Mapping the Transpartisan Terrain

Transpartisan Note #147

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

The Transpartisan Movement has emerged out of increasing political conflict, which has made it difficult for governments to govern effectively and sustainably. Over the past ten or fifteen years, growing numbers of organizations have emerged to search for and promote a new ‘transpartisan’ politics, integrating the useful aspects of both Left and Right into a vision that reduces conflict and promotes policies to solve problems that have proven difficult for both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Why the Issue Matters

This discussion explores the efforts of ‘transpartisan’ organizations to reduce conflict and promote collaboration in our politics. Despite efforts going back more than a decade, progress has been hard to see—at least in terms of the crude measurements below. This ‘Mapping’ exercise was designed to identify leading examples of these efforts and evaluate them. We hope the effort helps improve current approaches as well as develop new, more effective ones.

The Challenge(s) We Face

Political challenges. The book Our Towns, by James and Deborah Fallows, provides a narrative of a political challenge(s) that we believe is quite fundamental. They traveled 100,000 miles around the country and observed two very different political cultures operating simultaneously, with nontrivial numbers of the same people (it appears) operating in both. One is the centralized political systems organized around the federal and state governments, with information about them almost entirely dependent on the mass media, especially broadcast and cable television. This system is torn apart by partisan conflict, which systematically undermines almost all efforts at effective government. The other is the powerfully collaborative governance of people working together to solve every imaginable kind of local problem. Information about this system is gained either by local or social media, or by personal experience.

These two political ‘systems’ can also be seen statistically, featuring 30% of age-eligible citizens, 15% on the Right (Republicans) and 15% on the Left (Democrats), who are partisans. On both sides they have deeply moral views of issues, which addict them to conflict and moral condemnation of opponents. The other 70% of age-eligible citizens are transpartisans (also called ‘problem-solvers’), who work together and accomplish enormous good at the local level, solving local problems.

The 30% of partisans control nearly 100% of elected officials at both national and state levels.

Besides controlling all major governments, the partisan political class, working in implicit alliance with the mass media (especially television), dominates the public debates on both federal and state issues. We believe this 30% of partisans controlling nearly one 100% of all elected positions is one, if not the principal, cause of the conflict and polarization that paralyze our centralized political institutions and make effective central governments all but impossible.

Social and psychological challenges. Through the end of World War II tradition provided the principal source of social order and trust for most people. In the 1950s, demands for self-expression started to challenge tradition in all social and political sectors, and in the sixties the challenges exploded throughout the society.

The decline of tradition and increasing demands for self-expression set in motion complex, manifold effects in all social, artistic, and political arenas—all of them destabilizing established orders. Edmund Burke stated the essential challenge in 1781 as follows: ‘Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.’ Without order, therefore, from either within or without, neither society nor freedom is possible. The question facing us was how we would find ‘within’ the order we had gotten over centuries from tradition ‘without’.

What Transpartisans are Doing at Present to Meet These Challenges

Addressing the political challenge. Transpartisans believe good ideas win. Although they claim to be promoting new ideas, reframed from current debates, the great majority of transpartisan organizations and advocates come from the conflict resolution or conflict management fields, and they focus all their efforts on bringing together people on issues defined by the current, larger political debate.

By concentrating their efforts on the terms of the current debate, these organizations, without intending this result, restrict and limit themselves to issues as defined by the partisan 30%–assuming there are no other ways of seeing the issues. Some critics will engage and struggle with this mechanism as a way of defining the issues they consider important. They wonder if this framing of issues does not serve the partisan political class by focusing entirely on their narratives. Transpartisans operating to engage the partisan system on the issues they focus on fail for several reasons:

    1. Almost none of them makes any effort to represent or appeal to the 70% of age-eligible transpartisans, who focus on solving problems.
    2. By starting from issues framed by the current debate, they implicitly embrace the hidden assumptions about what is important from approaches that have shown no capacity either to reduce conflict or to solve problems (see #6 below for more on this).
    3. By avoiding consideration of new ways of approaching problems, they do not learn from successful programs. They cannot learn, for example, from methodologies that are working even with the most ‘difficult’ populations. (‘Working’ here not only means achieving unusual results working with them. It also means framing issues in ways that bring people together and transcend political opposition.)

In The Transpartisan Review we have often referred to this point, highlighting a number of specific programs, including the Delancey Street Foundation (drug and alcohol rehabilitation, founded in San Francisco, now with satellite programs in other cities); the Girls’ Community Schools, sponsored by UNICEF in ‘the epicenter of radical Islam’, around the city of Asyut in Egypt; other girls’ empowerment programs in similar regions in Pakistan dominated by radical Islam; Educate Girls Globally (empowers girls to drive change in schools and low-income communities); and the All-Stars Program (offering renowned programming in fitness and performing arts in New York City).

