Living Room Conversation on a Transpartisan Journey
by Lynne Twist & A. Lawrence Chickering
Originally published in The Transpartisan Review, Issue #2
On May 22, 2017, Lynne Twist and Lawry Chickering co-hosted a ‘Living Room Conversation’ at Lynne’s home in San Francisco. Created in 2010, Living Room Conversations is based on the conviction that, when we have authentic, respectful conversations, we strengthen our relationships and advance our understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and solutions before us.
The ‘liberals’ who participated in the conversation were Lynne, her husband Bill, and Jan D’Alessandro. The ‘conservatives’ were Lawry, Stewart Emery, and his wife, Joan. Lynne selected the participants and, with Lawry’s gratitude, generously did all the advance preparation. The dialogue was not recorded. This report is based on notes circulated later. None of the participants had participated previously in a Living Room Conversation.
WHO ARE WE?
Lynne Twist began by expressing her deep distress and concern about the widespread polarization and conflict in the country, especially following President Trump’s election. She said she hoped that this Living Room Conversation might provide significant clues about how to bring people together and find solutions to problems that seem insoluble.
The participants started by introducing themselves. Lawry Chickering noted that, although he is listed as a ‘conservative’ and has conservative credentials, he has not identified himself that way since he started working for the conservative icon, William F. Buckley, Jr., at the end of the 1960s. Since then, he has considered himself a ‘transpartisan’, who is committed to integrating the best of both left and right.
Lawry made this intellectual shift after he met a group of black radical intellectuals in New York soon after joining Buckley. They persuaded him that their ideas about race and about the poor were much more like those of conservatives at National Review than of the mainstream left-liberal culture. Lawry organized a day-long meeting bringing the two groups together—which, viewed in retrospect, resembled an enlarged Living Room Conversation, in which the two sides embraced important common values. They opposed the narrative that still dominates the race issue today that blacks are ‘victims’ denied success by white racism. They agreed that this view disempowers anyone it touches, taking power from them and giving it to their enemies.
Rejecting the claim that blacks are victims led to agreement that empowerment rather than equality should be the central objective for policy on all ‘disadvantaged’. While equality is not possible (because everyone cannot be above or precisely average), many real experiences show that everyone can become empowered, including even the most disadvantaged, such as girls in very traditional parts of developing countries. Lawry said his entire professional life had been defined by the insights gained in bringing the two sides together at the workshop, during that time of great polarization and conflict.
Stewart Emery, an immigrant from Australia, shared a little of his personal story. When he landed in San Francisco in 1971 for what he expected to be a short visit, Australia was under the thumb of the most destructive elements of the British Labor Movement and the marginal tax rate was 75% (it currently stands at 45%). He quickly discovered that, in America, stronger incentives existed for pursuing individual and societal development. Because excellence is one of Stewart’s core values, he chose to stay. He then became actively involved in the human potential movement.
While he recognizes that there are people and classes of people who are or have been victims, he holds that continually relating to them only as victims creates entitlement, which ultimately becomes destructive.
He and his wife, Joan, strongly believe that empowering people to take effective action on their own behalf results in the greatest individual and social good. He also believes that the role of government should be to support equal opportunity for its citizens, rather than attempt to regulate for equality of outcomes. He views himself as a social progressive and a financial conservative, and in this sense he sees himself as a centrist politically.
Joan Emery told her own story about growing up an entitled young girl who was unhappy and felt small and like a victim as a result of expecting more from her parents than they were willing to give her. When she got a job in the film industry, things began to change. She loved her job so much that she arrived early, left late, worked hard, learned everything she could about her job, and began to experience her self-esteem grow.
She discovered that the more she accomplished, the better she felt about herself and the more whole she felt as a person.
In 1975, after taking Stewart’s course, Actualizations, her pivotal moment came when she realized that we are all responsible for our lives, happiness, and self-esteem—she realized that no one can give those to you. Being accountable as a young adult allowed her the experience of freedom to see she could become more tomorrow than she had been yesterday. Joan said she believed that when people feel entitled, they lose important incentives for personal excellence and contribution. It is hard to feel these powerful motives for living when people believe the system should and will take care of them.
She enjoyed being part of the group conversation as everyone seemed to open up, share their stories, feelings, and thoughts, which added to the success of the evening.
(Joan later emailed and said she realized, looking back, that she is a centrist.)
