Members of No Labels rally against extreme partisanship on the West Lawn of the Capitol in July.
Congressional job approval is at an all-time low, and there’s no shortage of anger aimed at the Beltway. There’s also no shortage of people looking to take advantage of the unpopularity of both Republicans and Democrats.
On the surface, Americans Elect, No Labels and Ruck.us might look like similar groups, complaining about hyper-partisanship and gridlock while trying to dislodge the two-party system. But a closer examination reveals that each group is prescribing its own cure for the country’s problems.
“These organizations are all distinct with unique missions,” said veteran media consultant Mark McKinnon, a Ruck.us advisory board member and No Labels co-founder. “What they have in common is a belief that the current system has become so highly polarized it has paralyzed our ability to function and, therefore, voters are looking for alternative ways in which they can have an impact and a voice.”
No Labels made a splash last winter with a New York City launch that included Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican and oft-mentioned potential third-party candidate for president. No Labels isn’t trying to become a third party but instead aims to force the two parties to work better together.
“For better or for worse, our basic structure dictates a two-party system,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, veteran Democratic adviser and another of No Labels’ 30 co-founders. According to Galston, their group is trying to “re-create a two-party system that functions in the national interest” by fostering a “nationwide citizen movement to try and provide concrete incentives to search harder for common ground.”
The plan is to organize No Labels chapters (groups of Republicans, Democrats and independents) in all 435 Congressional districts by the end of the year and have a “presence on the ground” that politicians can’t ignore. In addition, Galston said No Labels may also get involved in primaries next year in order to support candidates who align with its philosophy of cooperation.
No Labels, which is a nonprofit 501(c)(4), also tries to affect the national conversation with regular news releases and even made a small cable television ad buy in the Washington, D.C., market earlier this month. Although the group doesn’t espouse a specific ideology, its push toward compromise and “practical solutions” promotes a centrist philosophy.
No Labels co-founders are a collection of public and private sector leaders including former Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Al Wynn (D-Md.) and Nick Lampson (D-Texas), but veteran Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson is regarded as the one with the initial idea. The group is not required to disclose its contributors and declined to do so for this article.
Instead of forcing the two parties to work together, Americans Elect is trying to change the way voters choose candidates.
Americans Elect is promoting an online nominating convention where any registered voter can be a delegate. Delegates will help develop a platform and ultimately choose a “nonpartisan” presidential ticket in June.
“Right now, they use smoke-filled rooms that cannot give access to all Americans like we can through the Internet,” Americans Elect Chief Technology Officer Joshua Levine told Roll Call.
But the dream of an online convention and nonpartisan ticket is nothing new.
Americans Elect is the latest manifestation of what used to be known as Unity08. Led by wealthy financier and author Peter Ackerman, the group got some media attention with former Maine Gov. Angus King and “Law & Order” actor Sam Waterston as two of its public faces. The group ultimately ran into financial troubles. Ackerman ended up contributing to Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign.
Ackerman is now behind the scenes at Americans Elect, giving the group $1.5 million to get started when it organized in the spring of 2010 as a 527.
Last fall, Americans Elect reorganized as a 501(c)(4) and no longer has to disclose its donors. According to an official from the group, Americans Elect members can choose to disclose their contribution, but the online tool to make that disclosure public is currently broken.
It’s unclear what kind of presidential ticket would result from the unprecedented process.
“The ticket that comes out of Americans Elect will be a nonpartisan ticket. Meaning that two individuals of the same party won’t be able to run on that ticket,” group Chief Operating Officer Elliot Ackerman, Peter’s son, explained to Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.”
Elliot Ackerman, 31, is one of the public faces of Americans Elect. He previously served eight years in the Marine Corps, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he earned a Silver Star for the Battle of Fallujah.
Americans Elect also is trying to distinguish itself by providing ballot access, a historical stumbling block for third-party movements, for its presidential ticket. The group has gathered more than half of the 2.9 million signatures it needs to get on the ballot in all 50 states.
The groups are rarely in direct competition, even though Americans Elect’s “true colors” feature is in the same vein as Ruck.us’ issues-based concept, but they are jockeying for attention and to distinguish themselves.
“No Labels is an advocacy group. Ruck.us has really nice technology but no ballot access. We’re a serious effort to give the American people direct access to nominating a candidate,” said Americans Elect’s Levine, a retired technology chief from E-Trade. Levine also described Ruck.us as “a game.”
But to founder and CEO Nathan Daschle, Ruck.us is anything but a game. Unlike No Labels and Americans Elect, Ruck.us aims to be a for-profit corporation and received an early round of money from angel investors.
Ruck.us is an online tool that allows people to freely organize around issues and interests without the constraints of party labels. Ruck.us aims to bring politically like-minded people together, help them share information and empower them to collective action.
“We’re used to everything being tailored for us,” Daschle said. “Parties, at the end of the day, are a means to an end.” Instead of bringing together traditional political types, Ruck.us has formed early partnerships with groups such as StudentsFirst, LiveStrong and Rock the Vote.
Of course not everyone thinks these anti-party groups are a great idea.
“I know the Beltway is enamored with the idea of some great mass middle that is ‘moderate’ and craves representation it can’t get from the two major parties,” said Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, a prominent liberal blog. “But ideas like No Labels and [Ruck.us] fail to go anywhere because they’re based on what is clearly faulty Beltway conventional wisdom.”
On one level, Daschle agrees.
“The rise of independents, one of the starkest trends of the last decade, is not a rush to the ‘middle,’” Daschle said. “The people are exactly where they have always been. They have just lost their faith in parties.”
That’s part of the reason why Daschle and Chief Strategy Officer Ray Glendening aren’t pushing an ideology with Ruck.us and wouldn’t mind if liberals, conservatives and moderates use the site.
Whether it’s Unity08 or HotSoup.com, it’s true that these groups have had a short shelf life. HotSoup, which launched in 2006, was once dubbed “the MySpace for political junkies,” if that’s any indication of where it ended up. But that’s not discouraging activists this time around.
“HotSoup was a good idea just a little bit ahead of its time,” said McKinnon, also among that group’s founders. “Voter discontent was not nearly as high as it is today, and we couldn’t deliver the kind of technological innovation and solutions that are available today.
“I see all these efforts as synergistic and compatible in the sense that they are all trying in different ways to get people engaged in fixing our broken politics,” McKinnon added. “As tough as things are, we are collectively an optimistic bunch and believe that democracy finds ways to work things out in the end.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.