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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The seemingly ubiquitous divisiveness is a pervasive plague on discourse ad governance. Indeed, a vicious cycle of intense partisan polarization saturates American politics and media. Instead of building consensus, compromise, a constructive way forward, our elected officials are shackled to ideological gridlock. Our guest today is championing a prescription to this dysfunction. Nick Troiano is executive director of the Centrist Project, which aims to elect independent candidates to office, in order to bridge the growing partisan divide. Troiano ran for the US House of Representatives in 2014, from Pennsylvania’s tenth district, eliciting national attention as both the youngest candidate, and the most successful independent of the cycle, and we welcome Nick today. Thanks for being here.
TROIANO: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: Tell our viewers what the Centrist Project is.
TROIANO: Well the Centrist Project envisions a government that is representative of people, not the parties or special interests, that is focused on conciliation rather than conflict, and that’s rooted in public service rather than self-interest. And the way that we get there is through an innovative activist system that we call the Senate Fulcrum Strategy, and our goal is to recruit and elect just a handful of centrist independents, to the United States Senate. And uh, that will have the impact of denying both parties an outright majority, and giving the centrist swing coalition enough leverage to break through the gridlock, and to bring both sides together to deal with the big problems that our country is confronting.
HEFFNER: Nick, this is a 2018 centric proposal, proposition, a strategic plan to make that gang move from irrelevant to relevant, whether you want to call it a gang or not, that’s what folks have called it in the Senate. As you look at this, this strategy, there, I want you to reflect on the movement towards unity, away from disunity, since 2008. There was this great, I think idealism surrounding both Barack Obama and John McCain, as candidates in that cycle, who were channeling a more positive, independent vision for the future, in, in both their records and their rhetoric. There was a movement then called Unity ’08 that was attempting to absorb some of that energy, and draft two independent candidates to run on the same ticket. Ultimately that evolved into American’s Elect in 2012, and in 2016, it manifested in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. You’ve been a practitioner as a candidate and an activist through this whole process. So, I wanted you to take our viewers down memory lane into what worked, and what did not work over these last years, as you’ve developed this Senate strategy.
TROIANO: Sure. Well, the bigger picture is that, you know, once upon a time in our country, both parties worked together to tackle our large challenges. We got social security, Medicare, civil rights, the Highway Bill, Welfare Reform, a balanced budget, when people of both parties came together and worked together. And what we’ve seen in the last twenty years, is that both sides have pulled apart. Uh, the Republicans have gone further to the right, Democratic have gone further to the left, and there’s no more an overlap, an ideological overlap in our Congress. And while there are some good people of both parties, they’re enactment stuck in a broken system with broken incentives, and so there has been people who’ve come together to say, we need a new way. We need a new catalyst, some new competition, an alternative, in order to break through that gridlock. So that manifested itself with Unity ’08 in 2006, and as you said, that turned into American’s Elect in 2012, which thought the right way to proceed was starting at a presidential level, if you can get a bipartisan ticket, or an independent ticket on the ballot.
And I think the lesson I drew from that experience, that’s how I first got involved in politics, that’s what I worked on for six years of my life, is that, starting at the presidency may not be the best way forward, because there are enormous obstacles, uh, from the electoral college, to raising enough money, to getting on the ballot, even to getting into the presidential debates. And so the lessons that I took from that, is that that kind of change, that new way, has to come from the bottom up, has to come from a local, state level, and especially uh, in Congress, because the barriers are much lower, and then once you start to win some races, as independents, people can believe that there is an alternative out there, and that belief can engineer hope, and that hope can engineer, ultimately something new and innovative in our politics. You know, both parties have been around for 150 years, we’ve, we’re surrounded by innovation in every aspect of our lives. I think most people believe it’s the time, you know, now is the time to do that for politics as well.
HEFFNER: You mentioned to me, off camera, you had seen our program with Mayor Pete. We also had Evan McMullin on, who said the same things that this party paradigm, is ultimately going to be deemed by the American public obsolete. You’re investing hope in the Angus King model, to use one example, in Maine, um, that in 2018, there will be three or four races, perhaps Evan McMullin in Utah, other elections in Nebraska and elsewhere, where independents will be elected. That’s your hope.
