The Transpartisan Matrix

Reducing Political Conflict

The Four-Quadrant Transpartisan Matrix
by A. Lawrence Chickering & James S. Turner

Concern about political polarization focuses on conflict between left and right or between the Democratic and Republican parties.  Everybody assumes that the traditional political language — ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (‘progressive’) — means coherent things that are easy to describe.  Ignored are issues producing conflict within the left and within the right in addition to conflicts between them.

The conflicts are between freedom and order in each party.  Factoring both values on each side produces a four-quadrant matrix, as follows:

Order Right  —  Traditional (especially religious) conservatives
Freedom Right   —  Libertarian (free market) conservatives
Order Left   —   Social Democratic and socialist Left
Freedom Left   —  Civil libertarian and counterculture Left

The key to reducing conflict between the parties lies in reducing the conflict within them.  Integrating the values in conflict on each side will not only solve philosophical challenges but also provide an important key to solving problems and to winning elections.  Presidential leadership limits conflict in the party that controls The White House.  The other party, out of office — the Republican Party in 2016 for example — can experience brutal conflict, which can damage, if not come close to destroying, the coherence of the Party’s brand.

Before the Congressional elections in 2014, the Republican Party was torn by conflict between the traditionalist (order) and libertarian (freedom) themes in conservatism. When the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, conflict started to appear among Democrats and progressives as well.

In the late 1960s, the conflict within the left was very strong, between the old left and the new. During the recent primary elections (in 2016), the conflict within the right focused on claims about who was ‘the real conservative’, between the freedom- and order-right. Conflict was also intense over the nomination of Donald Trump as the Party’s nominee for President, which intense became so intense that observers openly worried it would destroy the Republican brand. (George W. Bush has been reported to remark that he may be ‘the last Republican President’.)

The right’s coherence problem, caused by conflict between its freedom and order themes, is highlighted in the following question:

  • How can one increase the incoherence of a position (conservatism) that seeks to maximize freedom from government on the one hand, and promotes government interference in the most intimate spaces of private life (marriage and the bedroom) on the other?

The left suffers the same problem of coherence:

  • Progressives oppose government intrusion into certain intimate spaces (marriage and the bedroom) while promoting government intrusion into other intimate spaces (financial privacy).

Another way of highlighting coherence issues of both sides is in terms of conflicts within the left and within the right that complicate the challenge of governing:

  • When in power the order-left focuses all its energy in mobilizing governmental power to promote equality and social justice, while the freedom-left (civil libertarians, the ACLU) focus all of their energy encouraging people to mistrust the government.

Conservatives have a similar problem:

  • The order-right, branding themselves as ‘the real conservatives’, promote active use of government power in its favored arenas (in moral relations between consenting adults and in military interventions in other countries), while the freedom right spends much of its energy encouraging people to distrust the government.

On both the left and right, extreme statements in all quadrants — on the order-right, comments about rape and contraception; on the freedom-right (especially Tea Party candidates), statements suggesting they want precipitously to roll back the welfare state; on the order-left seeming to promote class warfare or mandate health care for each individual — undermine the brand by promoting radical (rather than conservative or liberal) ideas.

On the left the Pew Trust found that Democratic millennials split with older traditional Democrats. The millennials saw personal and sexual autonomy as primary, while the traditionalists sought reduction of economic inequality as primary. Once again freedom-left v order-left.

The 2014 election, however, muted conflict on the right, while the left, scattered over many issues (gay marriage, the XL pipeline, income equality, and the drone war) stayed away from the polls. As a result, a more focused and centrist-sounding GOP made large electoral gains, although in an election featuring low voter turnout particularly among Democratic voters.

Freedom and Order, Left and Right

The ‘order’ positions of both left and right rely on large (but different) organizations, both public and private, to command obedience and sustain order. The ‘freedom’ positions of both are suspicious of large organizations, again both public and private; and both freedom positions (left and right) rely on appeals to individual rights to protect individuals from abuses of power.

On both sides, coherence depends on integrating the freedom and order positions. Both sets of values are important because freedom without order is anarchy (‘greed’), and order without freedom is repression or, in most extreme form, totalitarianism. Democracies assume the task of integrating freedom and order in ways that advance both individual rights and effective organization. We believe that the Transpartisan Matrix advances this task by helping clarify and strengthen the tools for political/policy analsysis and action. Here’s how.

