1. Update

What Does "Nonpartisan" Mean in 2020?

By Alicia McBride, July 15, 2020


What does it look like to be “non-partisan”? In 2020, this question takes on new and complex facets.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the scourge of racism and police violence, and a momentous election all drive us to choose a side. The political party with a majority at the local, state, or national level wields power that affects our lives. Engaging with people whose views differ significantly from yours is taxing and can feel thankless.

Standing beside these facts, however, is a call to look deeper than the labels we use to align ourselves into groups and political parties. From this light, non-partisanship looks like a receptivity to insight from many sources.

Non-partisanship looks like a receptivity to insight from many sources.

It’s what the Quaker Edward Burrough meant when, in the 17th century, he wrote, “We are not for Names, nor Men, nor Titles of Government, nor are we for this Party, nor against the other, because of its Name and Pretence; but we are for Justice and Mercy, and Truth and Peace, and true Freedom, that these may be exalted in our Nation.”

This understanding is behind FCNL’s success in encouraging Republican members of Congress to speak out on climate change, and in supporting spaces for Republicans and Democrats to work together for the health of the planet.

It’s what enabled a group of North Carolina constituents to find common concern with a military officer working in their conservative senator’s office. The aide’s support for the group’s peacebuilding request was key in securing the senator’s endorsement of legislation that is now law. And it means that FCNL lobbyists and constituents can often get meetings with offices that are not open to talking with our more partisan colleagues.

Non-partisanship is a political version of Jesus’ willingness to preach to everyone.

The political party that someone identifies with says something important about their orientation and beliefs. It is not irrelevant. Yet to focus primarily on that identifier as a litmus test for engagement ignores the nuances of individual motivations and limits our access to a potential source of divine truth.

The idea that people should not be dismissed on the basis of their associations or background shows up again and again in the Bible, as Jesus sits down to eat with tax collectors (Matthew 9:10) and tells of the Samaritan’s good deeds (Luke 10:33). In fact, Jesus goes out of his way to associate with those the Pharisees refuse to speak to, those identified as “sinners,” who can be called to humility and repentance.

Non-partisanship is a political version of Jesus’ willingness to preach to everyone. But accepting the value of this openness as an overall orientation does not ask us to let go of our good judgment. It is not automatically partisan if you decide not to speak to someone who has harmed you in the past. An openness to insight from many sources does not mean you have to put yourself in a traumatic or dangerous situation.

We believe that a divine spirit granting wisdom and courage is available to all.

Each individual needs to decide on their capacity to engage and their willingness to seek for the divine spark when it seems well-hidden. Yet, in some cases, we can also take an honest look at the assumptions behind our instincts and to ask what new conversations we might stretch into.

As Friends, we believe that a divine spirit granting wisdom and courage is available to all, and that it can appear in surprising places. Many Quakers have stories of a time when their community was bitterly divided on a contentious issue, and through opening and listening, an unexpected solution – one nobody had entered the room with – emerged.

Past experience is an important guide, to tell us where to look for coalition, allyship, and friendship. But sometimes we can find those qualities – the “Justice and Mercy, and Truth and Peace, and true Freedom” that Edward Burroughs spoke of – in new places. Staying in conversation with those we already agree with can sometimes be helpful and necessary, and sometimes it can be a block on forward motion.

In a challenging year, and a challenging election season, we all have ample opportunity to examine our hearts and the utility of partisan labels and decision-making as we seek to bring a better world into being.

Alicia McBride

  • Director of Quaker Leadership

Alicia McBride leads FCNL’s work to nurture, expand, and deepen relationships with Friends across the United States. She also works to ensure that everyone engaged with the organization understands the spiritual basis of FCNL’s advocacy. She oversees FCNL events at the Quaker Welcome Center as well as Annual Meeting and the Quaker Public Policy Institute.