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Issue No. 95 (August 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor
First “transpartisan” political organization prepares for liftoff
Dear Joseph McCormick,
Thank you for inviting me to Reuniting America’s workshop and strategy session at the Parc 55 Hotel in San Francisco last week (August 4).
I was impressed! As you know, I was a participant-observer at the first “Democracy in America” conference, at the Fetzer Institute in 2004, and it was there that we formally launched the process that led to the founding of Reuniting America. In a widely-read article, I expressed a mixture of skepticism and hope that the process would go forward as envisioned.
Well, I am here to report that Reuniting America has moved forward faster than anyone thought possible.
Today, Reuniting America is poised for liftoff -- as the first national organization and aspiring mass movement in many years to support what it calls “transpartisan” processes and policy proposals.
You were the principal driver behind the Democracy in America conference, Joseph, and you are now the proud “co-coordinator” of the Reuniting America organization. I have followed your work since that first conference with mounting interest, and not just out of a sense of obligation.
I was the co-founder and “first staff person” of the New World Alliance (1979-83), the last national organization that tried to do what you’re doing now; and -- harrumph, cough -- I was about your age, thirtysomething, when the Alliance was going on. So your triumphs are extra sweet to me now, and some of the issues you face stir painful memories in me.
Even your personal / political journey -- which you’ve shared at several conferences now -- rings bells for me.
You came to transpartisan politics after your stint as a Republican activist began to feel shallow (and after various personal crises) -- just as I came to what we used to call transformational or third force politics after my time as a New Left activist began to feel shallow (and after various personal crises).
You firmed up your new political perspective in part by traveling around the U.S. in Alexis de Tocqueville’s footsteps and interviewing various experts and public figures along the way. I firmed up my new perspective in part by traveling around the U.S. with an early, Canadian version of my book in tow, and speaking at dozens of conferences and fairs and living rooms, and listening as much as I spoke (the book was later published in the U.S. as New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, 1979).
Reuniting America was seeded during your travels, just as the New World Alliance was seeded during mine.
A blaze of founding meetings
Nothing public took place after your first Democracy in America conference for quite some time, and I was concerned.
But then, in December 2005, there was a second Democracy in America conference, and it turned out to be just as successful as the first, and it involved bigger players. Leaders from groups like the AARP, Christian Coalition, Club for Growth, League of Women Voters, and MoveOn.org all somehow ended up having deeply authentic conversations with one another.
(I shouldn’t say “somehow.” Joining Mark Gerzon as lead facilitator was Bill Ury of Harvard, the Phil Jackson or Pat Riley of mediators. And Ury has since signed on as co-chair of Reuniting America’s Interim National Steering Committee. Great work, Joseph!)
That conference was followed by a “Transpartisan Retreat on Citizen Engagement” last May, featuring an equally star-studded cast of leaders and a focus on designing a political process. Nothing was set in stone, but at least one decision -- to convene Americans across the political spectrum for some sort of convention in the year 2008 -- feels inexorable.
Then there was a “Transpartisan Leadership Retreat” June 4-7 in Colorado, featuring mediated dialogues among over 30 people ranging from former Vice President Al Gore to Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. There were also long walks beside a lake.
It was after these promising events that you arranged for the workshop and strategy session at the Parc 55 Hotel. No wonder you approached it so eagerly and intensely (just as I used to approach our Alliance gatherings, more than a quarter of a century ago).
At Parc 55
The Parc 55 gathering was held during the annual conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), so besides a substantial Reuniting America contingent there were many interested & sophisticated observers from the larger dialogic community.
With over 50 of us sitting in a giant circle, you began by explaining that your leadership engagement processes had been going well, and that now it was time to think about citizen engagement.
How could it be done wisely and efficiently? you asked. Could the “NCDD technology” (i.e., the techniques being developed by the people and groups at the NCDD conference) be married somehow to the sorts of large membership organizations whose reps were attending the Reuniting America retreats?
At that, you switched the spotlight to reps from seven dialogue-oriented groups. Some, such as the men from Center for Wise Democracy and Ashland Constitution Dialogue, told us how they were augmenting participatory democracy in communities. Others, such as the women from Texas Forums and AmericaSpeaks, told how they were augmenting representative democracy by developing innovative ways to bring citizens' views to the attention of decision makers.
During the strategy discussion that followed, some of the passions and concerns in Reuniting America were revealed.
You complained that you weren’t heard at the Republican National Convention in the year 2000, that you felt like a prop. You concluded that you’d been betrayed by the System. Later, though, you asked how a new model of democracy could be introduced without actually opposing the old model.
One person urged us to make use of the Internet to the fullest possible extent. Another person warned that the Internet and our other glamorous media were pulling us apart.
A couple of people urged that singing, dancing, even chanting, should be in our activist’s toolbox. Another person urged that we pay close attention to the shadow side of our life-loving messages.