TROIANO: That’s right. We just need to win a few seats. We get to choose the states where independent candidates might be most viable, and in those states, we just need to win a plurality of the vote in order to win those elections. And so that’s why the plan is simultaneously so possible, yet so powerful, because if we elect just two or three independents to the United States Senate, they can join with Senator Angus King, who’s already a more centrist minded independent. And there might be some incumbents in, in Congress already, like a senator Ben Sasse, or a senator Joe Manchin, who can join that independent group, which, they might disagree on particular policies, but they all share a centrist approach to governance, which is putting your country before any particular political faction, following the facts where they might lead you, and ultimately working together to get things done and do what’s right for future generations.
HEFFNER: The model of that, I think I would refer our viewers to a book by Ira Shapiro, a long time Senate staffer that I reviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, several years ago, “The Last Great Senate” which describes, as your detail for our viewers, exactly how a bipartisan coalition governed and governed successfully, and achieved a great deal. Your goal, in effect, is to deny a 60 vote super majority, or a 50, 51 vote uh, majority. You wanna deny a party faction that unilateral control.
TROIANO: Right. ‘Cause imagine if, in this scenario, that neither Republicans are in charge, nor Democrats are in charge. No one has an outright majority. The centrist swing block, on the first day of session, which look at dec-, will get to decide who the majority leader is, of the Senate, and what the rules are by which the body can operate, and in any particular issue, they can issue a challenge to both sides, saying whether it’s on immigration, or the budget, or on the environment, put forward your best proposal, and whichever comes closest to a pragmatic solution, we’ll swing our votes to, and so that dramatically changes the incentives. Instead of both sides running to their respective extremes, and pandering to their base, they’ll have some incentive to come closer to the center, and actually deal in the realm of problem solving.
HEFFNER: It brings a parliamentary efficiency to governance, that we really, I think need. Whether or not it’s practical, it’s plausible, that’s a whole nother question. You think it is.
TROIANO: Let, let me tell you why, because this is already happening at a state level. In 2016, there is a young man named Jason Grenn who’s in his mid-thirties, who decided to run for office for the first time um, as an independent, because he was ticked off that his state legislature didn’t deal with the budget deficit, much like Washington Republicans and Democrats didn’t want to budge on the issues of taxes or spending. And so he ran for office. Over five months, he knock ed five thousand doors. He won his election against the sitting incumbent Republican, he goes to the state capital, helps form an alliance with one other independent and three moderate Republicans, and they flipped the chamber for the first time in 30 years, and all Republican control to a new bipartisan governing majority. That’s the fulcrum strategy in action. And there was over 20 states where, in either the state House or the state Senate, just three independents could be that swing block, so this can be a model by which to sort of hack the two party duopoly that has so um, entrenched our politics over the past few decades, and give it back to the people.
HEFFNER: Let’s take this point-by point. I think you’re importantly acknowledging that there was never a celebrity spokesperson who could garner sufficient attention or media coverage in the Unity ’08 or Americans Elect. There wasn’t buy in by a, a John Stewart or a Stephen Colbert. There was a hope that we would inject that kind of celebrity into the political process, much as Donald Trump did as the self-made, claiming, self-made billionaire. The point that I would emphasize to you is, it takes that strategic approach. Personalities do drive the discourse in ways that we have to take ownership of. So, in your recruitment of these candidates, and, and I do want to ask you about governorships too, but in your recruitment of the Senate candidates, is there a realization that the, the candidate has to have some degree of star power.
TROIANO: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean we’re pragmatist at heart, and so, pragmatically speaking, to win elections, we need candidates, at least on a statewide level, who have high name recognition, or ability to self fund, because that’s how you need to be able to get your message out and win elections. We’re not into this just to run candidates and make a lot of noise. And so, you know, the candidates who we think would be, not only aligned with the cause, but viable, are people like a Howard Shultz in Washington, you know, outgoing CEO of Starbucks, or a Chuck Hagel, former defense secretary, a United States senator…
HEFFNER: Who was a US senator.
