Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Opinion Writer

The promise of transpartisanship

On Tuesday, Americans will tune in to watch President Obama’s fifth State of the Union Address. The annual ritual, with its pomp and circumstance, has become an almost grotesque visual of a gridlocked Washington. The president’s party will cheer. The opposition will jeer. A Supreme Court justice might sneer. Since President Obama took office, the partisan rancor has only intensified, reaching its ugliest point in 2009, when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted at the president, “You lie!”

Things have gotten so distasteful that some members have taken to symbolic gestures, including crossing the aisle to sit together or wearing orange lapel pins as part of the bipartisan so-called “Problem Solvers Caucus,” sponsored by the nonprofit group No Labels.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.

Archive

Gallery

But if lawmakers really want to reassure cynical Americans, whose disdain for Congress is well documented, they could highlight the genuine cooperation among them. This collaboration is happening across a number of issues, but it’s not bipartisanship; it’s “transpartisanship.” Unlike bipartisanship, which often takes two existing viewpoints and, effectively, splits the difference, transpartisanship encourages solutions that can align with many viewpoints.

On critical issues, politicians of all stripes are finding common ground not by discarding their differences but rather by overcoming the ideological and political pressure that would typically prevent them from working together, even on areas of agreement.

Consider how both Republicans and Democrats have come out against the National Security Administration’s Orwellian domestic surveillance program. Two Michigan representatives, tea party Republican Justin Amash and one of the House’s most liberal members, John Conyers Jr., came together to introduce the LIBERT-E Act, which aims to rein in the NSA.

Or look at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — a progressive crusader against Wall Street excess — and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a vocal opponent of the Dodd-Frank banking reforms — who teamed up to introduce a bill, similar to the Glass-Steagall Act, that would separate commercial and investment banking.

It’s hard to imagine stranger Senate bedfellows than David Vitter (R-La.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). But both strongly oppose government bailouts for enormous, “too big to fail” banks. Together, they persuaded the government to study whether big banks get more favorable debt pricing . They also advocate greater capital requirements for banks. And while my Post colleague George F. Will and I rarely agree, we both support the Vitter-Brown effort. Even with slightly different arguments — conservatives oppose government bailouts and liberals fear the corrupting influence of banks — we arrive at the same conclusion.

Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced legislation to help protect medical marijuana users. A broad coalition, from Rep. Barbara Lee of California on the left to Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia on the right, publicly opposed the use of military force in Syria. And another transpartisan coalition may soon defeat President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Even outside the halls of Congress, we’re seeing unlikely alliances. Conservative businessman Ron Unz plans to fund a ballot measure that would raise California’s minimum wage to $12 an hour. And although congressional Republicans rejected a federal minimum wage increase, 58 percent of Americans who identify as Republicans support a higher minimum . Even Bill O’Reilly thinks it’s a good idea!

When citizens and leaders from across the political spectrum come together based on common values or policy goals, they have the potential to build movements for change.

Of course, Vitter and Brown won’t be forming a coalition on reproductive rights anytime soon. Yet rather than sacrifice their beliefs on the altar of bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship, they’ve accomplished more by pursuing their shared beliefs.

At a time of paralyzing political polarization, partisanship has naturally gotten a bad rap. But a reactionary shift toward bipartisanship — toward an anodyne centrism — isn’t the solution. Passion, deftly deployed, is actually an effective political tool with which to advance good ideas. That’s the promise of transpartisanship.

Beyond the red/blue camps on display tonight, there are people who are crossing traditional boundaries and forging alliances for change. If you’re playing a State of the Union drinking game, raise a glass to that.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

 
Read what others are saying