One person said that personal and political growth needed to proceed together, and wondered if Reuniting America was familiar with the Spiral Dynamics process. Someone assured her that many RA activists were already familiar with -- and comfortable with -- Spiral Dynamics or its equivalents.
Toward the end, you told us that if there’s one thing you learned from Newt Gingrich, it was his capacity to focus. You said you wanted to bring focus to the Reuniting America project ASAP, because without it we’ll go nowhere.
So you’re off to write a plan for the organization. A business plan, even. A plan that will lay out a lift-off strategy in clear detail.
Ten key issues
Having sat intently through two Reuniting America gatherings now, I’d like to share with you my thoughts about some big issues you'll be facing -- or should be facing -- as you write your plan:
1. Acknowledge and learn from the past!
I get the distinct impression that your organization feels it’s inventing the “transpartisan” movement out of whole cloth. Joseph, nothing could be further from the truth. The 1970s and early 1980s, in particular, were awash in groups and movements that you might have called transpartisan.
On the process side, Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) and World Future Society (WFS) led the way, and many in those groups oriented their humanistic and inclusive processes to political dialogue.
On the policy side, the New World Alliance was not the only group that sought to translate healing processes and a beyond-left-and-right approach to politics into holistic public policies (though it did so marvelously in its brochure, see HERE, and in its 98-page magnum opus, “A Transformation Platform: The Dialogue Begins”).
I have no idea what your motives were, and are, for avoiding any mention of this history.
But I do know that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. And since the transformational movement of the 1970s and early 1980s failed to reach its most ambitious goals, surely it behooves you to ask why. And to think long and hard about the answers.
2. Define “transpartisanship” broadly and inclusively!
Given this rich history, Joseph, I had to laugh when I read the definition of “transpartisanship” on your website. It speaks of it as if it were some budding and delicate new invention:
I can’t believe you wrote that, it sounds so pompous and pinched. Worse, it sounds like whomever wrote that is planning on claiming the concept for himself (or herself) and their closest allies. I hope I’ve said enough under #1 above to convince you that the concept has been alive and kicking under various names since at least the 1970s.
And with regard to Gene Sharp, Gene had an office at Harvard in the fall and winter of 1978-79, and I was in Cambridge working on the U.S. edition of my book at that time; and Gene and I had several wonderful conversations; and I can assure you that Gene had already arrived at what you mean by transpartisanship at that time, as had many of the other writers whose work I relied on in my book. Here’s how I synthesized their views in the U.S. edition (1979):
It is, of course, your “right” to pretend that you and your allies are inventing this approach to politics. There is no trademark on it. But what is the point? And how much integrity do you think you’ll project to anyone with a historical memory?
3. Don’t privilege direct democracy over representative democracy!
You are enamored of the participatory aspects of Tocqueville’s vision. But you seem to have forgotten the other half of his vision -- his fear of the “tyranny” or “omnipotence” of the majority (see, e.g., Vol. I, Chap. 15 of Democracy in America). If you approach Tocqueville holistically, his views are more compatible with representative than with direct democracy.
That is not merely an abstract point. Your conferences have been full of paeans to engaging citizens much more thoroughly in decision-making processes. But I suspect most Americans do not want to attend more meetings than they already do. (Over the last year, I’ve lived in a very upper-middle-class part of Washington DC and a very poor part of Oakland CA, and I can say with certainty that the last thing most of my busy neighbors in either place wanted to do was shoulder more of the burden of governing.)
Moreover, I suspect few Americans want to give more political influence to the kinds of people who have the time to attend more meetings.
Over 510,000 Americans hold office in the U.S. today; over a million elections are held every four years. While it is important that we develop better ways for citizens to dialogue with decision-makers (if they care to), I wonder if Reuniting America might be even more relevant to the real world if it concentrated not on inventing a new kind of democracy, but on improving the democracy we have now -- by spearheading the push for uniform and trustworthy voting equipment, instant runoff voting (would require candidates to appeal beyond their partisan bases), proportional representation (as an alternative to winner-take-all elections), direct election of the president, free media time for qualified candidates, 20-year judicial term limits, etc.
Where is the organization that’s taking all that on as one holistic and interconnected enterprise?
4. Put as much thought into substance as process!
At the first Democracy in America conference, our vision was to identify, develop, and promote transpartisan public policies, not just better political processes; and I know that vision has been seconded at every subsequent gathering.
But so far there seems to be little progress in that regard. As of today, the Reuniting America website is bare of policy suggestions. Even the page defining “transpartisan” concentrates entirely on processes and procedures; there is not one example given of a desirable public policy in any field.
If transpartisan policy proposals were few and far between, that absence might be understandable. But as anyone knows who’s been reading Radical Middle Online Newsletter for the last seven years, just below the national radar screen there’s been a flowering of pragmatic and innovative policy proposals that borrow from all sides of the national political debate.
