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Who’s afraid of partisan politics?

Bi-partisan deal-making is often celebrated as progress, but is it any basis for transforming politics in America? This is the final article in our series on trans-partisan politics.

Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. All rights reserved.

At a time when Americans can only agree on how divided they’ve become, it’s no surprise that politicians who promote a bi-partisan approach are singled out for praise. Step forward Ohio Governor John Kasich, for example, a Republican who expanded Medicaid to 275,000 people under ‘Obamacare’ in October of 2013. “Nowhere in life do we not compromise” he told the New York Times. Or how about Ron Unz, the publisher of the American Conservative who also wants to raise the minimum wage in California to the highest in the USA?

The message is clear: partisan politics is the problem, and working across the aisle to get things done is the solution. But which problems get solved in this way and which get ignored? Whose interests are served by compromise along the way? And what if bi-partisan deal-making is nothing more than that: the ‘lowest common denominator’ of progress in politics; a temporary fix that leaves America’s huge problems of inequality untouched. Perhaps it even creates an illusory ‘center ground’ that does not, despite all claims to the contrary, represent the views of the majority.

After all, each of these examples has another side. Kasich campaigned enthusiastically to strip public employees in Ohio of their bargaining rights, and signed a budget that mandates any woman seeking an abortion to “listen to the fetal heartbeat.”  Unz made his name in politics by promoting a ballot initiative that eliminated bilingual education in California, a state where 38 per cent of the population is Latina or Latino. One could say that some progress is always better than none at all - so at least, for example, the US now has a bipartisan budget deal of a very basic sort, but so what? Isn’t there a better way of dealing with deep-rooted differences in politics?

This is the question that all the contributors have wrestled with during our month-long series on ‘trans-partisan’ politics in America, but they answer it in many different ways. Some see potential in alliances that go beyond the traditional two-party system to attract support from populists and other under-represented voices of different political stripes. The Pentagon Budget Campaign is a good example, cutting military spending in the US by ten per cent in 2013 by exerting pressure on Congress around a common agenda that was supported by libertarians in the Tea Party, progressives to the left of the Democrats, and others in-between.

This strategy makes good pragmatic sense, but there are few issues on which it’s possible to mobilize such disparate interests around effective short-term action. In that regard, building a more authentic, long-term political consensus from the bottom-up is essential, whether through experiments in “slow democracy” that develop new institutions at the local level, “Living Room Conversations” that deliberately invite disagreement as a preparation for consensus-building, or “circles of dialogue” that convert the energies of street protests into shared priorities for action.

These experiments show that progress locally is possible – improving Portland’s schools for example, or winning an amendment in Salt Lake City to protect the housing rights of LBGTQ individuals. By grounding debate and deliberation at the grassroots level, these efforts also help to answer criticisms that have been aimed at ‘top-down’ attempts to reform politics in America, like “No Labels” and the “Centrist Project, which have proliferated in recent years. But it’s difficult to see how the impact of local efforts could be aggregated in order to generate a national constituency for change, without which progress on the big issues will be impossible - since poverty and inequality must be tackled through large-scale government action as well as through small-scale efforts among communities and businesses, counties and cities.

The traditional route for doing this is through the political party system and then winning elections, but attempts to form a third or fourth party to compete with, or put pressure on, the Democrats and Republicans have not succeeded in the USA. The Working Families Party has had some success in and around New York, and the Tea Party exerts strong informal pressure among Conservative Republicans, but in general “our winner-take-all electoral system is hostile terrain for viable third parties” as K. Sabeel Rahman puts it, a fellow at the Harvard Law School.

Faced by these problems, another alternative would be to retain, but transform, partisan politics itself. Both Republicans and Democrats dream of establishing a permanent majority through changing demographics or ideological supremacy, when those who are too stupid to vote for the ‘correct’ party eventually come to their senses - a thesis popularized by Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas. But ideological differences in America are deep rooted and persistent, as the latest evidence shows. Even the Tea Party, which is derided as mere ‘astroturfing’ by most progressives, seems to have some real grassroots support.

In that case, why not recognize that these differences are likely to endure, and find better ways to connect the communities that embody them, knowing that this process may, or may not, lead to new common ground? As Arthur Penã concludes in his contribution to the series,

“what would happen if people started talking to each other from a strong base in their own convictions instead of being lured into an alleged center ground from which they rarely benefit? We might find that we have more in common with each other than we do with those who claim to represent us.”

Who knows where this would end up, but a healthy politics is surely supposed to be the collision of contrasting views and interests.

Of course, there’s no point in ‘colliding’ with each other in the same old ways and expecting something different to emerge. Instead I’d suggest a new set of guidelines to govern full-throated interaction which are both personal and political – a ‘cleaner fight’ if you will, using Marquis of Queensbury Rules Transformation-style. That means non-violent, honest, open and self-aware so that deliberate attempts to block consensus, manipulate discussions, or misrepresent people’s views can be exposed and confronted.

One could argue that it’s not partisan politics that’s the problem, but the unbending desire to use them for personal and factional gain, for raw power and domination, and for revenge; the active turning away from any opportunity for collaboration or collective action; and the endless litany of petty acts of corruption, greed and willful misrepresentation that has become the staple of American politics.

Activists have a phrase to describe the values and behavior that are required to animate a healthier system of politics like this. It’s called “straight back, soft front,” and it signifies the ability to hold fast to your vision and beliefs while pursuing them with flexibility and openness – much in the way that all the contributors to this series describe in different contexts. This isn’t deal-making or compromise for the sake of it, but an active engagement with those who disagree with you and a willingness to stay in the conversation when the temperature heats up.

However, this isn’t just an issue of personal change. People also need new political institutions that enable them to behave in new ways and construct a more authentic common ground. Obvious places to start in the USA are alternatives to the current winner-takes-all electoral system and the Electoral College that is supposed to modulate its effects - a daunting task to be sure. If there is a secret to success, it’s that progress comes when personal change and institutional innovation reinforce each other. All forms of transformation are both personal and political in this sense.

If one accepts, with Jacob Hess, that “smart people with good hearts disagree about the nature of almost everything in the world,” then there are only two ways forward. One is to accumulate more power to defeat those with whom we disagree, and the other is to invent new ways of dealing with those disagreements. Over to us.


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