An astonishing thing happened this week in American politics. An incumbent United States senator decided not to run for reelection—not because she thought she might lose, but because she was sure to win.
She didn’t want to face the prospect of serving any longer in a rancorous, venomous, poisonously partisan environment where consensus and compromise are seen as a disease.
After almost 40 years in public office, the last 17 in the U.S. Senate, Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, decided to retire from Congress, saying: “We’re not working out issues anymore. We’re working in a parallel universe with competing proposals.”
She’s not alone in leaving. Independent Joe Lieberman is leaving the Senate, as is Democrat Ben Nelson. Rep. Heath Shuler, co-chair of the Blue Dogs, is also retiring, with the moderate Democrat caucus down to just 26 members following the 2010 elections, less than half of its peak of 54.
“This is just a further step in the same direction that has been going on for a long time—the center has collapsed,” said former senator John Danforth (R-Mo.). “It’s going in American politics. It’s going in the Senate.”
The bad news is Snowe is leaving the Senate. The good news is it sounds like she’s not leaving the fight, and, in fact, she may have more impact outside of elected office:
“For change to occur, our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation, and honor in consensus building—but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.
“I certainly don’t have all the answers, and reversing the corrosive trend of winner-take-all politics will take time. But as I enter a new chapter in my life, I see a critical need to engender public support for the political center, for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us."
Oddly, the disappearing middle in our political representation is happening in inverse proportion to what is happening in the country. More and more Americans are identifying themselves as independents, as they lose trust in both the institutions of government and the traditional political parties.
In 2012 independents may make up the highest proportion of voters in more than 30 years. Looking at the key swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the number of independents in seven of the eight states is up 3.4 percent from 2008, while the number of Democrats is down by 5.4 percent, and Republicans, down by 3.1 percent.
The unrepresented public is starting to assert itself in the form of movements like No Labels (an organization I helped cofound a little more than a year ago), which now has 400,000 supporters. These everyday Americans are generating grassroots support for ideas like No Budget, No Pay, which has a hearing in the Senate on March 14, and other reforms designed to make Congress work. Where hyper-partisanship among politicians is hardening, citizens are rising up to fill the gap and to kick Congress in the shins to get things moving.
Yes, it is disconcerting to see some of our best and brightest leaving the halls of Congress. These are the leaders who believe in the idea of consensus and working across party lines. But their shoes are being filled by the American people, who understand that what is important is not whether we move left or right—but whether we move forward as a nation united.