The New America Foundation website is another relevant “site” to behold. And at least four recent books, all from major publishers, synthesize dozens of clearly transpartisan policy proposals: Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s The Radical Center (2001), Matthew Miller’s The Two Percent Solution (2003), Ted Halstead’s anthology The Real State of the Union (2004), and my own Radical Middle, winner of the “2004 Outstanding Book Award” from a section of the American Political Science Association.
At this point, Joseph, two years into its founding, it no longer suggests due diligence for Reuniting America to fail to even alert its viewers to these sorts of materials. It suggests a distance from -- even a wariness toward -- policy analysts who might not be an immediate part of your world. It suggests the existence of a clique, rather than the open-minded, open-hearted organization we envisioned back in 2004.
Surely you don’t want to convey that impression.
5. Broaden your Steering Committee to include centrists and independents ASAP!
At the first Democracy in America conference we signed a document called “We the People” committing ourselves “to foster dialogues across the many divides in America.”
As you well know, Joseph, most of us assumed that that meant that the left, the center, and the right would all be represented in the new organization, and in approximately equal numbers (many of us even suggested that the first national meeting should consist of approx. 33% from each group).
However, when the Interim National Steering Committee was announced last May, its 15 members -- apart from staff (two co-coordinators, two facilitator co-chairs, and your life partner, representing Democracy in America) -- consisted of five people from the left, and five from the right!
All 10 are surely competent people. And several are quite prominent, definite coups for you and the organization: on the left, the president of Common Cause and a co-founder of MoveOn.org; on the right, the president of the Christian Coalition, and conservative activists Grover Norquist and Bob Barr.
But where are the centrists (either radical centrists or plain old vanilla centrists)? Where are the independents?
Some of the 10 might prefer to think of themselves as centrists or independents, but no one who’s followed their work over the years could reasonably share in that assessment.
If you want Reuniting America to become an organization where committed lefties and largely libertarian righties reach common ground on issues like Iraq (out!) and abortion (freedom of choice!), and then rush out to promote those views as “transpartisan” -- well, go for it.
But please, don't proclaim that Reuniting America represents “We the People,” and then fail to include centrist, radical-centrist, or genuinely independent voices on the Steering Committee!
Please add five such voices to the Steering Committee ASAP -- or practice a little truth in advertising.
5a. Invite more of America into your inner councils!
I have been in several social change groups over the years where the leaders were so used to others “like themselves” that they didn’t even realize what a small segment of society they represented. But Reuniting America may be the best example of that I’ve ever seen.
Just look at your National Steering Committee (Interim) and National Advisors. As of today, 46 people are listed, and nearly every one of them identifies themselves as being from the third (nonprofit) sector.
Three are from academia (technically nonprofit), two are from alternative media (New Dimensions Radio and Utne Magazine), and one is CEO of “BrainTrain LLC,” which is described on the Web as “a business specializing in marketing and communicating political ideas and projects." That’s your entire gray area! Everyone else represents what are unarguably nonprofits.
Just consider what that leaves out . . . even if you’re only focusing on leaders:
Joseph, if you really want to speak for “We the People,” or even some significant fragment of them, then you’ve got to get a greater variety of leaders into the inner councils of your organization ASAP . . . even if some members of your Steering Committee might not enjoy dealing with them. Comfort can't be the priority here.
6. Remember that other Steering Committee members’ agendas will differ from yours!
In the New World Alliance, we tended to express ourselves in saccharin, all-is-well, “New Age” language. As a result, it often wasn’t clear when staff and Governing Council were in alignment. (To cite one egregious example, for one half-year the Council’s Fund-Raising Committee failed to even try to raise money for staff salaries, but did try raising money for its own members’ project proposal.)
It is human nature I’m talking about. And as your hero, Tocqueville, well knew, human beings are often consciously or subconsciously self-seeking even when they appear to be acting on behalf of a larger community or organization.
I know enough about the 10 non-staff members of your Interim National Steering Committee to know that some of their political plans and dreams are not perfectly aligned with those of Reuniting America as I (and probably you) understand it. They have their own agendas.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how people are. But in the New World Alliance, I alternately forgot and resented it -- a fatal combination. Don’t let yourself do the same.
7. Don’t retreat into some glorified personal-political ghetto!
Listening to you talk about how you felt used at the Republican National Convention, I was deeply moved. And listening to you quote Bucky Fuller, to the effect that we can never truly change things merely by fixing the existing reality, I was reminded of myself 30 years ago.
At the same time, though, I heard an anger and an alienation in your voice that I hope you will tame. Because they are not appropriate to our situation in the year 2006.
It is not true that our democratic system is irretrievably broken. It is not true that our political institutions give the back of the hand to every good person that tries to participate in them.