TROIANO: In Nebraska, absolutely. So, we are making the pitch to people who are well know, who are credible, and who, if they were to run, especially if they were to run together, could nationalize a campaign, because no matter where you are in the country, if you’re in Idaho or if you’re in Massachusetts, the idea of having just a few independent senators who can speak for your when your, your own might not, uh, could be an attractive idea.
HEFFNER: You’ve told me, Nick, you’ve had some of these meetings. Now, you and I acknowledge, I think as young participants in the political process both media and practitioner, the need, absolutely. What, if any pushback have you gotten from folks you’ve attempted to recruit. Uh, I would hope that at this juncture, we’re not nearly enough there to have naysayers, but there may be naysayers, and what do the naysayers say.
TROIANO: Well, [LAUGHTER] the naysayers look at a system that has produced a political industrial complex, around both political parties. So there are enormous obstacles that might not even meet the eye, of a casual observer, of why Congress has a 15 percent approval rating, but 95 percent of people get reelected, and 40 percent of Americans are independent, yet we only have two out of 535 in Congress. A lot of that has to do, do with the rules that both parties have put in place, to make it difficult for new competition, some of which are very explicit, like getting on the ballot, and campaign finance, and how you can raise money for your campaign, some very behind the scenes, like the fact that all the talent and the operatives who work on campaigns, uh, your campaign managers, your vendors, are, have an allegiance to one side or the other. Their business models rely on only working for Republicans or only working for Democrats. Uh, and it’s a threat to their own business to dabble uh, in any other kind of politics.
And so the pushback that we get from potential candidates is, can we even mount a competitive campaign? Can we overcome the structural obstacles? Can we overcome the obstacles of putting together a viable campaign team? And so we recognize that, and so that’s why the Centrist Project exists, is because we’re the only organization out there that’s focused on creating the network and the infrastructure to help independent candidates succeed, uh, through something called, called everything the Centrist Election Engine that we’re currently building. So, we hope to lower that barrier uh, to entry, to provide a vehicle for great Americans who want to serve, independent of the political parties, to be able to do so.
HEFFNER: I, I would gather, given how Trump confounded expectations, the majority of folks with whom you’re dialoguing now, are not naysayers. They’re at least open to the prospect of putting their hat in the ring.
TROIANO: The need and opportunity for what we’re trying to do has never been greater. And, I think the root dysfunction that we’re trying to solve, was only validated in the last election. Uh, the ven-diagram between Trump supporters and Bernie supporters is not on ideology. It’s on insurgency. People wanted an outsider candidate who can take on the political establishment. I mean over the last thirty years, we went from having 5 percent of members of Congress going to lobbying after they left office, to over 50 percent for senators, and over a third for US House Members. There is a political class in our country, and the real division in America, is between them and the rest of the people. And so the people want a voice to represent them, and take on the system. And so, we believe that disruption doesn’t have to come from the ideological fringe in a, in a destructive manner. It can actually come from the political center, in a way that unifies the country.
And we look to what just happened in the French elections for example, uh, with Emmanuel Macron, who was able to mount a competitive campaign as a centrist independent, campaigning on reform and unity, and taking the best ideas from both sides as a model. That can happen here. We just need to be able to provide the pathway for that kind of leader.
HEFFNER: And those leaders, in plurality, because you’re focused on the immediate strategy of electing, cultivating a centrist approach in the legislative branch, but what about, ultimately, the presidential contest in 2020.
TROIANO: There, there are higher barriers, uh, at the presidential level. I think we need to institute a variety of reforms to make it possible, national popular vote being one, which is currently being, being done at a state level, so, to the extent that we can elect reformers to state legislatures, that will advance. Uh, there’s also a great initiative right now, the challenge, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a bipartisan and a nonpartisan entity that, that creates a high threshold for an independent to be able to have their view point expressed. Uh, that’s going through the courts right now. So we have to eliminate some of those structural barriers, I think, for it to be possible for an independent to compete.
HEFFNER: If you were to ask me, I would just say you need a Bull Moose, you need a Theodore Roosevelt.
