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With Honor and the Politics of Tribalism

Rye Barcott is co-founder and CEO of With Honor, a movement to elect a cross-partisan coalition of post-9/11 veterans who can help break down divisions and fix America’s broken politics. Below he discusses a potential solution to the polarization of Washington politics.

The current state of politics—polarized and marked by tribalism—is perhaps the greatest challenge our country faces. I had the privilege of serving in the Marine Corps and saw some of the turmoil and violence that tribalism and division causes around the world in Bosnia, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa. I would have never imagined that similar forces would be present here on our home front as they exist today. Though they are often not as violent, they are destructive and have caused acute paralysis and dysfunction in civic institutions across the U.S.

This is may be most acutely manifest in our Congress, which has led the famous business strategist Michael Porter to conclude that our political polarization and paralysis is perhaps the single biggest threat to our long term economic competitiveness as a country.

Americans live this frustration daily. Congress no longer tackles our country’s biggest issues, and, as a result, no national institution is suffering a crisis of trust more than Congress.

At the same time, veteran representation in Congress is at an all-time low. When Congress was functioning, veteran representation used to be as high as 70 percent. Today, it is near a historic low at 19 percent. We don’t think that it’s a coincidence.

With Honor, a movement that I co-founded along with other veterans, is disruptive and presents one of the few solutions to our crippling political polarization. Through our Super PAC, we support the most capable next-generation veterans seeking positions in Congress by independently supporting their campaigns and leveling the financial playing field. With over 400 veterans running for Congress, we support the most capable 30 to 40 veterans who sign our pledge to put principles before politics and serve with integrity, civility, and courage.

Veterans pledged an oath to support and defend the Constitution. They have served something greater than themselves. They know what it means to put the country’s interest ahead of their own. When I served with Marines overseas, we focused on the mission and got things done in tough places.

Since With Honor launched last year, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been victorious at the polls in primaries across the country. Bound by our pledge to put principles before politics, With Honor’s endorsed candidates commit to taking specific actions such as meeting with someone from another party once a month and sponsoring legislation with another party once a year.

We believe that a coalition based on this pledge can be effective in combating the forces of tribalism and polarization. If this coalition gets a critical mass and has real resources behind it to function with cohesion and help defend members when they have the courage to cross party lines, it can be a fulcrum in the House. This is possible, and it’s possible this cycle.

Our success in some of the most recent primaries provides testimony to how well our message is resonating with the American public. We have had tremendous momentum raising money for the organization and putting it to work. Two of our most notable success stories are Amy McGrath of Kentucky, a Democrat who was one of the first woman to fly fighter jets, and Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a Republican and Navy SEAL who lost his eye on his third combat tour. Dan went on to serve two more tours. Both of these principled veterans recognize that the country’s current path is not sustainable. We have to do something about it and these folks are stepping up by answering the call to serve again.

To quote one of our advisors, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has served eight presidents from both parties, in a recent Christian Science Monitor cover story: “Things aren’t working and there needs to be a change in attitude, philosophy, and outlook in people serving in Congress. Polarization has led to paralysis."

A new generation of principled leaders is ready to start turning our country around. I look forward to discussing how they can do it in more depth at the Aspen Ideas Festival in a presentation on June 27th with New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently commented on this topic on News Hour at this link.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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