By A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
Why the issue matters
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 (we assume) operating in both. One is the centralized political systems organized around the federal and state governments, with information about them entirely dependent on the mass media, especially 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 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. This is 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, in reality, from the conflict resolution or conflict management fields, and they focus all of 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 struggle with this mechanism for defining the issues they consider. They wonder if this framing of issues does not serve the partisan political class by focusing entirely on their narratives. Transpartisans operating this way are failing 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 avoid political opposition.)
In TTR 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).
4. 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.
5. In terms of Jim Turner’s and my analytical tool for understanding our politics, our Four-Quadrant Transpartisan Matrix, there is 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.
6. 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 never consider the crucial role that CITIZENS can play—organically—on issues including 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 citizens in each of these areas, there will never be anything approaching SOLUTIONS to any of them.