Escaping the Left-Right Box-In Match

The “transpartisan” movement is only the tip of a very large and long-term “upwising” of people Left and Right (and otherwise) who realize common ground exists with people they thought of as polar opposites from them politically.

I often say “Things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster simultaneously.”

Well, it seems that even as polarization is increasing it is starting to dissolve into a more productive reality. Those still firmly embedded in the polarized worldview can’t quite grasp this.

In a blog post entitled “The Perennially ‘Unusual’ Yet Somehow Ubiquitous Left-Right Alliance: Towards Acknowledging an Anti-Establishment Center“.  Sam Husseini chronicles an alignment that shows up over and over between some Left and Right camps on certain issues. He notes that this perennial alignment is almost always viewed as “strange” by mainstream media and pundits.

“Every time you have this convergence of progressives and conservatives against the establishment,” he writes, “it’s regarded as ‘unusual’ ‘odd’ or ‘bizarre’ — even though it keeps coming up on issue after issue: war, military spending, trade, corporate power, Wall Street, fossil fuel subsidies, as well as — in the case of the NSA spying on the citizenry — the central issue of Constitutional rights and civil liberties.”

Husseini goes on to quote dozens of news stories from the last 30 years – all of which describe each new example of this perennial phenomena in the same startled language as if it had never occurred before.

We see this today as the most vibrant current ad hoc Left-Right alliance protests NSA surveillance.

This seemingly sporadic partnership is not only old news but has an ongoing under-the-radar coherence that in the last decade has taken somewhat permanent form as the “transpartisan” movement. Unfortunately, most of the people in the “odd” alignment described by Husseini – and Husseini himself – are not aware of this articulate movement that embodies their energy and ideals, but I can assure you that it is very much alive.


The visionary narrative of transpartisanship is that Left and Right can not only talk together, but also work together on many issues. Beyond that, enlightened transpartisans have found that they are in a unique position to articulate common-sense solutions that more than 80% of the rest of society would agree with.

This has been a very rapidly evolving movement, with various groups and actors moving front and center and others moving to the periphery. I think the most active current group is probably the Transpartisan Center which has developed an intriguing track record of building relationships across the political spectrum and hosting issue-based retreats, conferences and salons. Noteworthy among their efforts are collaborations with 84 groups from across the political spectrum to form the Liberty Coalition to promote civil liberty and basic human rights (including privacy) and with about 60 diverse groups to create the Campaign for A New Policy with Iran.

Another intriguing transpartisan initiative is Living Room Conversations between liberal and conservative ordinary citizens. Some of these dialogues have been covered by mainstream media. Living Room Conversations are a down-home version of dialogues among liberal and conservative leaders that for almost a decade have been piloted with surprising success – at least during the conversations. Once back in the partisan battleground many partisan leaders have a hard time maintaining their new transpartisan center of gravity. (To me this shows the need for transpartisan support networks and changes in the larger systems and cultures in which we are all embedded.) Ordinary liberals and conservatives are not always under the same intense pressure to be positional.

I participated in one of the first major transpartisan dialogues in 2004. It changed my political life, as I reported in my article “A Personally Transformational Encounter of Left and Right” (which became one of the most popular articles on the co-intelligence website!). My big takeaway: I realized that my progressive worldview – no more or less than the conservative worldview – was a mental and emotional trap woven out of gross oversimplifications, which not only prevented me from seeing a bigger picture but also kept me from recognizing people who would join me in working for changes I really believe in.

One of the early thinkers and actors in the transpartisan movement was Lawrence Chickering, a former colleague of William F. Buckley at “The National Review” who currently promotes girls education and empowers traditional communities around the world, especially in India.  His 1993 book Beyond Left and Right: Breaking the Political Stalemate was an early foray into this new paradigm. FIfteen years later he developed transpartisan ideas further with Jim Turner in Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life.  I met Lawrence in the mid-1990s when we were both colleagues of alternative economist and master networker Robert Theobald. I never dreamed I’d find a colleague of William F. Buckley a fascinating and open-minded thinker. Lawrence offered an early lesson in seeing remarkable people beyond my progressive box.

The transpartisan activist from the Right with whom I’ve had the closest connection is former Republican Congressional candidate Joseph McCormick.  Joseph founded or co-founded a number of transpartisan groups including Democracy in America, Reuniting America, and the Transpartisan Alliance. Most significant for me personally, he organized the 2004 transpartisan conference I wrote about in my article mentioned above. His most recent big contribution to the field is the 2011 e-book Reuniting America: A Toolkit for Changing the Political Game he co-authored with Steve Bhaerman, available for free download.