The current, mainstream political debate features conservatives and progressives, right and left, as a dualistic, linear spectrum. This spectrum looks like this:


The Four-Quadrant Matrix adds a vertical axis, which presents the two great values in the Western political tradition — freedom and order — in all political interactions and issues, consciously or unconsciously. The central objective of all modern political systems and all individuals in them is to integrate these two great values, which are represented as a linear, vertical spectrum:


The Transpartisan Matrix combines the two axes as follows:

* R(ight)_________*__________L(eft) *

The Matrix provides a starting point for understanding why and how self-identified ‘progressives’ and self-identified ‘conservatives’ can be found on both sides of many contentious political issues — the Iraq and Afghan wars, gay marriage, gun control, and campaign finance, for example.

In these cases the debate tends to occur on the vertical axis with Freedom-Right and Left battling Order-Right and Left arguments. Looked at this way, contemporary politics appears less chaotic (more orderly and understandable) than the common description of ‘strange bedfellows alliances’ described in news stories.

Each Quadrant Contributes to the Truth

Recognizing that each of these positions has part of the truth is important to understand why integrating them is essential both to bring people together and to solve real problems. For those seeking real change, it is crucial to understand that large-scale change is generally not possible without support, if not leadership, of the opposition to the change, uniting the political culture. This creates a paradoxical logic around large-scale change, Nixon going to China being the archetypal example. In reviewing the truths in each quadrant, we will relate how each quadrant represents only a partial-truth — each needing elements of the others to be complete.

Order-Right (OR). This is the ‘oldest’ position, rooted in tradition and faith. The essence of OR’s truth is to care for those close by. Traditional and tribal societies exhibit this truth in extreme form, limiting relationships to preconscious, habitual connections among families and tribes. Traditional people tend to feel antagonism toward outsiders, which highlights the limitation in this quadrant, as it limits peoples’ experiences and forms of connection. OR’s principle of caring for those close by is the most narrow and limited value of the four quadrants and is often fraught with fear of ‘others’. This is OR’s ‘dark side’, which — in most extreme forms — is found in the fear and hatred in tribal societies toward other tribes and (in the most extreme forms) in the genocidal passions of right totalitarian systems, supporting ‘core’ myths (the Aryan Man in Nazi Germany) against ‘marginal’ groups (Jews for the Nazis).

Although OR’s essential truth of caring for those close by has this dark side, it also — paradoxically — carries the secret for facilitating the most intense, intimate relationships, when in relationships with ‘others’. While the Order Left (OL) seeks to overcome ‘differences’ between people in large, macrocosmic — abstract and mechanistic — ways that do not work satisfactorily, the OR’s contribution, which works in small scale everywhere, overcomes ‘differences’ when people are engaged in close, engaged relationships.

In its largest potential, personal engagement can redeem the ideals of equality and justice in ways that are missed by any abstract, mechanistic OL vision of equality or justice. This OR principle has an important piece — perhaps (in our view) the most important piece — of the truth. Redeeming the full value of relationships close by, however, depends on such engagements across all boundaries of difference: race, gender, class, and so on — which are the province of both quadrants on the left.

Freedom-Right (FR). This first appeared socially and psychologically at the end of the Middle Ages in the birth of modern individualism and (in economics) in entrepreneurship. This is the quadrant of free market capitalism, bringing untold material wealth to modern societies, but also bringing large concentrations of wealth and power, which (as Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, warned in his The Wealth of Nations) are often abused.

The governing principal of the FR is self-interest as the principal engine of progress. This was and is a powerful motivator for action, but self-interest came to be understood, both by advocates and critics of capitalism — and departing from Smith — in narrow terms, often indifferent to the OR’s principles of responsibility, duty, and the importance of public spirit. The FR’s narrow understanding of self-interest, ignoring people’s broader ‘self-interest’ in cooperation, community, and love, makes the FR only a partial truth, needing insights from the other quadrants to present a complete and whole picture of human needs.