TROIANO: I agree.
HEFFNER: Of course, he was a former president, but you named a former CEO, a former US senator in Shultz and Hagel. Uh, do you…
TROIANO: That could be the ticket.
HEFFNER: You’re right. Do you suspect that the engine, if successful, of your project, in 2018, could evolve formidably, to serve that function in 2020? Because one of the problems that plagued Unity ’08, and Americans Elect, was, they were so late to the game. It was the seventh inning stretch, and they fired up some attempt at publicity. But it was rather irrelevant at that point.
TROIANO: I think the key obstacle is that a lot of these efforts, and a lot of these candidates, McMullin most recently, had to start from scratch. There needs to everybody a sustainable infrastructure put in place for independents up and down the ballot, so that, when you run, like I did for US House, you don’t have to wonder, who are my donors, and who are my volunteers? There might already be a network who’ve supported other independent candidates, so, we have to be in this for the long term. This isn’t a pie in the sky dream for one election cycle where we do something and we, and we’ve solved it all. This has to be a scalable movement over several election cycles, to take on a system that has been in place for decades.
HEFFNER: There could very well be a plausible alternative celebrity to Trump in 2020 who builds out an infrastructure, as you’re describing, whether that’s Tom Hanks, or George Clooney, or anyone who may come to mind, uh, to a general public, to draft, that seems to me very possible.
TROIANO: It, it sure is, but I would, uh, caution against putting too much weight into the idea of a presidential candidate, or someone riding in on a white horse to save the country.
TROIANO: We, we also need a functional Congress.
TROIANO: I mean we, the president can’t do everything alone, and what we see right now in Congress, is this intense partisan tribalism that prevents anything from getting done, and in fact Congress isn’t even serving its core function as being a check on the presidency…
TROIANO: Because of the way it’s operating right now.
HEFFNER: Even if you were to elect two or three of these independents to the Senate, what about the House?
HEFFNER: The House is definably uh, you know, sort of, the carcinogens that is our diseased partisanship, more than the Senate.
TROIANO: Right, I mean…
HEFFNER: How, how, how do you legislate?
TROIANO: You’re, yeah there is no, there is no silver bullet, uh, although the Senate can take a leadership role in putting forward proposals that can get bipartisan support, that the House will have some cover to vote for, since it already cleared the Senate, and, and such that there might be a network of people out there from an advocacy standpoint who might put pressure on their own members to support it, but long term reform to the House, uh, is going to come from things like redistricting reform, changes to our system of campaign finance, uh, and other means, of, opening our primaries, such that we have a more moderating force. I also think the, you know, organization No Labels is doing a great job at organizing, uh, centrists from both political parties into a problem solvers caucus in the House. Uh, I think that’s making more progress over time and is a complimentary strategy to the idea of having a few independents in our Congress as well.
HEFFNER: Well, I think folks have seen, and I, again, wholeheartedly approve of No Label’s efforts. But folks have seen No Labels now, and the dog and pony show with former governor Huntsman, former senator Lieberman, and, at the end of the day, they really don’t have a substantive plan beyond individual partnerships, cable segments. I saw one just recently where No Labels branded an event for a dialogue. Of course that’s important, but at the end of the day, the whole notion of No Labels is, is not one that is identified in Congress as workable. It’s not a workable model, so, have you seen any evidence that the problem solver caucus can, can work within the current system?
TROIANO: Well I think, in order to make change in politics, you have to change political incentives, and you have to get involved electorally. And I think that’s the direction that No Labels is going in, with, you know, raising some money to spend on elections, to give cover to members who make hard decisions, and also to try and defeat members who are more on the extremes. I think that’s moving in a positive direction. But ultimately, you have to change the incentives of individual members who are all aiming for, what am I going to do now, to help me, uh, best position myself for reelection, and that is, I think a core theory of change, making appeals to members, to do what some have called Unholy Acts, [LAUGHTER] while they’re in office, uh, isn’t going to change much. And so we need to have a more robust strategy that aligns with the political incentives that these members respond to.
