Partisanship vs. Partnership

Avoid ConflictThe Adaptive Action Survey this week asked respondents to consider the current scenario in US politics, as Congress struggles with policies and decisions--fiscal and otherwise--that seem stuck along partisan lines. As we look at evidence that our Congress is stuck, we asked three questions:

  1. What do you believe is the reason the US political system is “stuck” and unable to move toward effective decision making?
  2. What would you name as the largest barrier to Congress’s ability to make a decision about the looming fiscal issues?
  3. What one piece of advice would you give members of Congress this week to get them unstuck?


Survey responders described patterns they saw as resulting from the two-party system and from partisan commitments to special interests, constituencies, and individual bids for re-election. In describing the largest barrier, the major themes focused on single interest and/or self-interest and the tyranny of a two-party system. Congress can’t move forward when the differences so polarize individual and party positions.

So What?

So how can we move from partisan bickering to form partnerships that reach across vast differences? How do we shape patterns of partnership?

We have to see that partisanship and partnership name patterns that emerge when people interact. In the complex system that is our national culture, as either pattern becomes stronger, it reinforces and amplifies other similar patterns in the environment.

Patterns of partisanship emerge when people or groups  

  • take action that is informed by similar ideas of competition and self-preservation,
  • pay attention to differences that are exaggerated or unfounded, and
  • establish connections that distort reality and confuse understanding to increase fear.

Examples of partisanship exist on both sides of the political questions in Congress this week. Conservatives and liberals have built camps around their respective ideas about winning and being right. Both sides pay attention to and exaggerate differences to garner support. Dueling news stories and sound bites serve to share their different views of reality. These partisan patterns reinforce competition and “us vs. them” thinking. They encourage high levels of compliance and similarity, and use fear to bring people together to common action.

Patterns of partnership, on the other hand, emerge when people or groups

  • hold similar hopes for a shared future,
  • consider how differences enrich and inform complementary action, and
  • establish connections that are authentic and transparent.

Healthy partnerships bring people together in authentic and productive ways around common issues. Partners share gifts and talents to build connections and meaning for the group. In a partnership, people are not asked to surrender or ignore their core values or identity. Partners do not “co-opt” each other for personal gain or advantage; nor do they step away from the challenge of working across differences to resolve issues.

If we understand partisanship and partnership as emergent patterns, we can learn to shape patterns to build healthy partnerships. If we want to shift a pattern, we can change any one of the variables—similarities, differences, or connections—to change the conditions in the system.

In Congress, can we shift from conversations about individual and group special interests to talk about our nationally shared hopes for the future that go beyond differences? How can members of Congress engage each other’s differences to enrich their complementary action? Can they establish connections that are authentic and transparent?

Now What?

Respondents to the survey provided interesting and powerful suggestions about possible options for action. Three themes emerged:

  • Consider the future of the whole country rather than individual or group self-interests. Across the country, partnerships in decision making require that we step beyond self-interest to consider larger impacts of decisions (or lack of decisions) that threaten the country’s stability.
  • Start a dialogue in which a diversity of perspectives and worldviews are explored to move forward. The discourse across the country must embrace a diversity of perspectives. We have to move beyond separate pockets of conversation that throw barbs, blame, and innuendo at each other across the differences that divide them.
  • Make real contact, keep on asking and listen carefully. The dialogue must be authentic and inclusive, respectful of the differences that make it rich. 

In Adaptive Action, this Now What? brings us to questions of action. What can we do as individuals to change the national, political discourse from partisanship to partnership? What can we do to change our own discourse, to set the seeds of partnership in our own local organizations, neighborhoods, and communities? What can we show to Congress as examples of the patterns that will get us unstuck as a nation and down the road to real social, fiscal, and political recovery?

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