The dark sides of individualism take many forms both for society and for individuals: selfishness, greed, class consciousness, the sense that if there are ‘winners’, there must also be ‘losers’, and a general sense that individualism necessarily implies separation and disconnection. The last two points explain important parts of the decline of the Republican Party and its ‘conservatism’ before the recent election. (What happens from this point on remains to be seen.) The Freedom Right, focusing on freedom in terms of the substantive ideal of separation from order (as opposed to the instrumental or process ideal of subjective individuation), pushes its understanding of the individualist ideal toward objective success, both economic (‘the American dream’) and social.

Individualism, as a modern expression of psychological individuation, can also mean — needs to mean — ‘self-determined’ toward whatever one values, whether material or non-material, ‘connected’ or ‘unconnected’. This concept was always a central component in the late Milton Friedman’s concept of capitalism. As an example, he regarded the communal Israeli kibbutzim as a triumph of capitalism because they are freely chosen. That the kibbutzim are also often hailed as a triumph of socialism reveals the overlapping ideals of capitalism and socialism (process and substance), tending toward four-quadrant integration.

This is a complicated subject, but the challenge for the FR — at a time when demographic trends are expanding the representation of ‘marginal’ groups (minority groups, immigrants, many women) in the population — is to focus on empowerment instead of equality as the ideal toward which we should all be aimed. Empowerment can benefit all groups in society, as opposed to equality understood objectively and promoted by the order left, which cannot — because everyone cannot be above average. (The only way everyone can be objectively equal is for everyone to be relentlessly average — not a very happy picture.)

Actively promoting empowerment would require that the freedom right alter its rhetorical focus away from criticizing governments to actively promoting initiatives that empower citizens, especially through civil society organizations (CSOs). Empowering citizens, in fact, would need to have both individual and collective dimensions, especially in public spaces such as public schools and housing projects. In its relentless opposition to government social policy, benefiting ‘marginal’ groups, the FR and economists generally miss opportunities to promote individualism and community by pushing new concepts of shared rights in public spaces. Doing this, of course, would require integrating insights from the OR (caring for those close by) with insights from the order left (caring for the disadvantaged). By critiquing bureaucratization caused by the overextension of law, mechanizing citizen relationships that should be personal, the FR could also free and empower government officials, who are now slaves to mechanized systems that disempower them. The example of Educate Girls Globally, which follows, shows one way this can be done.

FR’s dark side, for its strong theoreticians and practitioners, includes disconnection, loneliness, and narrow social experiences. (We would not, of course include Friedman, the most influential FR leader of his generation, in this group because he saw community and connection as essential to the highest expressions of individual freedom. In fact, he regarded the decline of both personal and social responsibility as the greatest threat to freedom. It is a pity that he never, to our knowledge ever wrote about this. All insights presented here are based on personal conversations with him.)

Order-Left (OL). The growth of industrial capitalism led to the rise of trade unions to provide countervailing power in the private sector and also to centralized governments, with increasing calls for equality and justice guaranteed by governments and based on legal rights. In most extreme form the OL vision appeared in totalitarian Marxist-Leninism, which presented equality and justice as objectives that can be achieved without any role for ‘caring’ for those ‘close by’. It gave no force, that is, to crucial, subjective issues of how people treat each other, which issues are ultimately just as important as the larger, objective issues of the OL. The contribution of the OL was to call for expanding concepts of justice to the poorest, to the most disadvantaged — including everyone in a much broader vision than could be found in either the OR and FR alone. That is the crucial contribution of the OL to the vision for integrating the four quadrants.

Freedom-Left (FL). The rise of large, bureaucratic governments and corporations led to a wide range of abuses, and these gave rise to emerging calls for freedom on the civil liberties or civil libertarian left. The principal groups included in this movement have been the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), peace groups protesting global military initiatives, and (in the 1960s) the New Left, protesting the dehumanizing effects of large organizations, both public and private, including the mega-universities. Important elements of the FL, interestingly, share with elements of the OR an aversion to politics — emphasizing private relationships and communities.