HEFFNER: What can the centrist candidates that you hope to elect in the Senate, what can they do, by way of barnstorming, and genuine campaigning. From your experience, what asset do they have to get elected? How, how can they dist-, distinguish themselves in the elections themselves, to make it possible for them to win their Senate seats.
TROIANO: Well I think the majority of people out there are already on their side. Um, and the majority of people don’t feel at home in either political party. The unfavorability ratings of both parties has only grown since the election, now, uh, over a majority. You know, you have, two thirds of people who think both Republicans and Democrats are out of touch with the every day concerns of Americans, and so the question isn’t whether people would support candidates running on a platform, a centrist platform of fiscal responsibility and environmental responsibility, or for candidates who want to use their independence to put their country first. The question is, can that candidate present themselves in a way that voters think they are viable, because no one wants to waste their vote on a third party or independent candidate who they think won’t win. And worse, because of the perverse incentives of our electoral system, no one wants to potentially spoil the election for the candidate that they most prefer. So, the whole key in this is to present yourself as a candidate in a way that you actually can win, and that…
HEFFNER: And that may be pro-life or pro-choice. That may be supportive of immigration reform, or not supportive of immigration reform. Is there a criteria you’re assessing with these candidates?
TROIANO: Well the Centrist Project doesn’t have a litmus test on particular issues for candidates. We have some core principals. Uh, a value of ours is stewardship. We shouldn’t be living beyond our means as a country, at the next generation’s expense. And so we need to acknowledge that entitlement programs are on an unsustainable path, as well as the threat that climate change poses. This is an issue of math and science, and you shouldn’t have to choose between one of the other, depending on what party you are a member of. Those are two of our principles. You know, good governance is another. Uh, economic opportunity, we need to be pro-growth, and create jobs, and support business, while also recognizing the need for a strong social safety net. So, these are ideas that our two-party system forces false binaries on people that a centrist candidate can say this isn’t about the squishy middle. This is about selecting the best ideas on both sides.
HEFFNER: But at the end of the day, in these debates, they’re gonna have to pick certain sides, the candidates, beyond fiscal discipline, beyond climate awareness, and so how do they not get their feathers ruffled in a way that leaves them to be demonized. Because you know as well as I do that, Willy Horton is still the standard for how candidates win and lose. You take a divisive social issue, and you make that the centerpiece of the campaign.
TROIANO: Well I think, uh, one interesting dynamic of a three way race in which an independent is a participant, is that the value of negative advertising drastically decreases, because it’s no longer a zero-sum game. If you’re the candidate out there, lobbing bombs at the other two, that can potentially have a much larger negative blowback on you, that there are now two other candidates uh, in the race. And so I think the three way races will get us away from zero-sum politics. We might be able to better focus on issues, and what people are for, rather than just what they’re against …
HEFFNER: And in the situation that, a social issue ensnares the campaign, how would you advise that candidate to deal with it.
TROIANO: The candidates need to be authentic to what their views are, and the people that they’re trying to represent, so, we make no claim that all of our candidates are going to think the exact same way on every issue. You know, we’re probably gonna have to have a right of center, centrist candidate in Utah, and a bit left of center candidate in New Jersey. But they agree on approach of governance, that government is about conciliation, and getting things done. That’s why we have government in the first place. And the core dysfunction of government right now, that it’s not narrowing our differences as a country. In fact, Congress is doing the exact opposite, and exaggerating them. The result is gridlock. The result is neglect of our big problems. And the consequence of it is not just a neutral impact that, we’re not doing things. It’s that our problems are compounding with time, and they’re becoming more costly to solve down the road. And it’s going to be the young people of this country that are going to pay the price for every election cycle that we stay entrenched in this partisan trench-warfare.
HEFFNER: Nick, I think authenticity, prerequisite to reconciliation. Our time has expired, but I hope the time for these candidates is not expired.
HEFFNER: And that the fight continues.
TROIANO: Well, everyone who wants to be part of the movement can. We need people to show their support, to help us attract the candidates. I’d encourage your viewers to head on over to CentristProject.org and join us.
HEFFNER: Thank you, Nick.
TROIANO: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenMindTV for updates on future programing.