To really get a flavor of who Joseph is – the remarkable vision he has, the work he’s done, and why I’ve been so inspired by him – I recommend a 10 minute Song of a Citizen video interview with him recorded at the 2010 Coffee Party Convention and this 20 minute interview with Jim Rough, innovator of Dynamic Facilitation and the Wisdom Council (both of which were watersheds in Joseph’s adventure into wise democracy, as they were in mine):

Many people – though certainly not all – in the transpartisan movement have been influenced by Ken Wilber’s integral theory and the related Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) work of Don Beck. Integral theory looks at human development across four domains – the internal and external dimensions of both individual and collective life. Wilber notes that liberals tend to think in terms of external and collective causes and solutions and conservatives in terms of personal and internal causes and solutions – which suggests that “integral” solutions would combine the best of both perspectives. Spiral Dynamics Integral offers a values-based developmental model that provides some useful categories for thinking about applications of Wilber’s framework and political life in general.  I find SDi a powerful model that unfortunately lends itself to – and often defends – elitist hierarchical thinking. If explored and applied with appropriate caution, awareness, and humility, however, SDi can provide many useful perspectives to enhance our lives and evolution together.*


One of the intriguing ideas to come out of the transpartisan movement is a somewhat more complex depiction of US politics to replace the simple Left/Right spectrum. It is a quadrant model with “order” at the top, “freedom” at the bottom, “liberal” on the left, and “conservative” on the right. The upper left quadrant contains the Democratic Party, the upper right contains the Republican Party. In the lower left we can place the Greens, most of the Occupy movement and the ACLU, while in the lower right we find Libertarians and the Tea Party.

In this model the upper quadrants are controlled by mainstream powerholders who form alliances whenever centralized government or corporate power is challenged, such as in efforts to rein in Wall Street or the National Security Agency. Each side of these top power quadrants also manipulate the political system for their partisan purposes, as we see in the Citizens United decision that opened the door to virtually unaccountable “super PAC” intervention in elections and the rush we see in the two-thirds of American states whose governments are totally controlled by one party to make sure voting rights are tweaked to maintain their partisan control.  Getting, holding, and increasing dominant power is the name of the game in the upper quadrants.

The lower quadrants, in contrast, are populist, opposed to exactly the kind of centralized power we find in the upper quadrants. Down in the “Freedom” quadrants, the Left tends to focus on corporate power while the Right targets government power. However, in the last half-dozen years each of these two sides has started realizing more of what the other is objecting to. More people on the Left are questioning the rapidly expanding powers of central government and more people on the Right are questioning the rapidly expanding power of big corporations and conglomerates. Both sides are also noting the increasingly intimate marriage between public and private power centers.  (For a humorous New Age reflection on the same dynamic, see this.)

It is these lower-quadrant folks who are the primary focus of Husseini’s article, for their combined power occasionally breaks through into mainstream visibility to shake up what they sometimes call the “Demoplicans” and “Republicrats” in the upper quadrants. Many on both sides also believe that centralized power is (thankfully, in their eyes) about to collapse, so they feel a need to focus on preparing themselves and their communities to be more resilient and self-reliant in the face of that collapse – and increasingly work together to do it right. So we see both Greens and Tea Partiers active in the emerging networks of alternative economics, health care, food, education, and governance – and we see them starting to talk with each other, as they do in the Living Room Conversations.

I view this quadrant model as a great escape hatch from the toxic polarizing oversimplifications of the Left/Right worldview. It is worth treasuring for that precious role.

However, there’s a whole world outside of the escape hatch. We can realize that that handy quadrant model is also a simplification of who we really are. Ultimately, transpartisanship itself is best seen as a bridge to a more real, complex, and auspicious realm where our individual uniqueness and spirit generate a powerfully useful diversity through which, standing on common ground in generative conversations, we can develop truly wise insights and policies to guide our shared lives. The more able we become to be and do THAT, the greater gifts we will bestow upon our children, our communities, our economy, our security, our future generations, and our world.


* SDi proponents stress that each progressive ring of the spiral ideally includes and transcends the previous rings. However, the usual representation of Spiral Dynamics is an ascending spiral that leaves the previous rings behind and below it. Beck and Wilber and their followers defend this with the claim that, yes, each progressive ring is a higher state than the previous one, and that hierarchy is a natural pattern.

I agree that hierarchy is a natural pattern, but only one of hundreds of natural patterns. And if “include-and-transcend” is the basic progression of the SDi rings (“levels” in usual SDi terminology), then presenting the spirals in two dimensions – flat like a rope of clay spiraling around itself to form the bottom of a pot – would be a far more accurate representation. In that representation, early/indigenous societies would not be at the bottom of the model; they would be at the center. And each ring would INCLUDE the rings before it.

This more accurate presentation seems to evoke negative responses from most SDi advocates I’ve suggested it to. They call it “flatland” as if this version is saying that everything is as important as everything else. Which misses the point that it more ACCURATELY represents the ideas. This new version also removes the implicit status-seeking of SDi advocates trying to act as if they are at some high point in the developmental hierarchy – often not really engaging with the challenge to “include” the “lower levels”.

The new representation helps us see all the “colors” of the spiral loops as dimensions of our own complex diverse humanity that we can develop and synergize, individually and collectively. Within THAT frame, SDi ceases to be so useful for elite social control and becomes more a resource for the deeper fulfillment and co-evolution of everyone.

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