Parts of the FL, especially in the counterculture and Bohemian communities, share with the OR a commitment to ‘caring for those close by’, but they come full circle now in communities drawn from diverse populations of race, religion, and class. Like the other quadrants, the FL vision is only a partial truth because it tends to be ‘inclusive’ only among people who stand together in their critique of and antagonism toward the core values of the larger society, especially the government. The FL vision is crucial to integration of the four quadrants because it combines the OR insight of those ‘close by’ with the broadest possible range of ‘different’ people, who, in the FL, are bound together by common values independent of traditional (‘core’) and habitual relationships.

Revisioning Idealism

Alienation is widespread in our politics for several reasons. One of the most important, which is never mentioned in the mainstream debate, is that idealism continues, from the past, to be based on the ideas of the order left (OL) alone. It is an idealism of a collective justice defined, mandated, and enforced by legal rights — recalling Rousseau’s famous statement about ‘forcing men to be free’. OL idealism is especially tied to helping ‘underdogs’, with an objectified, mechanistic view of equality.

Politically-correct language, implemented privately beyond government action, plays an important role in OL idealism by mandating avoidance of obvious inequalities by pretending they don’t exist. Thus, short people become ‘vertically challenged’, and the ‘handicapped’ are ‘physically challenged’. The dark side of this, of course, is that ‘public acceptance’ often appears (or is understood) as private rejection, which can be an especially wounding form of inequality. One form of this is condescension: avoiding criticism of blacks (for example) for behaviors that would draw strong criticism if undertaken by whites. The (African-American) civil rights leader Bayard Rustin highlighted how real equality has an important subjective component when he noted that the first time a white treated him as a real equal was when the socialist ikon Norman Thomas told him an idea he proposed was nonsense.

Although the OL view is commonly said to reflect an optimistic view of human nature, it seems to us profoundly pessimistic—hence, the need for compulsion. The optimistic view is to arrange institutions to engage people in common purposes — engaging them across the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and other forms of difference — and trusting them to see through these marginal marks of social difference to deeper, shared values.

Some people say that our four-quadrant, integrated vision is a call to high idealism, a call to our ‘highest selves’. While this is true in an important sense, we prefer to emphasize the empirical point that when people — even those marked by supposedly significant differences — become personally engaged, everyone will do these things, as spiritual beings, naturally. Acting in obedience to, and in congruence with, one’s ‘highest self’ is normally thought unusual and difficult, but when personal engagement is seen to overcome the challenges of differences naturally, one then understands it need not be either unusual or difficult. The key is to combine leadership and institutional structures that connect people (empowering them, acting together, to make change). The example of Educate Girls Globally, which follows, illustrates the point.

Integrating the Four Quadrants: The Role of Civil Society Organizations

Educate Girls Globally (EGG) is a civil society organization founded in 1999 to promote education for girls in traditional and tribal societies by partnering with governments to reform government schools. EGG’s theory of government school failure is the absence of ‘stakes’ or ‘ownership’ by all major, natural stakeholders in the schools — parents, teachers, community representatives, children (girls), and even government officials. EGG hypothesized that it could facilitate the empowerment of even the most impoverished, traditional stakeholders to become active participants in promoting change by creating spaces for them to create visions and plan for a common future, reflecting what they value (even if it conflicted with ‘experts’ from outside) and then begin to implement projects to fulfill their visions, including school reform benefiting girls.

The model rejects the OL belief that the poor are oppressed victims who can do nothing for themselves, who can only be saved by revolutionary change from the top. The focus on the ‘poorest of the poor’ represents the OL quadrant. But it also represents the FR by seeing the poor as potential entrepreneurs who can play powerful roles in promoting change. Empowerment through stakeholding and ownership is the key to release this entrepreneurial energy.

As an international civil society organization (CSO), EGG plays an essential role in this empowerment process, but the most important role is played by indigenous CSOs, especially ‘Girls’ Parliaments’, which showcase girls as leaders promoting empowerment. (See These activities, strengthening local communities, reflect the OR values. And the FL quadrant appears in the overall commitment to equality and justice by engaging people with the deepest differences in tribal cultures — young girls and older men — to come together and work for change.

A question always hung over EGG’s experiment on whether EGG could transfer its model to government bureaucrats, who would start to manage the program, with the eventual objective of expanding the program throughout the state or jurisdiction (in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, where EGG’s principal projects are located in upper-primary and secondary schools, this would mean expanding to about 5,000 schools serving about 1.2 million children). Recent evidence (September 2016) indicates that transfer is proceeding seamlessly and organically. EGG officials working on the ground doubt EGG could stop the process even if they wanted to. This experience represents essential evidence regarding the power of the four-quadrant model, which will work both inside and outside the government.