Bill Twist introduced himself as a business leader and the CEO of the NGO Pachamama Alliance. He said that although he was sympathetic to the values that Stewart and Joan expressed, he did not feel that our society offers much opportunity for the disadvantaged to experience and acquire those values. He said he is committed to extending opportunity to the disadvantaged so there can be a level playing field.
Jan D’Alessandro became an attorney after studying art and literature at Brown as a way of applying practical skills to further the arts. She moved to San Francisco and became a prominent attorney in the emergence of the Internet, holding leadership positions at AOL, Yahoo, and several venture-backed start-ups—working to make the internet a tool for good. She wanted especially for the Internet to encourage collaboration and cooperation between people, making sure that everyone has access to its benefits.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Lynne asked participants to share their visions of hope for the country. She said she worried that President Trump was modeling hostile and aggressive behavior that the country was imitating, and she wondered how we could come through this difficult period without a serious decline in public attitudes and morals.
Lawry proposed another way of looking at President Trump, more as an effect of larger forces than a cause. He said he and his partner, Jim Turner, have written an article on the widespread alienation in the country from the major political parties and the political system. This alienation predated Trump’s presidential campaign. If we compare the number of people who voted for the two major candidates in the recent election to the number who did not vote for either, we find that Trump and Clinton each won fewer than 30 percent of the votes of all those who were eligible to vote, compared to 70 percent who either voted for another candidate or chose not to vote at all.
Many Americans are deeply alienated from politics because the current system is not representing them. Lawry suggested that many of them view Trump’s behavior as a symbolic protest against the system, which protest expresses their anger at politicians and disgust with the system.
WHAT’S A ‘CONSERVATIVE’? A ‘LIBERAL’? A ‘PROGRESSIVE’?
In public, people typically accept partisan political labels as accurate descriptions of real people who hold clear and coherent ideas. When Stewart said he was an ‘economic conservative’ and a ‘social liberal’, he reminded us that the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ do not mean clear or consistent things. On the conservative side, the primary elections provided a strong reminder of the deep conflicts and differences between what Lawry Chickering and Jim Turner call the ‘order-right’ (traditional, especially religious, conservatives) and the ‘freedom-right’ (free market conservatives). Turner notes that even if they are harder to see, the same conflicts are strong on the left between the freedom and order factions.
Failure to observe such differences within the right and within the left makes it impossible to understand either concept. Without understanding the four positions, it is impossible to understand the differences between the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘order’ for progressives and for conservatives. Seeing the differences would reveal that none of these concepts actually conflict; they are complementary and incomplete, each needing integration with the others to be complete.
WE’RE ALL TRANSPARTISANS NOW — OR SHOULD BE.
Bill’s agreement with the conservative values expressed by Stewart and Joan came with a reservation and concern about the disadvantaged: how do personal responsibility and accountability become realistically available choices for the chronically (even generationally) disadvantaged? How to make them available to tribal girls who grow up afraid to speak up in front of boys in rural Pakistan?
Bill’s concern is often expressed by partisans on the order-left (social democratic left) quadrant of the Matrix. The really difficult question needs to focus on experiences, either implemented by governments or by nongovernment organizations, that are successfully promoting these individual values to the disadvantaged.
The best way to become clear about approaches that can succeed where there is so much failure is by examining the real experiences of highly successful programs that are actually achieving results working with ‘difficult populations’. For example:
- The Delancey Street Foundation, the widely- celebrated drug rehabilitation program that began in San Francisco and now has satellite projects in other cities around the country.
- UNICEF’s Girls’ Community Schools around the city of Asyut in Upper Egypt, the epicenter of Islamic terrorism in Egypt.
- The All Stars Project in New York City helps transform the lives of youth and poor communities using the developmental power of performance. Founded by Dr. Lenora Fulani, a ‘radical’ who at one time was in a partnership with conservative Pat Buchanan, she is now closely associated with Jacqueline Salit and her Committee for a Unified Independent Party.
- James Dierke’s pathbreaking work at the inner-city Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco resulted, in part, from his introduction of transcendental meditation into VVMC. He demonstrated that innovative and entrepreneurial action can occur inside government institutions. He won an award as the outstanding principal in a middle school first in California, and the next year in the entire country. Dierke was Executive Vice President of the National Association of School Administrators.
- Educate Girls Globally, founded by Lawry Chickering, promotes reform of government schools in the most traditional parts of rural India, promoting empowerment of traditional people, including girls, and effects change in culture in traditional communities and in government bureaucracies.
