Bridging the Vital Center: Testing Americans Elect’s Complaints About Cooperation Across Ideology in Congress
“America faces large challenges, but the two political parties in Washington are not working together to find solutions. Most voters — Democrats, Independents, and Republicans — feel unrepresented by both extremes. We need new leadership, and it begins with you.
In June 2012, Americans Elect will invite you and every registered voter in the country to choose a third ticket for President and Vice President through an online convention. This ticket will bridge the vital center of public opinion and will be on the November 2012 ballot in all 50 states.”
So begins the very brief appeal by Americans Elect written for people looking up information on the mysterious group after being asked to sign a qualifying ballot petition for presidential candidates — a petition that has no information about the group on it. Americans Elect petition gatherers have been told not to talk to the press, so journalists aren’t able to uncover much information about the group or share such information with the public. Inquiring minds that head home to their computers and somehow find the Americans Elect website will find the above claim in text, along with the following quotations incorporated into a colorful graphic montage:
“[The] centrist movement is completely unrepresented by the two parties, and yet it’s where the largest percentage of Americans are.” – David Brooks, NYT
“When your political system punishes law-makers for doing the right things, it is broken.” – Thomas Friedman, NYT
“They don’t debate anymore. They shout and don’t listen to the other side.” – Judy L., Denver
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties … in opposition to each other.” – John Adams, Founding Father
It bears repeating that Americans Elect is gathering signatures right now, as we speak, to put its own unnamed presidential candidates on the ballot in the states of California and Michigan. It has already gained ballot access for the presidential election in Nevada. It has done this without offering anything on its web page from which it can be evaluated beyond these quotes and the claim that “the two political parties in Washington are not working together to find solutions.” It’s reasonable to question whether anyone should be signing a petition with only this much information available, and it’s also reasonable to ask why Americans Elect has chosen this course of action (although, unfortunately, Americans Elect is not answering questions). But at the very least, a person considering signing an Americans Elect petition ought to consider whether its limited factual claims are in fact true.
- Are the two political parties in Washington in fact not working together to find solutions?
- Do the parties just shout and not listen to one another?
- Are the two great parties necessarily acting in opposition to each other?
- Is the center in fact completely unrepresented in Washington, DC?
- Are there current efforts to bridge the center from both sides of the ideological divide?
- Are politicians being punished for engaging in such efforts?
Americans Elect does not answer such questions with reference to any observable facts at all, so we’ll need to answer those questions ourselves. As I demonstrated last week, it turns out that in the U.S. Congress the vast majority of the 258 voluntary organizations called “caucuses” set up to address policy concerns are already bipartisan in their leadership:
There are 200 organizations within the U.S. Congress alone already bridging the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. Thomas Friedman’s claim notwithstanding, I can find no evidence that members of Congress have been punished for their bipartisan activities in these organizations (“hyperpartisanship” being the theme of Friedman’s column).
Americans Elect isn’t Just Talking About Parties. What About the Ideological Divide?
Read Americans Elect’s brief appeal carefully and you’ll notice that it isn’t merely talking about political parties. The group is also talking about ideology, promoting a claim that political efforts ought to “bridge the vital center of public opinion.” Americans Elect promotes itself as the vehicle for bridging that vital center, but before Americans hop into that vehicle we ought to ask ourselves whether the image of “bridging a vital center” is appropriate. First, in order for Americans Elect to “bridge the vital center,” there needs to be a space to be bridged, a chasm separating the two sides of the center. Second, if there is a chasm in the center of American politics, then we only need Americans Elect to build a bridge connecting the two sides if there aren’t existing bridges.
Let’s return to the Congress and look at these two conditions to evaluate whether they’ve been met.
Is there a chasm in the center of politics?
At our sister site, That’s My Congress, we maintain an index of liberal and conservative congressional action in voting and bill cosponsorship by members of the House. If we take the percentage of possible liberal actions actually taken by a member of Congress (ranging from 0 to 100), and subtract the percentage of possible conservative actions actually taken by that same member of Congress (again ranging from 0 to 100), the result is an index in which a score of -100 indicates a perfectly conservative record and a score of +100 indicates a perfectly liberal record.
A tally of ideological scores for the 435 members of the House of Representatives, current as of April 7 2011, shows that there isn’t so much of a chasm in the center of the ideological spectrum of Congress as there is a slight divot. There are actually more members of Congress who inhabit the center of the ideological spectrum (97 Representatives between -30 to +30) than members who occupy the ideological extremes (45 Representatives with a score of -70 to -100 and 27 Representatives with a score of +70 to +100).
