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Heather Hurlburt: Surprising ways exist to make progress on issues key to both parties

Solar energy and elimination of death penalty are areas where agreement may be possible

Editor’s Note: Heather Hurlburt directs New America’s New Models of Policy Change project. She has worked in the White House and Congress, and directed nonprofit advocacy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

CNN —  

What’s wrong with American politics?

The usual narrative focuses on polarization between the two parties, but that’s a bit like describing “Game of Thrones” as the story of a feud between two families, or the NBA playoffs as all about the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

Rather, the story of the explosive 2016 primary season has been ideological rifts within, not between, the parties. And while that storyline will likely die down during this fall’s general election campaign, it won’t stay gone forever: It will return with a vengeance in 2017.

The last two presidential challengers to their party’s front-runners, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, will return to the Senate. Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren have staked out their own claims for party leadership. None will be an easy partner for either a President Hillary Clinton or a President Donald Trump.

On the Republican side, Cruz and Ryan will jostle with each other to inherit the presidential mantle in 2020, but Trump seems unlikely to cede the stage to them easily – win or lose in November. More importantly, their followers – in Congress and among the public – will be loath to see them cooperate.

As for the Democrats, their battles will be less vicious, at least among elected officials, but no less urgent. Like the GOP, the Democrats have shown clearly in this primary that their base is divided – and so are their officeholders.

Even more partisan acrimony?

To many observers, these developments foreshadow a 2017 of partisan acrimony and policy failure even worse than what Congress has seen in recent years. But a closer look gives us reason to believe that, instead, better days for legislative accomplishment are around the corner – and elected officials, advocates, funders and regular citizens can take steps now to help them get here faster.

In recent years, partisan division has blocked Congress’ traditional paths toward policy entrepreneurship – reaching to think tanks for new ideas perceived as non-ideological, and building coalitions based on regional preferences, district composition or flat-out interest tradeoffs. Instead, policy ideas come wrapped in ideologies – which often seem to preclude their adoption across coalitions broad enough to pass.

But what’s playing out now on the giant screen of the presidential primaries is a new scenario: the emergence of ideological loyalties that split the parties into smaller, more intense factions. My colleague Lee Drutman has called this moment “peak polarization.” The history of American political cycles suggests that we are headed, however slowly and painfully, back down the other side of the curve.

That process can produce ugly infighting, but it can also yield creativity and significant policy movement. Amid the loud noise, a different style of policy formation has quietly taken root – under the label of transpartisanship.

Rather than emerging from political elites and the center, new policy ideas are validated by partisan forces on the right and/or left, then embraced at the grass roots as authentically “left” or “right” – even as policy entrepreneurs recruit figures from the left and right to bring the ideas into the policy mainstream at the local, state and national levels.

A policy is presented as legitimate not because it comes from a non-ideological think tank or centrist political figure, but precisely because it has the support of recognized ideological figures, whether conservative talk-radio hosts or progressive stalwarts in Congress.

Unlikely allies, effective coalitions

Under this banner, unlikely allies from the right and left, who may have very different ideological justifications for the same policy, have built effective coalitions. These strange bedfellows came together from the outer edges of one or both parties and have been responsible for national reforms to the criminal justice system, changes to how the United States conducts electronic surveillance, and several years’ reforms to the Pentagon budget. In individual states and municipalities, such coalitions have shepherded criminal justice reforms from the death penalty to drug sentencing, opened electric monopolies to competition from solar producers, and shifted school curricula and testing.

The New Models of Policy Change project at New America, which I direct, has spent the last 18 months conducting case studies of transpartisanship’s key participants and outcomes. In a report out this week, we identify lessons that should generate optimism as well as important wakeup calls about how advocates and policy entrepreneurs in and out of Congress should do their work.

First, the rhetoric of “this shouldn’t be about politics” is ineffective, and will be for the foreseeable future. When elected officials are asked to make choices that transcend politics – like voting to help Puerto Rico – they still need political rationales. Successful policy entrepreneurs may or may not have ideological loyalties, but they must have political savvy.

That means taking time to understand where a proposal fits in the political landscape – whose ideological or political base it helps or hurts, what aspects of party discipline it may threaten – of both parties. As party discipline becomes looser, and cleavages within the parties deepen, this kind of scoping becomes more important – and will yield bigger payoffs.

Second, although the public has grown more politically polarized on policy topics from health care to national security, the trend has gone the other way on some once-divisive issues, such as sentencing reform.

Energy and criminal justice issues

This proves that issues can and do become less polarized – when a common policy solution emerges with ideological legitimacy for left and right alike. Looking ahead to 2017, both public opinion polling and activism in the states give some hints of major, long-fought policy areas ripe for progress: climate and energy policy, the death penalty, privacy and surveillance, even congressional oversight and reform.

Finally, at both the state and federal level, personal relationships are still the lubricant for any effective coalition. The advent of social media and “clicktivism” may have lured us into thinking otherwise, but our case studies are clear: Time and skill invested in face-to-face relationship-building make the difference between success and failure for strange bedfellow partnerships in the political arena. We identified a set of qualities shared by successful transpartisan entrepreneurs: They are curious, open-minded listeners and relationship-builders, but they are also firmly grounded in their own beliefs (often quite ideological ones) and have clear goals in mind.

In other words, the work of crossing entrenched divides in our high-tech era may look surprisingly like the low-tech Congresses of yore: venturing out from the comfort of our inboxes to build relationships.

Want to move policy in 2017? The playbook isn’t easy, but it is straightforward. Start with a policy, or a piece of a larger issue, that can be framed as good for individual liberties and limited government (for the right) and empowerment and justice (for the left). Cost-cutting or efficiency is a bonus for both sides. Identify entrepreneurs who are trusted within their ideological home communities and willing to work outside them.

Ensure they have time and resources to develop relationships – as one conservative told us, “I need a bigger food budget.” Cultivate patience. Don’t neglect relationship-building with political actors – and make sure you know who the relevant players are. Notice that you still need good ideas – and you need to twin them with ideological support, be it grass roots, elite or both.

Transpartisan methods – valuing relationships, ideologies and ideas, rather than privileging just one – are no panacea. They don’t replace money, votes or the balance of power. But at the margins – where in politics, like sports or diplomacy, the great work is often done – they offer a gateway to rebuilding relationships in an era of fiercely oppositional politics.

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Heather Hurlburt directs New America’s New Models of Policy Change project. She has worked in the White House and Congress, and directed nonprofit advocacy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.