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How One Organization Is Taking on Partisan Polarization

Unite America is on a mission to bring the moderates back to government.

This article is part of our Political Innovation series that explores organizations, people, and technologies disrupting the political landscape.

It is no secret that the United States is undergoing a period of political polarization unprecedented in the modern era.

American legislature is notably gridlocked today, with Congressional Democrats, currently the minority party in Congress, taking a page from the Republicans’ own no-compromise playbook that they had used during the Obama years.

These battle lines have extended to other areas of American life too, as witnessed by the polarization of media outlets, among other traditionally non-partisan facets of society.

While most of us are accustomed to the seemingly polarized world of today, we should not forget about the more subdued reality. That is, most people in the country are moderates, not self-labeled conservatives or liberals. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans identify as Independent, while 27% and 25% identify as Democrat and Republican, respectively. That means that about half of the country—an overwhelming majority—believe that both sides of the aisle have something positive to contribute.

From listening to CNN or Fox News for an hour, that may be hard to believe. For moderates, it should come as a pleasant surprise.

If nearly half of the country’s voters are non-partisans, then why are their elected representatives engaged in a game of unyielding political chess? While there are no set answers, some self-described centrists, including former Congressman Jason Altmire, suggest it has to do with the way political elections are structured.

In order to win, the thinking goes, an otherwise-moderate candidate must appeal to his party’s base—those who are most likely to vote in primaries—and adapt to that base’s partisan orthodoxy. If he gets elected and doesn’t abide by the party’s established positions on every legislative issue, he will be voted out in the next primary for betraying the party.

To some, this make the two-party system inherently prone to hyper-partisanship at the expense of the moderate majority.

While many people across the aisle lament this reality, there hasn’t been much progress in solving it. However, there is a new organization that is trying to do just that.

Unite America, a grassroots political action group, is solely dedicated to helping elect political moderates to different levels of legislature.

Founded in 2013 as “The Centrist Project,” the organization has made significant headway in achieving this agenda over the past few years. It is the brainchild of Dartmouth economist Charlie Wheelan, author of a number of books including Naked Economics and Naked Statistics. His most recent book, The Centrist Manifesto, served as the blueprint for the organization.

“The book attempted to explore what it would look like if you could take the best ideas from both sides, and ditch the rest,” Mr. Nick Troiano, Executive Director of Unite America, tells me over the phone.

“It laid out a strategy called the Fulcrum Strategy, which can bring our platform to reality if we can just elect a handful of centrists and independent candidates—because then they can deny both parties the majority, and use their leverage to actually get things done.”

Mr. Troiano himself is no stranger to electoral politics. He made headlines in 2014, at the age of 24, when he ran for Congress as an independent.

“We endorsed our first candidates in 2014, and among them was Greg Orman, who ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent candidate. It was very competitive, and he was even leading in the polls for a period of time, but lost,” the Executive Director takes a moment, and then continues, “Our takeaway from that experience was that we not only need to find great candidates, but we need to build the infrastructure so they don’t have to start from scratch when they run.”

Mr. Troiano recounts how he joined the organization full-time in 2016, after the November elections of that year. Since then, he tells me the strategy has shifted from primarily focusing on U.S. national elections, to significant, but more local contests.

“We decided to extend our work to state legislatures,” citing the lower barriers to entry as a one factor, “So today, we are headquartered in Denver, working to elect a slate of candidates to state legislatures here.” If and when they learn how to elect independent and centrist candidates in Colorado, they believe, they can apply their electoral skills to different states.

On expanding this footprint outside of Colorado, Mr. Troiano says that they are also focused on building partnerships in other states.

When asked about their goals for influencing national elections, Mr. Troiano acknowledges that while that is the ultimate goal, right now the organization only endorses national political candidates.

“We we will have a slate of endorsed candidates running for federal office,” he says, pointing out that there are potential candidates every day vying for their support, nearly on a daily basis. He maintains, however, that it is difficult to win, at this stage, in a national election.

Therefore, the organization is betting big on winning in state legislatures first. When that happens, he explains, the psychology of the electorate will change enough to influence Congress. “Once people see it can happen, it will happen,” he remarks.

For voters outside of Colorado, the organization’s impact can be felt in Maine, where the group is actively supporting current State Treasurer Terry Hayes in her campaign for Governor, and in Alaska, where the organization is assisting in the re-election of the independent Governor Bill Walker.

“In a nutshell, this is the only organization in the country working to recruit, support, and elect independent candidates to offices in order to bridge the partisan divide,” Mr. Troiano concludes.

Whether or not you are a partisan or a moderate, before long, you may be seeing much less gridlock in your home legislature, and one day, maybe even in Congress.

Editor’s note: On May 18, 2018, “The Centrist Project,” was replaced with “Unite America” to reflect the organization’s new name.

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