Despite what David Brooks might say, there are plenty of people inhabiting the ideological center of Congress right now. When nearly a quarter of the Congress adopts a centrist profile in action, it’s unclear why some new form of a bridge to connect left and right is necessary.
Are there already bridges connecting the two sides?
If we adopt the perspective of Americans Elect and consider liberals and conservatives to be on two sides, are there already bridges connecting the two? Are members of Congress already working together despite being ideologically distant from one another?
Above is a tally of the 225 congressional caucuses registered with the Committee on House Administration that have more than one member of Congress listed as a leader. The “ideological span” for each caucus is the amount of difference between caucus leaders along that -100 to +100 ideological index I mentioned above. The greatest possible ideological span would be 182, since the most conservative-scoring Representatives are Doug Lamborn and John Kline with scores of -87, and the most liberal-scoring Representative is Rush Holt at +95. The greatest actual ideological span among congressional caucuses comes surprisingly close, with the Biomedical Research Caucus being led by Rep. Holt, Rep. Jackie Speier (ideological score of +80), and Rep. Brian Bilbray (ideological score of -74).
The Congressional Caucuses with an ideological span of 140 points or more are:
Congressional Internet Caucus — span of 140 points between Anna Eshoo (+80) and Bob Goodlatte (-60)
Congressional Neuroscience Caucus — span of 140 points between Earl Blumenauer (+66) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (-74)
Congressional TRIO Caucus — span of 140 points between Donald Payne (+75) and Michael Simpson (-65)
Friends of Thailand Caucus — span of 140 points between Earl Blumenauer (+66) and Donald Manzullo (-74)
Sudan Caucus — span of 140 points between Donald Payne (+75) and Michael McCaul (-65)
Congressional Nepal Caucus — span of 141 points between Jared Polis (+80) and Ander Crenshaw (-61)
Crohns and Colitis Caucus — span of 141 points between Jesse Jackson Jr. (+80) and Ander Crenshaw (-61)
Congressional Research and Development Caucus — span of 142 points between Rush Holt (+95) and Judy Biggert (-47)
Central American Caucus — span of 144 points between Edolphus Towns (+70) and Brian Bilbray (-74)
Congressional Caucus on Qatari-American Economic Strategic Defense, Cultural and Economic Partnership — span of 145 points between Carolyn Maloney (+75) and Darrell Issa (-70)
Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases Caucus — span of 145 points between Donald Payne (+75) and Jeff Fortenberry (-70)
U.S. – Mexico Friendship Caucus — span of 145 points between Jared Polis (+80) and Devin Nunes (-65)
Arthritis Caucus — span of 149 points between Anna Eshoo (+80) and Sue Myrick (-69)
U.S. – Philippines Friendship Caucus — span of 155 points between Bob Filner (+81) and Brian Bilbray (-74)
Congressional Dietary Supplement Caucus — span of 159 points between Frank Pallone (+85) and Dan Burton (-74)
House Biomedical Research Caucus — span of 175 points between Rush Holt (+95) and Brian Bilbray (-74)
Each one of these caucuses features cooperation between a staunch conservative and a committed liberal who have nevertheless found some common ground and are working together to build understanding and craft policy. Each one of these partnerships is a bridge of the sort that Americans Elect says our political system needs. There are a lot of these bridges, stretching a long way: 79 congressional caucuses are led by members of Congress with an ideological difference of 100 points or more, and the average ideological span of a caucus is 82 points.
In order to carve a niche for itself, Americans Elect portrays our national politics as plagued by an unbridged partisan and ideological divide that only it can cross with a presidential ticket that it will devise. But a close look at congressional caucuses shows that they are led by members who are already working together despite partisan and ideological differences. 200 caucuses bridge the partisan divide, and 79 caucuses bridge an ideological gap of 100 points or more.
Surely there are different partisan and ideological approaches to the substance and process of policymaking; the promotion of different ideas is what legislative politics is all about, after all. But for better or worse, the extent of division in American politics appears to be overstated by Americans Elect, at least as it applies to organization-building within the Congress. As far as I can determine, bipartisan and cross-ideology organization-building has gone unpunished by congressional leaders, although if you can document any effort to punish these members of the House for working with their ideological opposites on issues of the day, I encourage you to share such documentation here.
Before we sign petitions to put Americans Elect on the ballot, we ought to ask Americans Elect to explain itself and its claims with more detail and clarity than it has managed to date. There is certainly a place for a third party in America, but inaccurate claims about partisan and ideological warfare don’t make a sturdy foundation for building one.