicated, and you cannot solve a complicated problem in an environment of fear and anger,” says Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, to applause and a soft fluttering of sunshiny pom-poms.
Whatever happens with the “wars” of impeachment and next year’s presidential election, several on the panel suggested that lawmakers like them will be needed to make peace and get on with the work of governing.
Appealing to young voters
“Being in an environment like this was really cool for me, to see how many people are committed to bipartisanship and getting things done,” says Elias Kaul, standing with fellow students from the Brown University chapter of No Labels. Next to him, Brown student Isabelle Sharon adds that it’s a lot of work to persuade some liberal students to get past the barrier of “seeing the other side as anti-human, anti-gay, just sort of intrinsically evil in some ways.”
That portrait of political hostility is a stereotype of young people, says Harvard student and Centrist Society co-founder Alexis Mealey. Many students want “to be able to talk about our values, the policies we believe in, what’s best for all of us as a nation,” she says, instead of being constrained by party loyalty.
Ms. Mealey, who stood out in her fuchsia dress amid a sea of dark winter garb, stopped identifying as Republican after the 2016 election, and now the philosophy major is hoping to help brand centrist positions in a way that appeals to young voters.
The fact that the event did not draw any front-runner presidential candidates prompts some skepticism about whether a viable middle-ground movement is really getting underway. In addition to Representative Gabbard, Democrats John Delaney and Marianne Williamson spoke, as did former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican challenger to President Donald Trump.
“Is there some naiveté about their belief that in the short run they can make a big difference? Perhaps,” says David Stebenne, a history and law professor at Ohio State University. “Is it still a useful thing to do? Probably. ... It’s almost like we need classrooms to teach citizens who’ve grown up in a more polarized age how not to think in excessively partisan ways.”
Another challenge: One person’s problem solver can be another person’s problem.
Before the 2016 election, Mr. Trump appeared at No Labels’ first Problem Solver Convention. To supporters, he’s always been a Washington outsider challenging the traditional party-dominated ways. To detractors, his style and decisions seem to tear the country apart rather than forge any useful solutions.
“There are different ways to solve problems – one is collaborative, consensus, put your chairs in a circle,” Professor Stebenne says, while another approach is that “politics should be a shouting match at the 50-yard line.”
After rising to their feet to sing choruses of “This Land is Your Land” with folk singer Peter Yarrow, convention-goers left with a voters’ issue guide, yellow T-shirts, and lapel pins to remind them of a call to action: Pressure their congresspeople to “get in the room.”
The room, in this case, is a monthly off-the-record series of meetings taking place in Washington where senators and representatives from both parties gather for constructive dialogue.
Bipartisan problem solving is “an abstract idea to organize around,” Mr. Clancy, of No Labels, says. “Get in the room” is “a single provable thing that you can ask [them] to do,” he adds. If more lawmakers attend, they may find that “there’s more here we could work on if we bothered trying.”
Politics has become like religion for many Americans, and people in the middle need a place, says Renée, a former military chaplain who asked that her last name not be used because of the sensitivity of her work in places like Afghanistan. But like the Hagens, she’s still looking for something deeper.
“My larger concern is about truth and transparency,” she says. Without that, it’s hard to “deal with the issues and come to common ground. We need this baseline, which is a shift in culture, and culture is not easy to shift.”