"A revolution is brewing." That was the first sentence spoken to me at a "No Labels" organizing session Sunday in New York City, and it struck a chord for two reasons.
First, No Labels is known as a well-intentioned but ineffectual centrist group launched two years ago to a collective shrug from cynical politicos. A No Labels convention might be the last place you'd expect to hear talk of a revolution.
Second, I agree that a revolution is brewing: a non-violent public upheaval that forces change from within the two-party structure or usurps it.
Before I explain, let's deal with No Labels.
Two years ago, a group of high-powered political activists from both parties formed No Labels to encourage centrist problem-solving in an era of ideological gridlock. Mocked as naive and patronizing, the "Kumbaya Caucus" lacked a clear agenda and grassroots support.
With new leadership and focus, the group opened a two-day conference Sunday with a refined mission: Drop the centrist label, work with frustrated voters of all political stripes, and pressure politicians in Washington to work better together while fixing the nation's problems.
Addressing more than 400 activists who traveled to New York at their own expense, No Labels cofounder Mark McKinnon said, "You may be a Democrat. You may be a Republican. You may a Libertarian. You may be anywhere on the political spectrum, but almost to a person you share an enormous frustration with the political system."
No Labels' modest reform agenda includes "No Budget, No Pay" (barring lawmakers from receiving a salary without passing a federal budget) and requiring the president to submit regularly to "question time" with Congress, like British government ministers do for parliament.
A congressional "Problem Solvers' Group" made up of 12 Republicans and 13 Democrats is committed to the No Labels agenda.
There is nothing earth-shattering about No Labels. The group may never shake its squishy image. It may not change Washington an iota. If you hooked them up to lie detectors, the leaders of No Labels wouldn't guarantee that their group is the catalyst for change. But something, or somebody, will be: No Labels' very existence and steady growth is nothing less than a symptom of the public's frustration with the U.S. political system. It's a warning bell that Washington ought to heed.
"There's a revolution brewing," said former Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-Okla., a No Labels leader. "People are getting tired of a party system that turn Congress into the NFL -- one team against another. They're going to do something about it."
McKinnon, a longtime adviser to George W. Bush, conceded that No Labels may not be the answer to the problem in politics but it is "manifestation and evidence that people are hungry for change."
That leads to the reasons why I suspect we're on the brink of a major political realignment.
1. Americans are disconnected and frustrated with politics unlike virtually any time in the history of polling.
2. The country is in the midst of a wrenching economic shift from the industrial era to an info-tech economy. The transition coincides with unsettling social change. The nation's institutions, especially government, are not adapting.
3. History suggests that periods of socioeconomic change in the U.S. lead to political upheaval, including transformation of existing parties and the rise of new ones.
4. Technology gives consumers enormous purchasing power, which has been used to democratize commerce and other institutions. One example: In a few short years, Americans gained the ability to ignore an artist's album and buy only a favorite one or two songs. The music business was radically changed by we, the people. So why would Americans be expected to settle for the status quo in politics?
5. The parties are weakened. For a variety of reasons, the Democratic and Republican structures no longer have a monopoly on the ability to raise money, broadcast messages, and organize activists.
6. The nation faces existential problems including climate change, debt, income inequality and the decline in social mobility.
One of two things is likely to happen: The existing parties will dramatically adapt to the times (a demographically challenged GOP has the farthest to go), or voters will demand and get alternatives. An independent presidential bid is increasingly likely. The rise of new parties is not out of the question.
It is, of course, just a theory. My list has at least one obvious omission: A leader who is suited to the times. All of this will be a focus of my reporting and writing leading up to the 2014 and 2016 election, starting with a magazine feature in the works. Please share your insights at email@example.com.