ARRIVING AT HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL, Rye Barcott MPA 2009 embarked on an independent project to study the tribalism that he had seen while serving as a U.S. Marine on tours in Africa and the Middle East. Nearly a decade later, Barcott left a successful career in the private sector to address tribalism once again. This time the tribes were political, and the battlefields were the American legislative chambers.
As a new Congress attempts to conduct the nation’s business amid fractious exchanges and an ever more partisan political atmosphere, Barcott hopes that With Honor, the organization he created to help elect a new generation of veterans, will play a role in changing the country’s splintered political culture. Describing itself as “cross-partisan” (the organization will also consider third-party and independent candidates for support), With Honor requires candidates to sign a pledge to put civility and principles ahead of partisan politics and aims to influence not just who gets elected, but how legislators behave and interact once they are in office.
Nineteen U.S. Representatives—nine Republicans and 10 Democrats—received support from With Honor in the 2018 midterm elections. Barcott hopes that his organization will corroborate his theory that the decades-long decline in the number of members of Congress with military experience has contributed to the rise in partisanship and that veterans are uniquely placed to bring a new spirit to the divided and derided political body.
“There’s this larger problem of tribalism, of political polarization,” Barcott says. “What can be done about it that’s actually different? When you see a problem, do you run away from it or you run toward it?”
Politics was far from his mind after he graduated with degrees from the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. After working for a large energy company, Barcott struck out on his own, founding energy investment firm Double Time Capital with Dan McCready, a fellow HBS alumnus and veteran, which focused on sustainable energy projects. McCready’s decision to run for Congress—part of a wave of hundreds of veteran candidates in this past election cycle—helped bring Barcott’s attention to the difficulties that veterans face in running for office. They typically have neither the personal wealth nor the access to affluent networks needed for multimillion-dollar campaigns.
As he began contemplating founding With Honor, Barcott looked for advice from Harvard Kennedy School faculty members David Gergen, professor of public service, and David King, senior lecturer in public policy, and immersed himself in study. The number of veterans in Congress declined from more than 65 percent in the late 1970s to just under 20 percent now. That decline correlated with increasing polarization. More than that, an analysis by the Lugar Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, showed that veterans crossed the aisle more frequently than nonveterans to sponsor legislation. So, in the summer of 2017, just over a year before the 2018 midterms, Barcott launched his organization.
Besides Gergen and King, there are other Harvard connections. Dana Born, lecturer in public policy at HKS, and Nathaniel Fick MPP 2008 serve on With Honor’s advisory board; Kahlil Byrd MC/MPA 2003 is a senior strategist; and Ellen Zeng, a Harvard Law School graduate, is the senior vice president. Harvard alumni were also among the candidates With Honor supported, including freshmen Republican congressmen Steve Watkins MC/MPA 2017 of Kansas and Dan Crenshaw MC/MPA 2017 of Texas.
Politics did not come naturally to Barcott, and neither did the fundraising. But the organization raised $20 million, including $10 million from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, helping to make it the largest bipartisan super pac in the country focused on House races for the 2018 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. “It was blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” he says. “It was both harder and longer than I anticipated.”
The vetting process for candidates included research, reference checks, and interviews. It also required candidates to sign the With Honor Pledge, committing them to bipartisanship and a code of ethical and civil behavior, both in their campaigns and in office. Eventually, With Honor settled on 39 House candidates running in the general—20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. The organization spent where it thought it could make a difference. It was significantly involved in 14 general election races, backing the winning campaign in nine of them.
But even though a number of new veterans were elected to the House, the high number of departing ones means that total veteran representation has held steady at just below 20 percent. Barcott likes to say his organization helped stem the decline.
With Honor is now ramping up for the 2020 campaign, and focusing on creating a space for the sort of bipartisan leadership for which it fought so hard. It will help support a caucus and provide the resources for it to grow. The organization’s goal is to grow the caucus to 30 members by 2020.
“In the short term, we want to see some real tangible accomplishments from this coalition of 19 members,” Barcott says. “That may be more naturally in the national security and veterans affairs space. With time, we really believe that this is a group that could broaden out and solve some of our tougher problems, but they need cohesion.
“These are truly unique times in our country. We are completely ripped apart. Veterans are one of the few groups that actually do have some trust that transcends those party lines. I don’t preach veteran exceptionalism. There are plenty of veterans who are not part of the solution, but that’s why we have the pledge and the screening process. Could this organization eventually broaden out into other forms of service? Maybe. It’s possible.”
Banner photo by Jamie Grill; group photo courtesy of Rye Barcott