A key to understanding why such undertakings have been successful is that they embody values and principles that cannot easily be built in to government programs. In each of these examples, for example, programs are organized around ‘conservative’ values like personal responsibility and development of personal relationships among those helping, those being helped, and even those who aren’t affected directly. Moreover, all are based in local communities and draw on their strengths.
In each program, all stakeholders gain genuine ‘ownership’ of the work. One important result is high social trust and (therefore) little opposition or conflict. Finally, in each program change is natural and ‘organic,’ arising from within rather than being imposed mechanically from without. It is gradual, slow, and accommodating of different needs, concerns, capacities, and priorities. One size does not have to fit all, because decision-making authority is close to the ground, accessible, and responsive to the need for flexibility.
Since a couple of these success stories are operating in government programs, there is no reason to believe that models such as these cannot be successfully designed and implemented in government institutions. Educate Girls Globally has been actively experimenting with transferring its model to the state ministry of education in Northern India, and the chief education officer in one district was so impressed by the empowerment of girls in EGG’s Girls’ Parliaments that he announced he wants the program in every school in the district at all levels—primary, upper-primary, and secondary. More than that, he wants EGG to train the ministry staff to implement it. Given problems with the scale and details with his request, EGG is negotiating with him about the design of a project. The important point is that a government is showing active interest in integrating EGG’s program with its institutional structure, and EGG is organizing itself FOR other, potentially larger requests going forward.
If change is to be accomplished at really large scales, governments will have to become actively involved and embrace programs such as this. When program models combine the values of all four quadrants, as EGG does—a vision of justice (order- left), voluntary action (freedom-right and freedom- left), and personal engagement (order-right) across loyalties, the results are extremely positive, and opposition and conflict disappear.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
At the beginning of our conversation, everyone resisted being labeled politically. When people are labeled, they tend to listen only to their own ‘tribe’ and shut everyone else out. They see other values always in conflict and miss how they might be complementary. Conversations like this work best when people see past conflicts that go nowhere and imagine how their commitments can be adapted and integrated with others’ commitments.
The exercise of examining programs that are working with very difficult populations is valuable because the programs reveal multiple quadrants interacting. They show how much people share common values. One way to approach a conversation hoping it might become transpartisan is to pick an issue and then choose a program that is successfully addressing it. Then search for each of the four quadrants in it (the changes are very good that they are all there). Most such programs are run by civil society organizations (CSOs).
Finally, think of how the model driving this program might be transferred to a government.
All of the participants in this exercise agreed the conversation was robust, vivid, and strongly in the spirit of Living Room Conversations. It was almost giddily unsettling to discover how easy we found it to discuss issues and questions that were important to us but that people often tend to suppress in public out of fear of provoking negative emotional reactions. When anyone in the group can identify the positive role of each quadrant, everyone will feel heard; and there will be no conflict.
Jan’s subsequent reflection on our experience summed up the experience for all of us: ‘My big take-away from the conversation,’ she said, ‘was that we are all transpartisans. When people speak from their own experience and from their principled convictions, it is hard to dismiss their opinions and positions as the result of ignorance, obtuseness, or perversity.’
To imagine a new political environment that would encourage deliberations like this one would require several things. First, it would require that political leaders take leadership and explain changes so they did not stimulate opposition and subversion. Second, it would require renouncing political promises that solutions are possible through centralized, mechanistic action. It will require that conservatives and progressives work together to integrate important elements of their visions to achieve success where there has (in the past) been so much failure. Most importantly, it would require understanding and a commitment to a process of civic engagement that will bring people together who are now largely isolated from each other.
Progressives need to give up promises of centralized, bureaucratic solutions that can be imposed on people. And conservatives need to open themselves to using their commitment to engagement with those ‘close by’ in relationships reaching ‘across loyalties’ and engaging with people based on their common humanity.
We hope that the excellent beginning represented by this Living Room Conversation can be built on, expanded, and applied to specific issues.
This piece was originally published in Issue #2 of The Transpartisan Review alongside several articles exploring how broad ideas and social forces are shaping our political institutions and our choice of leaders, including President Donald Trump.
This issue also contains a more detailed introspection of how we, and our colleagues & contributors, see the forces behind the daily events we write about each week.
Read or Download: Transpartisan Review, Issue #2