Daring to accept our differences
The following is part of a series of articles on reimagining politics beyond the pundits. For more, read Post-Pundit America , Liberals Aren’t Un-American. Conservatives Aren’t Ignorant. , and Not Everyone Is Out to Get You .
Michael Ostrolenk, a licensed psychotherapist and unabashed “center-right” conservative, is not shy about critically evaluating the Bush administration, which he believes left America “with a mess,” or President Obama, who he fears is “too much like Bush,” especially when it comes to foreign policy and civil rights issues. He’s also an artful conversationalist: impeccably civil, intellectually rigorous, and refreshingly forthright.
Trading strong opinions with him, one begins to believe that it might be possible for people on all points of the political spectrum to find common ground, or at least learn to cross partisan lines without feeling the need to flash party colors.
Ostrolenk is the cofounder and national director of the Liberty Coalition, an ideologically diverse group working to protect privacy and human autonomy, and the president of the Transpartisan Center, which hosts facilitated dialogues in an attempt to turn “nonaligned” leaders into partners for change.
Transpartisanship, billed as a more pragmatic goal than nonpartisanship, is a relatively new school of political thought. Participants in the movement, like Ostrolenk, abhor shallow shouting matches and sound bites, preferring instead to encourage conflict resolution. Utne Reader sat down with Ostrolenk to talk about turning conflict into an intellectual resource.
The organizations you’re involved with consistently define themselves as “transpartisan.” What does that mean?
The “trans” means to go through and beyond. That’s not to suggest people will abandon their partisan worldviews—even if they can or want to—but that they’re willing to recognize that people legitimately have different worldviews, and that there might be a way to make these worldviews fit together to create forward motion. And even if that doesn’t happen—if there’s still some conflict—the fact that you’re willing to come together and have a conversation might allow for some common ground down the road. It humanizes the political process, making it less about character attacks and more of a discussion around issues. Transpartisanship is not about avoiding conflict, it’s about using conflict to promote new ways of thinking.
How do you set the table for this type of dialogue?
There are two main ways to operate in the transpartisan space. In some cases you focus on the participants’ take on a particular issue; other times you focus on values.
What happens in a values-based discussion?
Well, for example, I cofounded and run Liberty Coalition, which is made up of about 80 groups—conservative, libertarian, progressive, and liberal—who’ve all come together to help protect our civil liberties, whether it’s assaults on the Fourth Amendment like the Patriot Act or assaults on the First Amendment in the form of other edicts and laws. Organizations from MoveOn.org to Americans for Tax Reform to the Competitive Enterprise Institute simply put aside their many differences in the name of protecting the Constitution. That meant we could work to form consensus on issues such as domestic spying and medical privacy.
What if it’s not possible to form consensus around a set of values?
The other way to bring people together is around a particular issue. For example, there was an effort to mandate the use of the HPV [human papillomavirus] vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer. A left-right coalition formed to oppose the effort.
On one end of the spectrum were religious conservatives whose worldview was that by mandating this vaccine you would implicitly and inappropriately send a message to young girls that it’s safer to engage in premarital sex. Libertarians believed that the government shouldn’t be coercing anyone, children or adults, into taking anything. Center-left folks were arguing that the move was a form of corporate welfare, because there was one company promoting this particular vaccine. And consumer groups were concerned about the medical consequences.
There was no need to convince everyone of everyone else’s reasoning. You just had a single issue on the table that a number of folks agreed to team up against.
It seems like we take political differences much more personally than we did 20 years ago. They’ve become what defines us. Why might that be?
I think part of it is that the United States, a lot of Western Europe, and a few Asian countries are going through a transition from an industrial to postindustrial world. The role we play in that arena is challenging and unpredictable.
For instance, many of our institutions—medical, educational, agricultural, you name it—are falling apart. When these types of things start to happen, human beings have a tendency to go tribal, to surround themselves with like-minded people. It’s pretty scary to be in the midst of a systems collapse.
But I think it’s a transitional thing. Taking the 30,000-foot point of view, I’d suggest that we’re also creating new institutions that are more sustainable and appropriate to human beings at this time in our existence. I believe we can get through this like we get through everything else.
What gives you that confidence?
Over the last several years, I’ve participated in a number of transpartisan coalitions, both on foreign policy and domestic policy. There are so many influential people who are saying, “We need to think about these things differently and we need to be able to come together.” There’s kind of a new gestalt with a lot of the people I’m coming in contact with.
What needs to happen on our front stoops and in our coffee shops to encourage transpartisanship?
To begin with, read everything and anything. You might learn something different from what you know in terms of your own worldview. You’ll also get a feel for how other people think.
Also, try not to invest yourself in every conversation the same way. Sometimes it’s OK not to share your views and just listen or ask a lot of questions. Not like, “Why do you hate Gore?” or “Why do you love labor unions?” but personal stories and seemingly tangential stuff. This will also help the other person drop their defenses, which, ultimately, can lead to a deeper connection. Suddenly, instead of trading opposing worldviews you’re in a real live dialogue, where new kinds of questions begin to emerge. It can be very exciting.
That sort of approach can also set up a great debate. Not the sort of thing we see on the Sunday morning talk shows, but a real search for solutions.
It’s amazing. You actually learn something. I try not to watch too many of these Sunday talk shows, which I just find really annoying and misinformed. But when you actually have a debate with a very bright person who is willing to engage in a dialogue, you can really learn a lot about how other people interpret facts, set priorities, and shape their views.
And there’s always a possibility that you might discover that your worldview is based on incorrect assumptions or unverifiable facts. You might actually end up saying to yourself, “Wow, I never thought of it that way.”