If Reuniting America calls a national convention for 2008 based on assumptions like those, I don’t think it’s going to unite many people beyond the ranks of radical decentralists, “antiglobalists,” libertarians, and wealthy leftists.
If you want to hold a national convention during a presidential election year, it should not radiate one-down-ness and powerlessness! Instead, it should try to make itself relevant to the actual political life of the nation.
It could, for example, formally launch a movement to both renew our democratic system (fix the voting equipment, introduce instant runoff voting, etc.) and help thousands of dialogue- and policy-oriented “transpartisans” run for public office.
How much longer must the American people wait before someone finally creates a savvy political organization that takes on those interconnected tasks?
I thought that someone would be you, Joseph. (And I still have high hopes.)
8. Beware of the “funding high”!
In the Mississippi civil rights movement of the 1960s, we used to tell ourselves to beware of the “freedom high” -- the feeling we’d get living in SNCC’s Freedom Houses and working with courageous peers from all over the country that everything was possible and that the local people wanted all the wonderful things we wanted.
I have noticed a sort of equivalent today, which I call the “funding high.” It descends upon groups and (ahem) leaders of groups that have suddenly been given big bucks by prestigious foundations like Fetzer Institute -- as Reuniting America was for its last major conferences -- and by wealthy individuals from visionary constellations like the Social Venture Network (formerly known as the Dough-nuts), several of whom have been participants at your conferences.
Like the freedom high, the funding high produces the feeling that the idealistic things you most want and your New Rich Friends most want are the same things the American people most want.
Thus, for example, you may want a much more decentralist democracy, while the American people may simply (even desperately) want their current representative democracy to be renewed. Or you may want to hold a conference condemning The System during the 2008 election year, while the American people may simply (even desperately) want to help people with integrity compete for the hundreds of thousands of electoral offices that will be up that year.
Please think about that.
9. Create clear standards for participation in -- and exclusion from -- Reuniting America!
In Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s (sorry to throw that decade at you once more!), we laughed at the tired Old Left’s notion that tiny little groups of Trotskyists or Maoists or Progressive Labor supporters or whomever could do our mighty, burgeoning SDS any harm. If you know your history, you know who had the last laugh (see especially Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties, 1987, or Kirkpatrick Sale’s sds, 1973).
That’s why it caused me great concern, Joseph, when one of the seven people you’d invited to speak at the Parc 55 gathering mentioned that her group is affiliated with the Committee for a Unified Independent Party (CUIP), websites HERE and HERE.
CUIP is the latest of the groups and parties created over the years by Lenora Fulani, Fred Newman, and their allies, who have been denounced by investigative reporters for four decades now as manipulative, deceptive, and even cult-like (see, e.g., Adam Reilly, “ChIP off the Old Block,” The Boston Phoenix, January 27, 2004, and note the references he cites in the 14th paragraph down).
Your speaker was not just passingly familiar with Fulani and Newman, Joseph; she’s been associated with them since the 1970s, and she was one of Fulani’s vice-presidential running mates when Fulani ran for president on the New Alliance Party ticket in 1988.
And at your Transpartisan Retreat on Citizen Engagement, you hosted as one of your 27 invited participants the director of Unified Independents of Illinois -- another group affiliated with the CUIP.
I do not wish to pass judgment on CUIP or Fulani / Newman here. So let me put the issue this way. You will avoid a firestorm in the future if you immediately make it crystal clear what your criteria are for inclusion in -- and exclusion from -- Reuniting America. And if you enforce those criteria with integrity.
10. Dare to lead!
You do seem willing and eager to lead Reuniting America, Joseph, even if you want people to call you merely the “co-coordinator.” But one last thought.
The biggest mistake I made in the New World Alliance was ceding too much of my power -- in fact, all my formal power -- to a Governing Council that did not ultimately share my vision for the organization (creating a national membership organization along the lines of the Moral Majority).
I was prompted to cede my power not only by my guileless, self-sacrificing, serve-the-people attitude -- Spiral Dynamics would call it a “false green” attitude -- but by the prevailing movement philosophy of my generation, which was that power, leadership, and hierarchy are not to be trusted.
You, fortunately, are of a different generation, and I sense you are less of a wishful, starry-eyed person than I was at your age.
But be careful.
Sincerely, -- Mark Satin
Reuniting America Steering Committee members and advisors are by no means novices -- they've already launched a number of complementary radical-middle quasi-political organizations. Among them: Campaign for Better Health (Ana Micka), Conversation Cafes (Vicki Robin & Susan Partnow), Educate Girls Globally (Lawry Chickering), Global Citizen Journey (Susan Partnow), Liberty Coalition (Michael Ostrolenk), and National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy (James S. Turner).
For Reuniting America's point-by-point response to this article, click HERE.
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