Back in 2011, Politico asked its readers to nominate and vote on independent candidates ahead of the upcoming presidential election. The “Politico Primary,” as it was called, was more of a low-stakes exercise for political junkies than a serious endeavor — “part parlor game, part reporting assignment,” as then executive editor Jim VandeHei and chief White House correspondent Mike Allen put it. The results were nevertheless revealing given the virtual primary’s supposed premise. “The public has had it with Washington and conventional politics,” VandeHei and Allen began, continuing:
It has lost trust and respect in the conventional governing class. There is mounting evidence voters don’t see President Barack Obama or the current crop of GOP candidates as the clear and easy solution. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg argues, it seems likely if not inevitable an atmosphere this toxic and destabilized will produce an independent presidential candidate who could shake the political system.
Though independent presidential candidates rarely enjoy any success, there was definitely something to the general spirit of this statement. Congress, as a rule, is incredibly unpopular. When polled in a 2018 voter survey that asked “In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?” some 68 percent of respondents, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, agreed with the second option. However you square it, America’s polarized and incredibly partisan cultural environment — particularly as manifested on politically aligned cable networks and talk shows — is justly loathed and widely recognized as a problem.
With all of this in mind, the five candidates actually put forward by Allen and VandeHei were nothing short of extraordinary. The eventual winner, an obscure outsider by the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton, was about as proximate to the “conventional governing class” as you could possibly get. Things hardly improved further down the list. General David Petraeus also appeared, his nomination justified by way of the astonishing sentence: “In the end, every voter wants the same darn thing: a strong leader they can truly believe in.” Other picks included Condoleezza Rice, Cisco CEO John Chambers, and Erskine Bowles — the former White House chief of staff who also served as co-chair of Barack Obama’s deficit reduction commission.
Summing up the general absurdity of the whole exercise for the Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx would remark on the various ways it reflected the worst tropes of the Beltway mindset:
Indifference to policy, an eagerness to see politicians as products to be marketed, undue deference to institutional authority, a fetish for centrism, regurgitated conventional wisdom, a breathtaking failure of imagination — it’s all here. The feature’s single most aggravating aspect is the gaping chasm between Politico’s pretensions to outside-the-box thinking and populist sentiment and the crushing, establishment-approved obviousness of the first five candidates.
Which brings us to The Reunited States, a new documentary directed by Ben Rekhi and co-produced by CNN pundit Van Jones and daytime TV heel Meghan McCain that debuted earlier this month. Drawing inspiration from Mark Gerzon’s 2016 book The Reunited States of America, the film offers nothing more or less than eighty-ish straight minutes of conversations about the need for conversations. Featuring four different protagonists, it thus mounts a very familiar case against partisanship and political rancor, both of which it strongly intones are the root of everything that bedevils US society today.
One major character is Greg Orman, an independent running for governor in Kansas and intent on shattering the Democrat/Republican partisan binary. Another is Steven Olikara, founder of something called the “Millennial Action Project,” which convenes young lawmakers from both parties to discuss “solutions.” The film also follows former GOP strategist David Leaverton and his wife Erin as they set out across the United States in an RV with the goal of talking to people unlike themselves. By far its most sympathetic figure is Susan Bro, mother of deceased activist Heather Heyer, who lost her life in Charlottesville while protesting white supremacists.
“Topical in broad strokes yet frustratingly allergic to particulars,” as the New York Times’s Ben Kenigsberg put it, the film’s tone is earnest, and at least a few of its characters seem genuinely well-meaning. Nevertheless, the disparate nature of its various plotlines and the relentless way it pummels the same bland idea render The Reunited States a decidedly less than enjoyable sit. In a handful of more successful scenes, Rekhi does make a decent case for basic political empathy: the Leavertons, a pair of culturally cloistered suburban conservatives, gradually coming to terms with America’s legacy of racism and its dispossession of indigenous peoples being the most notable example of the film’s “listening to others” thesis bearing some actual fruit.
Notwithstanding this relatively modest victory, the film quickly hits a wall as it comes up against the obvious limitations of post-partisanship as an operating principle. Orman, a Princeton-educated former McKinsey consultant, is an especially odd pairing with someone like Susan Bro, as is Olikara, whose supposedly idealistic aisle-crossing initiative can’t seem to make a meaningful case for itself beyond the vague promotion of “finding common ground.” Empathy and a willingness to hear alternative viewpoints, as it turns out, can only get you so far. In the Leavertons’ case, we do witness a genuine change in outlook — the two no longer identify as Republicans and ultimately swear off partisan affiliation altogether.
Both Orman and Olikara, however, illustrate what this posture actually looks like when manifested in the political sphere, and the results are less than inspiring: a pair of utterly generic centrist campaigns in Kansas (the first for Senate, the second for governor) and a youth-branded initiative that chirpily hosts “conversations” and partners with the likes of Uber, Lyft, Google, and WeWork. For all intents and purposes, Orman’s politics are basically those of any business-oriented liberal or fiscal conservative. Calling himself “a problem solver, not a partisan,” he once described his ideology as “fiscally responsible and socially tolerant” — an identity that sounds no less generic without an (R) or a (D) affixed to the official branding.
For all of his outsider schtick, Orman’s proposed “third force” in American politics, therefore, looks suspiciously like run-of-the-mill Beltway orthodoxy with a different paint job (a third way, if you will). And Olikara, for all his supposed idealism, is so wedded to post-partisan cliches like “the issues [young people] will inherit are not so much [about] left versus right, but really the future versus the past” that it proves difficult to pin him down on a single actual political position.
This matters quite a lot because, contra the film’s implicit premise that polarization is a matter of tone and individual attitude, the actual business of politics ultimately involves competing values and interests that cannot be reconciled. Even the most rancor-free political disagreements between Left and Right will remain disagreements, because conversations are not a substitute for public policy. In their own different ways, Olikara and Orman show us the inevitable end point of every venture built upon this faulty premise: a style of politics either so hollowed of substance it cannot be nailed down or one functionally indistinguishable from the very Beltway culture it says is the problem.
The ultimate irony of the rebranded centrism qua populist idealism that a film like The Reunited States (or Politico’s 2011 virtual primary) put forward is that the would-be “solutions” it offers rarely enjoy any real popular buy-in. Millions of ordinary voters may dislike Congress, the two major parties, and the superficial spectacle that passes for discourse on network TV, but they’re hardly pining for a lukewarm agenda of means-tested tax credits or the election of phony outsider candidates like Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz — both of whom enjoyed decidedly less success than figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who (despite the vast ideological chasm separating them) ran explicitly against the conventional governing class.
Rather than indulging in post-partisan fantasies, ordinary Americans should be encouraged to ask why their political and media institutions are so chronically unrepresentative of majority opinion, and why corporate interests are so regularly allowed to drown out dissenting views. Political discourse could always use a bit less toxicity, but what ails American society will not be healed by independent centrist lawmakers or a grassroots movement for post-partisan bridge-building. Far more urgently, the United States needs a movement for democratic government and majority rule.