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Whatever happened to our transpartisan future?

House Republicans Meet On Healthcare Bill
Vice President Mike Pence and Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney, seen here as they attempt to resuscitate Trumpcare, are a walking encyclopedia of GOP factions.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

A year ago, a growing movement of advocates and analysts declared that a new model of policy change had the potential to break gridlock and scramble partisan alliances at the federal level, and indeed was already doing so at the state level. Partisan polarization, and the rise of issue-based purity tests for party leaders, had reduced incentives for centrist establishment leaders to reach across the aisle for coalition building. With the parties closely matched, however, the opportunity to build winning cross-party coalitions still existed — and so that opportunity would be seized by outsider factions in both parties, through a form of cross-party organizing that got the wincingly awkward name of transpartisanship.

Community organizers and think tank types alike predicted a transpartisan future in which weakened party establishments would cede initiative to empowered coalitions on a growing range of issues, perhaps leading to broader political realignments or a new golden age of dealmaking, civility, and public engagement.

I was one of those people. My research predicted that factions with less to lose from ideological vetting — that is, more extreme political figures — would be leaders in reaching across party lines, counterintuitive as that might seem. This approach would work best, our project said, on issues that were not ideologically central to existing party coalitions. Thus, for example, transpartisan coalitions functioned effectively at the state and local level to promote criminal justice reform, and to impair centrist-driven education reforms. At the national level, transpartisan partnerships had played a limited but real role in the slowdown of Pentagon spending growth, and seemed to be gathering momentum toward federal criminal justice reform.

Now, three months into the Trump administration, when so much conventional wisdom is being scrambled and both sides are digging in, were we flat wrong?

Americans — not just voters — are more divided over the president than we’ve seen in three decades of polling. Democratic talk of working with Trump on infrastructure died away within days. Republican House leaders made no effort to work with Democrats on health care. Policy areas where transpartisanship flourished in the 114th Congress are withering; one of the chief opponents of a federal criminal justice reform bill that stalled last year is now attorney general. Advocates and elected officials who know they share views across party lines — on issues from banking reform to surveillance — say that they are better off educating their own communities, and not making a public statement of cross-partisanship.

But Hurricane Trump hasn’t changed the underlying conditions that gave rise to transpartisan opportunities — large groups of Americans whose ideologies don’t line up neatly with the ideologies the cores of the two major parties espouse. The demise of the American Health Care Act shows, among other things, how wide the divide on views of fiscal responsibility and the appropriate role of government is within the GOP. Similarly, some Republicans call for congressional restrictions on US military and intelligence operations, while others object that Trump’s proposed military buildup is too small.

Political science tells us that these kinds of divisions should result in party realignments, or even the emergence of new parties. In 2016, conventional wisdom had it that one or both parties were headed for collapse. Trump would seize control of the GOP and force out neoconservatives and internationalists; or, contrarily, the GOP establishment would reassert itself and the Trump faction would start afresh outside. Bernie Sanders supporters would defect in massive numbers to the Green Party, or elsewhere. Or right-wing Dems and neoconservatives would join hands in a new entity.

None of these things happened. Starting a third party in the United States is hard and unrewarding. Independent GOP candidate Evan McMullin launched his campaign on August 8, 2016, and was only able to get on 11 states’ presidential ballots. Few elected officials dream of giving up their party status to be the next McMullin, or of spending 40 years organizing to be Jill Stein, or — in perhaps the best-case scenario — building third parties like New York’s, which gain their influence by endorsing or opposing candidates from the big two.

So all the factions are left to jockey for influence inside their respective parties. At least until the AHCA, GOP officials seemed to see the cost of bucking their new president by building cross-party power as too high. Meanwhile, the Democrats staved off a leadership challenge to Nancy Pelosi, got through a fight for party chair, and filibustered Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch without major fratricide.

Then came health care; Trump and House Speaker Ryan were opposed by both the 30-member Freedom Caucus and more moderate members facing tougher races in 2018. Would-be transpartisans could start counting votes in the various factions — but they will either have to break apart Democratic solidarity or face GOP wrath for aligning with the full D caucus.

