Transpartisanship is an emerging concept on the political scene. Those who expound the philosophy do not equate it with bipartisanship, which is based on negotiating between the right and left. Nor is it non-partisanship, which aims to put party politics completely aside to solve problems.
Instead, the transpartisan movement aims for people to retain their existing partisan views and allegiances, and yet be able to move beyond these barriers through open dialog, cooperation, and collaborative decision-making.
Is transpartisanship the better choice to overcome the deep political divides that exist today? Is it really distinct from bipartisanship or nonpartisanship, and if so, is the difference too subtle to even matter? Can we learn an important lesson about our complex political environment by honing in on these distinctions?
Before we look at the differences between bi-, non-, and transpartisanship, let’s first look at their common root: partisanship. Dictionary.com defines partisan as “an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, especially a person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.” Partisanship in politics usually has a negative connotation: loyalty to one’s party above serving the common good. Distancing oneself from overt partisan behavior, or at least claiming to do so, is common political practice.
For many, bipartisanship is the answer. There are two major parties in American politics; this is undeniable. Yet, neither has a clear majority nor the mandate to act on its own to define and move its agenda forward. Proponents of bipartisan solutions maintain that negotiating between Republicans and Democrats is the only way to address the complex issues we face.
Bridging the divide between the right and the left is the goal of a bipartisan approach. Each side must give a little to gain a little. Successful negotiation is dependent on compromise between the two sides. By definition, the bipartisan premise always assumes two sides to any issue.
A nonpartisan approach, on the other hand, is based on putting party politics aside. Instead of looking at what the Democrats and Republicans separately want and then trying to resolve those differences, the starting point is simpler: focus on the problem and find the best solution, without regard for partisan biases. Nonpartisanship involves a denial that distinct viewpoints even exist; they are left at the door.
Nonpartisan is also often used to define the absence of a party affiliation. This may describe an individual, perhaps an independent candidate; or an organization, such as the League of Women Voters.
The focus of transpartisanship, however, is on open dialogue with those on all sides of an issue in order to accomplish results. It is based on the recognition that all viewpoints have validity and can be brought to the table to contribute to a solution.
One of its goals is to understand and accept that to achieve progress, it is necessary to talk with all stakeholders; to move beyond differences to ultimately discover the common ground that underlies many disputes. Diverse viewpoints are not ignored or denied, as a nonpartisan approach would aim to do, but rather folded into the discussion as contributing elements.
In this sense, transpartisanship is more like bipartisanship, yet without the assumption of “two” sides. “Multipartisanship” may be a better way to think of the term. But those who advocate the transpartisan ideal take it one step further. It is largely about the practice of constructive dialogue and interaction to find the common values that exist.
"Trans" is an interesting qualifier when looking at the variety of contexts in which it is used. Its Latin root denotes "across," beyond," or "on the opposite side." Think about terms such as transport, transition, or transform: moving, changing, bridging. Transpartisanship can bring us beyond the constraints of politics-as-usual.
In 2011, Joseph McCormick and Steve Bhaerman co-authored the e-book, Reuniting America: A Toolkit for Changing the Political Game. The authors speak of transpartisan retreats which they have successfully facilitated between liberals, conservatives, even the religious right, to discover elements they have in common.
The early adopters of transpartisanship, the authors say, are natural community builders.
“They create a sense of family or tribe wherever they go,” the authors write.
Forming relationships, curiosity about, and comfort with other people and lifestyles are characteristics of transpartisan people spanning both left and right extremes.Facilitating a transpartisan group, according to McCormick, is like a dance which balances the needs and desires of liberals with conservatives.
“My gauge about whether we’ve danced well is that after the final checkout round nobody wants to leave, they stay engaged, excitedly talking,” McCormick explains.
Coalitions form when negotiating differences. “Bipartisan agreement” on any given issue is typically a fleeting coalition, based on a transaction of individuals who need one another temporarily to find a solution. "Transpartisan coalitions tend to be based on deeper levels of trust and thus have the potential to stay together from one issue to the next," McCormick and Bhaerman maintain.
To-date, organizations devoted to transpartisan practices have maintained a low profile. But they are gaining in public awareness. Coffee Party USA and The Village Square are two groups which focus on bringing people together in open dialogue, and have successfully promoted participation in civic discourse.
The Transpartisan Center has also made important inroads in facilitating dialogues with disparate groups. Their mission is to “help promote the humanization of the political process and the discovery of common ground by bringing conservatives, liberals, libertarians, progressives and non-aligned leaders together in facilitated dialogues, creating the space for innovative and creative solutions to today's challenges.”
Nonpartisanship is a worthy ideal, but there is far too much baggage we bring to the political arena to deny the biases we hold. Bipartisan agreements, with their support of both major parties, also have value. But bipartisanship as well, is not always enough, and not always possible.
Transpartisanship gives us another alternative, another tool to fight gridlock. The three together -- trans-, bi-, and non-partisanship -- can comprise a powerful arsenal. We need each of these approaches to bolster our democracy.