America today suffers from a distorted view of its own politics. Cable news cage matches and congressional floor debates aren’t anything like the conversations people are having in coffee shops and PTA meetings. The ideological extremism that seems to dominate life inside the Washington Beltway is nothing like the pragmatism reflected in most American communities. Deep down, Americans aren’t the partisan shills the political establishment would have you believe. But that reality has been lost.
Here’s the truth: In most cases, in the days before an election, people weigh their options carefully and vote for the candidate they like best. I know that firsthand, having spent the better part of the last week talking to voters in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago. I was there to support Dan Lipinski, a Democrat under attack from the far left for failing to embrace every element of Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin suggests pausing talks on .5 trillion package until 2022: report Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Sanders calls deadly Afghan drone strike 'unacceptable' MORE’ extreme agenda. The people I encountered have boosted my faith in the promise of American democracy.
What struck me most about those wide-ranging conversations wasn’t just that ordinary people rarely have the sort of anger-inducing interactions we see on cable news. Rather, I noted how distinct conversations with ordinary people on the street are from those you might have from someone attending a political rally. People are angry across the board. But more than wanting their representatives in Congress to be more doctrinaire in supporting the Democratic or Republican agendas, people on the street want elected representatives from both sides to get things done. They find fault on both sides of the aisle—and they generally believe their interests would be best served if the nation’s politicians stopped shouting at one another and worked out something fair between the various interests.
That’s not true for everyone, of course. And the people most apt to be active in any campaign—to speak to reporters, to be quoted in the paper, to attach a bumper sticker to their car, to attend a rally—almost always hew to one end of the political spectrum or the other.
But talk to the woman walking out of the post office or the man walking his dog in the late afternoon and you get a very different diagnosis of what ails Washington. Their complaint isn’t that their representative isn’t aligned closely enough with their party’s leaders in Washington. Rather, they’re worried that the people elected to represent them can’t make decisions on their own. What they want is independence, pragmatism and clear thinking. What they want are smart people talking through the various advantages and disadvantages of any given solution.
Here’s the secret to why Dan Lipinski won: That’s what he’s about. He’s not a Democrat out of the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Trojan Horse of protectionism Federal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE mold. He doesn’t check all the boxes Washington interest groups want checked when they’re huddling with the party leaders who define the agenda on Capitol Hill. Rather, Lipinski is his own man, with his own ideas and a tireless penchant for trying to get Democrats and Republicans to work together for the good of the American people. He’s a member of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus. He was a crucial leader in drafting the only bipartisan health care fix given any real consideration over the course of the last year.
Lipinski may not reflect the agenda that Washington believes a Democrat should embrace, but he embodies the interests of the ordinary people he represents in Washington. And once his constituents understood that, they stood behind him.
The barrage of special interest money pouring in from groups trying to unseat Lipinski compelled many of us to come to his aid. No Labels and its allies came to Illinois to help get his message out. The resulting victory sends an important message: If the millions of Americans who believe Washington should stop fighting and start fixing, stand up together, we can prevail. Our political system need not be bowled over by politicians who represent the far left or far right—we can have problem solvers instead. We just need to work at it.
After several days in Illinois, I’ll be happy to return home, if only to enjoy North Carolina’s more temperate weather. But the wisdom I drew from the people living south of downtown Chicago will stick with me. Too often in America, mainstream ideas are sidelined by those on the far left and far right who have their own axes to grind. Dan Lipinski showed that shrill demands need not drown out mainstream voices. Beyond anything else, I hope that message makes its way to beleaguered bipartisan leaders all across the country.
Margaret Kimbrell White is No Labels senior advisor.