    1. By embracing issues defined by the partisan and polarized national debate, they only reinforce the negative roles of the mass media and the political class, who are locked into polarized positions that appeal to their theatrical psycho-drama, scripted largely by conflict.
    2. In terms of our (Lawry Chickering and Jim Turner) analytical tool for understanding politics, the Four-Quadrant Transpartisan Matrix, transpartisans who define issues based on the current partisan debate show little or no consideration of the complex interaction of values and approaches that might both bring people together and solve problems. There is only perpetuation of the simplistic Left-Right political spectrum, which rigidly and absolutely separates political and ideological positions, asserting that all wisdom is either on one side or the other, that neither side has anything to learn from the other—ever.
    3. Finally, these organizations and advocates are failing because they make ‘public policy’ and government efforts to solve economic and social problems all about governments solving problems mechanically. They rarely, if ever, consider the crucial role that citizens can play—organically and subjectively—on issues including, but not limited to, school reform; health and health care; law enforcement and criminal justice issues; drug rehabilitation; and even foreign and security policy. Without the active participation of the 70% transpartisan citizens in each of these areas, there will never be anything approaching solutions to any of them.

Addressing the social and psychological challenges. There is little understanding of these issues in transpartisan organizations. That does not mean they are doing nothing to meet these challenges, however. Communication (dialogues) can provide an important source of order and trust, which will help address at least part of the social and psychological challenges. There is much more to these challenges than this, which are beyond the scope of this Note because none of the current, major organizations we have examined is addressing them.

Note on The Transpartisan Review, Searching for New Approaches

The Transpartisan Review’s Four-Quadrant Transpartisan Matrix adds complexity to the simple Left-Right spectrum, which dominates both the mainstream debate and efforts to influence it. The most important intellectual element The Transpartisan Review adds is consideration of the increasing importance of subjective issues that intensify the challenges presented by equality and justice, which are the favored arena of the Order Left. When tradition dominates social life, people tend to accept inequalities defined by tradition. Increasing individuation (consciousness of self) intensifies peoples’ perceptions of inequality and injustice. Individuation will also tend to stimulate the desire and even demands for an active, citizen role in solving problems.

At the heart of The Transpartisan Review’s approach to meet this challenge is a commitment to empowerment of citizens through shared co-ownership of public institutions such as schools, health care, and law enforcement. In this perspective, ownership (shared ownership) turns people inward to improve what they own (co-own) and reduces the dominance of impulse to the Politics of Grievance, complaining about perceived injustices.

Until now, The Transpartisan Review has limited its consideration of these issues to intellectual and philosophical analyses. We have largely ignored theatrical challenges in presentation, which are essential to gain the attention of a theatrically-minded mass media to the substantive issues at hand. The Transpartisan Review is exploring theatrical strategies that would force/entice the media to provide it’s consumers with prominent coverage of new, reframed ways of looking at problems. Despite their prioritizing delivery of audiences to advertisers, mass media is still the most effective way to showcase solutions which bring together the constituencies often depicted as enemies (for theatrical purpose), who nonetheless have become allies when pursuing four-quadrant strategies on particular issues.

What We Need to Do to Face the Challenges

We could have listed our first entry here under failures above, but this first entry under what we should do differently is so far removed from the ‘transpartisan’ agendas of either organizations or advocates that it seemed ‘strained’ to inject it there. It requires some background to explain. We need to start here with an assertion: good ideas often do not win. Understanding how 30% of people who are partisans control 100% of elected officials in state and federal offices requires understanding how an implicit alliance between the 30% in the political class, and the mass media are sustaining a theater of conflict that is our political ‘debate’. The discussion below argues that the overwhelming majority of ‘transpartisan’ organizations, which think they are in the transpartisan business while reinforcing partisan conflicts, need to be added to the destabilizing forces.

The world runs not on ideas, but perceptions of ideas. In this world of media, both mass and social media, the principal terms of debate are determined by a political psychodrama defined by the 30% in the political class (15% on each side) working in implicit collusion with the mass media, which while claiming to be in the news business are really in the entertainment business, presenting adversaries as representatives of Darkness and Light in a psychodrama. Donald Trump, whose only successful professional experience has been as an entertainer, was perfectly cast—casting himself—as the Prince of Darkness, representing the racist masses.

While many people believe that post-Covid people will go back to doing what they did before, there are important signs they are breaking in important ways from the past, at least economically.

    1. Our priority is to develop a perspective that sees politics as theater—starting with what the major current parties are doing; and then imagining an alternative theatrical path to a Four-Quadrant future acted out theatrically so the media will be forced/seduced to cover it, even celebrate it.
    2. Establishing critical mass and challenging perceptions well established will require concentrating force so the media will be excited to cover activities staged to challenge governing narratives on issues.

(Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay.)

1 comment

  1. I’m not sure order-freedom dichotomies help as much as I’d like. I see modern society struggling with two sets of tensions, freedoms vs responsibilities, in which it’s the fulfillment of responsibilities that earns us our freedoms. And, second, with the tensions between temptation and corruption. If corruptibility isn’t restrained, it generates a flourishing of corruption. It takes order to curb corruptibility, no matter where one might come down on order vs freedom. I think the wiser framing on a fragile planet is to acknowledge that it is the fulfillment of our responsibilities that restrains our corruptibilities and earns our higher freedoms. Capitalism generates prosperity but also corruptibility; a wise civilization wrestles simultaneously with all those tensions and aims high. A foolish civilization blows off those tensions and aims low.

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