According to my liberal friends, partisanship is when Republicans work to wreck America.

My conservative friends insist with equal vehemence that just the opposite is true: partisanship is code for Democratic attempts to eviscerate the country.

I cannot but conclude that bipartisanship must be when the parties can bridge their differences and work to destroy America together.

All jokes aside, the recent landslide election and the debate over the nearly $800 billion stimulus package have got me thinking about the meaning of partisanship and bipartisanship. No less a man than Thomas Jefferson defines true partisanship. Almost from the moment he was appointed secretary of State by George Washington, he and James Madison founded the first opposition party in U.S. history. Jefferson secretly orchestrated attacks on the Federalist Party — while serving in the Cabinet of a staunchly Federalist president, setting the stage for his own election in 1800.

Jefferson identified more strongly with his party than with his government, and that criterion for partisanship is valid to this day. When politicians stubbornly assume their way — their party's way — is the only way, when they are not open to finding common ground, or, more importantly, breaking new ground, they suffer and the country suffers.

However, when politicians make the effort first and foremost to be civil to and respectful of their colleagues, and to think outside their party's box, compromises can sometimes be made. Solutions that lie outside both parties' constricted thinking exist, but they can only be found if those preconditions for bipartisanship are met.

Of course, Americans should not expect the two parties to compromise on everything, nor should they expect debates to be mild-mannered affairs. Fundamental disagreements on the structure and function of government inevitably inspire heated argument.

When Americans look for bipartisanship, then, they should not look for a specific outcome: usually, midway between the two parties’ platforms. Rather, they should look for a deliberative process of inclusion, bounded by civility and tempered by respect. That's the way our government was conceived, and that's the way it should work.

Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.