This result suggests the need for significant changes in mainstream thinking about bureaucracies. It suggests that people both inside and outside governments are people, with identical human needs, people who long for engaged, organic relationships rather than the mechanized relationships that govern too many relationships in bureaucratic institutions everywhere. That people prefer engaged, organic relationships over mechanized, ‘bureaucratic’ relationships is explained by the difference between organic and mechanistic systems — with one being alive (organic) and the other being dead (mechanistic). That most people prefer alive should come as no surprise. What is very surprising is that many bureaucratic institutions have been mechanized for so long, forcing people in them to fight to remain alive.

EGG’s program is a perfect integration of freedom and order — of order chosen freely by people engaging each other in common purpose.

Contribution to Political Understanding

The Matrix contributes to political understanding in three ways.

It broadens understanding. The Transpartisan Matrix broadens the political landscape for officeholders and constituents alike. Instead of emphasizing the narrow question of ‘how conservative’ or ‘how liberal’ they are, people both in and out of office can approach issues more broadly — searching for agreements that might define new political coalitions and new opportunities for solutions with broad political support.

Broader discussion allows individual adversaries on one issue (e.g., higher or lower taxes) to become allies on other issues (e.g., civil liberties). When individuals campaign together on any issue, the increased trust that results tends to make them more open to transpartisan discourse on all issues.

As we are writing this, it seems as if Democrats are united in their support for increasing taxes, while Republicans are united in their opposition. However, positions on taxes, as on many issues, can change. The Democrats led proposals for reducing taxes on the rich in 1962 and 1981, and joined Republicans on the issue in 1986 for a variety of reasons. Where tax policy goes in the future will be influenced by many things, including observations of taxes actually collected in responses to recent changes. Whatever happens will, without doubt, be influenced in important ways by the degree of trust in the larger political culture. The Matrix explains how to institutionalize this broadening of the political landscape — and will facilitate expanding coalitions around all kinds of policies, including tax policy.

It deepens understanding. The Matrix deepens political discussion by opening up — again, for office holders and constituents alike — awareness that individuals approach different political issues with a different mixture of freedom and order right and left. That is, an individual might take a risk for freedom on one issue but not another.

Thus a more robust political picture of office holders and constituents begins to emerge as individuals recognize where on the Matrix they lie in relation to the issues they care about. The Matrix begins to address the fact that politics is a deeper, personal undertaking than addressed by the rather brittle results of polling and voting.

It Personalizes. Politics is personal as well broad and deep. The Matrix personalizes political discourse by allowing an individual to track how their own views, or their representative’s views, on issues change (might change) over time — moving, at different times, from freedom to order and back.

Everybody’s political actions are an integrated combination of freedom, order, left and right. How they express their integrated values at any given moment on any given issue will influence (and perhaps determine) their contribution to the collective political discourse at that moment. The Transpartisan Matrix describes a framework for tracking these values and behaviors — and changes in both — over time.

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The Matrix does not, by itself, say how to reframe particular issues and integrate the four quadrants. Our book, Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (2008), discusses a wide range of issues — from public school reform and immigration policy to foreign and security policy, prison reform, and race — and shows from real experiences how to accomplish transpartisan integration and change. In our experience, integration of the quadrants happens most often when citizens are empowered and engaged to solve problems, both inside and outside the government. The current system tends to be frozen in centralized, mechanized bureaucratic decision-making, without meaningful participation either by government officials or by citizens. The book shows from real experiences how to empower all stakeholders on many issues, bring them together, and engage them in consensual spaces to solve problems. Wherever issues are approached in this way, conflict tends to disappear, and real problems get solved.

The Matrix provides a roadmap — giving both participants and observers of politics a tool to better understand and explain a politics that is increasingly post-partisan. It allows individuals to express, integrate, and keep track of contemporary politics in a world of fast-moving events and frequently-shifting allegiances. We think this roadmap has special value at the present time (2016), when partisan conflict and distrust are destroying our capacity for effective action.