How Important Is This Election?

Transpartisan Note #135

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

It is commonly said this election will be one of the most important in our lifetimes. In fact, both partisan sides say it is for ‘the Soul of America.’ [1] We heard one widely respected public figure express the view that he expected the current political crisis would end with the defeat of Donald Trump and accession of Joe Biden to the Presidency. Biden’s victory, which as of this writing seems likely but not assured, he said, “would restore the political system and the culture to ‘normal’”.

We hope it comes as no surprise to our readers that we doubt this will be the case. We believe such a sentiment fails to understand the real story behind President Trump’s victory four years ago and his governance since.

Misunderstanding the 2016 election begins, in our view, by imagining Trump is the cause rather than an effect of our widely recognized current national and global trouble. Understanding Trump as an effect requires understanding the forces in our politics and culture that brought Trump to power. From this perspective, Trump is at least as much an effect, as a cause, of the current crisis(es).

Trump came to power on the heels of widespread alienation from the partisan system controlled by the functioning of the two major political parties. This same alienation has fueled the steady expansion of voters registering Independent so that there are now more Independent than either Democratic or Republican voters.

If you add people who do not bother to register because they are deeply unhappy with both parties, we think the figure grows to about 70% of the age-eligible electorate, more than the total of both Democrats and Republicans combined. This 70% also aligns with Bill Shireman’s estimate [2] of ‘problem-solvers’ compared to ‘fighters’. Fighters, in his view, amount to 15%, making up the bases of each major party. These partisan fighters dominate the political lives of the transpartisan 70%.

The widespread, common assumption in the political debate is that the binary choice in elections represents the only choice voters have. A central assumption of each side in this dichotomy is that its side has all (100%) of the truth, and the opposition has no truth. No option exists which recognizes some truths on each side and tries to integrate them. You can only choose one.

However, eligible voters have a third choice: not voting. They are making that choice in droves. Finding a way for their voice to be felt and acted upon seems, to us, to be the task for addressing the crisis.  Electing either Trump or Biden will leave this underlying problem yet to be addressed.

The darkness-and-light vision that dominates our politics is ideally suited for the media and their entertainment business model. It delivers audiences to advertisers. About 40 million people watch cable (10 million) and broadcast (30 million) evening news casts.  Projected vote totals for 2020 are about 150 million.

These media numbers are close in percentage to the partisan political player ratio – about 70% avoid the evening news. Politicians and the media manage a lucrative power/money synergy working a third of the crowd for political and monetary profit. The other two-thirds of the public – those we call transpartisan – remain alienated from both partisan politics and the media.

Since the media joined with the political class in this commitment to polarization, it became easy to see why alienation from the system is as widespread as it is. In his 1997 book Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, James Fallows, of The Atlantic, laid out an early warning about the details of how our media undermines our politics.

What is wrong? How can one imagine a way out of our situation which so many consider desperate? We suggest that the crisis we see around us is one in which individuals are escaping two centuries of the constraints of tradition and law. In that framework, we can see this as a healing crisis. If it doesn’t kill us, it will make us stronger.

In this context, we think the root of the trouble is the intersection of decades-long, advancing ‘individuation’ of citizens breaking away from a continuing commitment by authorities to a concept of governance based entirely on representation. We believe the traditional system (some like to say when things were ‘normal’) started to weaken in the 1950s, falling into near collapse in the sixties.

‘Normality’ depended on the strength of tradition – fitting in – resisting demands for individual expression. The societal constraints on the individual began to weaken. The political class reacted by tightening the reins on individual empowerment. Individuals rebelled.

In the 1960s, rebellions against the rules broke out across the nation and the world.  Authorities put down the rebellions and sent troops into cities and university campuses, leading to the May 1970 Kent State and Jackson State killings.

In traditional times, people acquiesced to public schools run by ‘experts’ (administrators, teachers, and their unions) and to a health system focused negatively on sickness (also run by ‘experts’). Increasing demands for individual expression led to growing support for charter schools, alternative (including self-care) health approaches, and expanded sexual identities.

Between 1970 and 2020, the authorities tightened down the political rules.  In spite of the tightening, individuation kept growing – in gender and sexual identities and practices – through new information channels, and in the development of more individualized markets of consumer goods and services. Politics could not contain social/cultural individuation.

In management theory, the emergence of Theory Y (see below) empowered people to take initiative in decisions formerly made only by top management. Our political system is the only major governance system that has remained nearly unchanged in response to widespread demands for individual empowerment.

Both political parties retain the weak concept of citizenship that vests virtually all power in government officials, forcing citizens to maintain a passivity completely at odds with their psychological and existential individuation which, in turn, fuels their demands for empowerment. Collectively and individually, across the U.S. and around the world, individuals are breaking out of the enforced containment that separates them from their individual identities, resources, and aspirations.

In the context of this breakout, our political system is in a healing crisis. Individual empowerment demands to be heard. Our political system resists listening. No one in the current partisan political debate and system is effectively advancing, demanding, and relying on the importance of empowering citizens to play active citizenship roles. In debates on issues ranging from public school reform to health care; to drug and alcohol rehab programs to infrastructure building; and even to foreign and security policy, the engagement of citizens, an essential element to any possible success, is effectively crushed or diverted.

Our system will remain in crisis until we start communicating about the alienation that created a historic opportunity for Donald Trump, for which he turned out to be completely unfit. Until we focus this deep problem of politically alienated people that is growing every day; until we devise the ways to engage the powerful energy of empowered citizenship in addressing pressing issues, our political crisis will continue to grow. As we have often written, this vision of active citizenship is one of the most powerful features of all social service programs that are successful even when working with the most difficult and marginalized populations. This is true in the U.S. as well as in countries as diverse as India, Egypt, and Pakistan.

While we agree that Donald Trump continuing in office will exacerbate the problem, whoever wins, the deeper issue of disempowered citizenship will continue to drag down our political life, holding back the powerful opportunities of the Great Breakout currently underway across the world.

Our people are seeking a new form of Order out of Freedom.  Without a fundamentally different debate, one that expands the dichotomy to create an opportunity for the kaleidoscope of interests that animate each individual, the only alternative will seem to be authoritarianism.

The outcome of this, the most important election of our time, will point the way toward or away from the authoritarian option.

(Images of candidates by Gage Skidmore from Wikimedia Commons and licensed CC3.0.)


Understanding Theory X and Theory Y

Based on the theories of Social Psychologist Douglas McGregor.

Theory X and Theory Y were first explained by McGregor in his book, The Human Side of Enterprise, and they refer to two styles of management – authoritarian (Theory X) and participative (Theory Y).

If you believe that your team members dislike their work and have little motivation, then, according to McGregor, you’ll likely use an authoritarian style of management. This approach is very “hands-on” and usually involves micro-managing people’s work to ensure that it gets done properly. McGregor called this Theory X.

On the other hand, if you believe that your people take pride in their work and see it as a challenge , then you’ll more likely adopt a participative management style. Managers who use this approach trust their people to take ownership of their work and do it effectively by themselves. McGregor called this Theory Y.

The approach that you take will have a significant impact on your ability to motivate your team members. So, it’s important to understand how your perceptions of what motivates them can shape your management style.

(Excerpted from

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