How can activists, advocates, and funders decide whether and when transpartisan organizing is worth the investment under these conditions? First, focus on issues and policies that share some or all of these qualities:

Issues that aren’t on either party’s radar. The criminal justice coalition succeeded as long as it did at the federal level because crime had ceased to be a top-tier political issue, and thus was not one worth enforcing orthodoxy over. The more Trump’s wing of the GOP makes it a key rhetorical cornerstone, the narrower the path for progress.

Issues, or frames, that don’t contradict the image of party leaders. In the window between the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the rise of ISIS, budget hawks on the right and anti-militarists on the left were able to make effective common cause to slow Pentagon spending. Once ISIS carnage claimed headlines and a presidential election drew near, both party establishments found ways to work around their own budget hawks and take “strong on defense” postures.

Issues that are central to small but effective organized groups. It’s axiomatic that small groups of engaged voters beat large groups of apathetic voters ten times out of ten. So polling that the Common Core educational standards and their associated testing were accepted and popular across party lines missed a key point: high dissatisfaction among groups on the left and right, whose online organizing cross-pollinated and surprised the bipartisan education establishment.

Consider fruitful spots unlikely partners are already eyeing: The next big agriculture bill, due in 2018; reforms to a surveillance program that expires this year; and bubbling efforts to limit administration war-making authorities with a new Authorization for Use of Military Force, which, after this week’s missile launches against Syria, united senators from Utah’s libertarian Mike Lee to recent vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine with a growing number of Freedom Caucus members and the ranking Democrat on House Foreign Affairs.

These issues might seem to have nothing in common, but they share key elements: organized advocates who care more about them than about partisan politics, longstanding frameworks where cross-party conversations and organizing can take place, and key supporters in influential factions in one or both parties.

Look outside Washington for citizen organizing and charismatic leadership. As early as the GOP’s 2012 election postmortem, we had data that GOP voters were taking their cues not from party leadership but from conservative media figures. What Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush thought about criminal justice, immigration reform, surveillance, or Common Core mattered much less than what Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly thought. Where party leadership and the talking heads disagreed, entrepreneurial activists and elected rushed in. That division stymied centrist bipartisanship on a range of issues from immigration to the Law of the Sea Treaty. On the positive side, 15 years ago it was charismatic left-right leaders who jump-started the US response to global AIDS.

Finally, from the transpartisan tidal wave that crashed over education reform to the slow decades of advocacy and relationship building that brought criminal justice reforms, most of the work to move immovable policies happens at the local level. There’s no evidence that efforts to build bridges and make progress on a wide variety of issues has slowed — and some evidence that Americans’ post-election enthusiasm for civic participation is showing up in this arena as well as in partisan combat. For example, even as the country elected Trump, several criminal justice ballot measures passed at the state level, and seven district attorneys campaigned on reform platforms and won, from Tampa and Chicago to Houston and Corpus Christi.

Reformers at the federal level have talked bravely about continuing on; and at the state level, this is really happening. Red states were the early adopters of reforms, but this year, bills are moving in purple Michigan and Virginia as well as Massachusetts and New York. Texas activists are using legislation to try to close a prison.

In short, Trump’s victory breathed life into both political parties’ infrastructures — and did little to undercut the system that keeps the US a two-party state. But neither did he repeal the essentially entrepreneurial nature of American politics or the reality that elected officials, like nature, abhor a vacuum. The future at the federal level looks like two parties with increasingly formalized and assertive subgroups — Sandersistas, the Freedom Caucus, security hawks, budget hawks, quite likely more. And neither party appears to be making the financial or ideological investments that would freeze freelancing by officials at the state and local levels.

We won’t have the major ideological realignment, or the comprehensive return of civility, that the most optimistic students of transpartisanship have hoped for. But major policy initiatives will rise or fall on their ability to attract and retain support across transpartisan factions. Some politicians and policy entrepreneurs will learn that lesson more quickly than others. We’ll see which ones.