Battling Polarization in Politics: Why Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Ralph Nader and the Tea Party Are Working Together

Posted by on October 24, 2014 at 7:53 PM

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where trans-everything is popular, a new political movement is taking form: transpartisanship.

From Van Jones, Ralph Nader, and Joan Blades on the left, to Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and George Shultz on the right, advocates from both sides of the political divide are gathering in the bay area, exploring ways to combine forces and break the polarization and demonization that gridlocks the political process.

Joan Blades, the Oakland-based progressive who co-founded, recently teamed with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, to convene 30 experts from across party boundaries to build a common agenda for criminal justice reform. 

Separately, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich joined together in a similar process to develop solutions to the same issue.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Norquist launched an effort to combat what Nader calls "corporate welfare" and Norquist calls "crony capitalism" -- the intertwining of government and corporate interests that can corrupt public policy. Meanwhile, Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler has joined with Blades in a series of Living Room Conversations that bring together tea party conservatives, Ron Paul libertarians and MoveOn progressives.

To combat climate change, former Secretary of State George Shultz partnered with hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer to lead the campaign to implement California's carbon cap and trade system.

Future 500, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that forges alliances between conservatives, progressives, corporations, and activists, is an informal clearinghouse that helps these erstwhile adversaries find one another, and meet on common ground.

What draws them together in part is revulsion at today's bitter partisan division -- and the sneaking suspicion that the political and culture wars are being exploited to benefit powerful vested interests.

A common premise is that both major parties have grown dependent on the super-sized vested interests of a prior era, like big corporations, big government, big unions, and big professional lobbies. Leaders from both the left and right are recruited regularly to stand with these entrenched interest groups, in opposition to smaller and more nimble innovators that have the potential to disrupt them.

These vested interests are a valuable source of money and power for causes on both the left and right. But their support often comes with long strings attached. Over time, progressive and conservative groups find themselves increasingly tangled up in those strings, unable to advance important changes that might disrupt the status quo. 

Progressives may rail against big corporations, while conservatives condemn big government, but their common concern is "big" -- concentrated power in any form. In theory, big government regulates big business. But in practice, the two are often tightly interwoven. They grow big together, and as they do, they take power not so much from each other, but from people and communities at the local level.  

Being a "transpartisan" doesn't mean giving up on conservative, libertarian, or progressive ideals. It means seeking to integrate them. Norquist and Gingrich still call themselves conservatives, and Nader and Blades remain committed progressives. But instead of battling each of ideological antichrists, they are working to bring them together.

On fact, few transpartisans call themselves moderates or centrists. Many are passionate progressives, libertarians, or conservatives. In working together, their objective is not to compromise but to integrate. They aim to integrate their aims -- to figure out how their core principles can complement one another.

The answer isn't to destroy the big institutions they traditionally rail about -- big government or corporations. Instead, they aim to break them open, fracture their impermeable shells, loosen their hold on power, and allow change to enter into them. By disrupting outdated practices, many transpartisans believe that old institutions can evolve to serve a more digital, innovative, adaptive, and potentially sustainable culture.  

The right tends to champion individual freedom, personal responsibility, and economic prosperity. The left tends to champion social justice, community values, and environmental sustainability. Sometimes these principles are at odds. Political parties and vested interests are skilled at exploiting those conflicts, to keep the Left and the Right from joining forces.

The politics of gridlock treat these principles like they are inherently in conflict. Often, their core principles are compatible, if not inseparable. Healthy communities and strong individuals, a healthy environment and a robust economy, hard work and creative freedom, a regard for the sacred and an appreciation of material reality -- all these opposites are designed to attract, not repel.  

Maybe that's why transpartisans tend to come in pairs.