Bad-Faith Actors and the Red/Blue/Gold Divide

Hyperpolarization Graphic


Newsletter 162 - October 10, 2023


First, let us express our deep sympathies for the many people affected by the ongoing tragedy in Israel — an event that has already claimed (when adjusted for population size) seven times more people than the US lost on 9/11. In our next newsletter, we will begin sharing what we have learned from the many people who are trying to think through the undoubtedly far-reaching implications of this tragedy, and what steps can and should be taken to recover from such hatred and violence and prevent it from happening again.  However, since we are not yet ready to do that, we decided to share a related post that we have been working on for quite a long time.


By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess


For almost 8 years now, we have been thinking and writing about something that we have been calling the "bad-faith actor" problem. This work has its origins in the turbulence surrounding President Trump's surprise victory in 2016 — a victory that forced us to reevaluate much of our thinking and more urgently focus our attention on the many ways in which intractable conflict-related problems were contributing to the erosion of democratic institutions in the United States and around the world. 

As part of this reflective process, we started to re-examine one of the key assumptions upon which much of our earlier work (and much of the work of the conflict and peacebuilding fields) has been based. This is the notion that those involved in conflict are, at their core, almost always good-faith actors — people who, if treated fairly and respectfully, would be willing to accept reasonable compromises that fairly balance their interests with the interests of others.

This way of looking at conflict suggested that the conflict problem was, primarily, a process problem — if we, as a society, could just master the peacebuilding skills and the collaborative problem-solving techniques that our field has been instrumental in developing and promoting, we could start healing our divisions and start doing a much better job of addressing the many difficult challenges we face. 

The 2016 election forced us to admit that the United States was rapidly moving in the opposite direction. As we started paying more attention, it became clear that President Trump was not the sole cause of our difficulties. The fact that other countries were facing similar problems forced us to look at underlying causes of democracy's difficulties and move away from the trap of assuming that the problem was simply the result of the President Trump's unique personality and brand of politics. 

Bad-Faith Actors and the Red/Blue/Gold Divide

This led us to start asking increasingly urgent questions about why our field's advice was failing to produce the desired results.  For a program that had spent the last 25 years studying intractable conflict, this was a sobering development. While we have always tried to be realistic about the enormity of the challenges posed by the scale and complexity of society-wide intractable conflict, we came to realize that we had not been paying anywhere near enough attention to what we should have seen as an obvious problem — the fact that there were large numbers of well-funded and sophisticated actors who were actively trying to promote conflict and undermine democracy's institutions of collaborative governance.

Here we are not talking about violent external aggression similar to what we have seen in Ukraine and now Israel. That is a related, and vastly more horrific problem (at least over the short term) that we simply must find a way of addressing. This essay, which was almost entirely written before the attacks on Israel, addresses a less immediate, but also extremely serious problem, which could, over the longer term, have even more severe implications. This is the actions of sinister actors who appear, on the surface at least, to be participating as normal citizens of a democracy, but who, in reality, are trying to undermine it and replace it with some kind of autocratic or plutocratic system. These are the people we have long referred to as "bad-faith actors." 

This led us to post a series of video lectures and other material explaining why it often made more sense to think of society's divisions as a three-party game (as opposed to the traditional, two-party game associated with left/right hyper-polarization). Using the American nomenclature of red (right) and blue (left), these videos talked about a red/blue/gold divide in which in which there was a gold faction that really didn't care about the issues that those on the left and the right side of the divide cared about. Rather, they just cared about themselves — and ways of making themselves richer and more powerful (hence gold).

This led us to start thinking about the specific types of bad-faith actors, the tactics that they use, and, most importantly, strategies for protecting the larger society from those tactics. This led us to produce a second series of online video lectures and other materials that addressed the topic using the massively parallel peacebuilding framework that we had been developing for dealing with the scale and complexity. This theme was further developed (though in a much less extensive way) in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly article that we used to initially frame the Hyper-polarization Discussion on our Substack newsletter.

With this series of posts, we are trying to take a next step in understanding the role played by bad-faith actors in today's complex conflicts. The first part of the series focuses on sharpening our image of bad-faith actors and their motivations. Subsequent posts will look at the principal types of bad-faith actors, their frequently overlapping tactics, and, more importantly, strategies for opposing those tactics. 

Clarifying the Distinction between Good-Faith and Bad-Faith Actors

We want to start by sharpening our distinction between good- and bad-faith actors and considering how escalation and polarization dynamics can push good-faith actors to start acting in bad-faith ways.

A good place to start is by defining good-faith actors as those who try to abide by a kind of political "golden rule" and not do things to others that they think would be objectionable if done to them. This builds on Karen Armstrong's Charter of Compassion project and its observation that, in one form or another, the golden rule is a principle that is embraced by virtually all of the world's religious and cultural belief systems. 

Good-faith actors are willing to put aside their differences and collectively enforce agreed-upon rules about what forms of social and political competition are acceptable and what forms are illegitimate and should be condemned and, wherever possible, prohibited. These include, most notably, the use of violence and intimidation as a means for advancing one's political interests.

Bad-faith actors are people who, by contrast, are focused on getting as much as possible for themselves and, sometimes, the group to which they belong. They are not constrained by niceties like the golden rule or democratic norms. They are quite willing to use harsh and ruthless tactics against others — tactics that they would most certainly not like to have used against them. They view social life and democracy as a competitive process in which their personal position and the course of society in which they live is (and should be) determined by whoever is able to assemble the most powerful political coalition. They see politics as a competitive, winner-take-all process in which there aren't any real constraining democratic norms — the only limit is practical — can they get away with it. 

Offensive Bad-Faith Actors and The Escalation Spiral

The most egregious type of bad-faith actors are those who are willing to act offensively and be the first to violate still-standing democratic norms and taboos by employing some new and potentially effective tactic. The targets of such attacks who then decide to use those same tactics to defend themselves constitute a borderline case, in which they can plausibly claim to be good-faith actors, even though they are acting in bad-faith ways — after all — the other side "made them do it."  This view is, of course, highly problematic because, in deeply divided societies with a long-term history of escalation and hyper-polarization, it becomes functionally impossible to determine "who started it." 

This makes it difficult to determine who, exactly, deserves to be labeled as a bad-faith actor. One could argue that anyone who is caught up in a hyper-polarized conflict in which taboo lines prohibiting illegitimate tactics have progressively collapsed should be free to employ the full range of nasty, hardline political tactics. Doing so would, of course, mean the end of anything that might reasonably be called collaborative, democratic governance. It is also likely that this would ultimately lead to large-scale violence and either chaos and anarchy or the emergence of a ruthless, violent regime that oppresses everyone except their closest supporters on whom they rely to stay in powerThe alternative is to find a way to hold people to a higher standard that asks everyone to help diffuse conflict and bring peace to their deeply divided communities. 

In today's hyper-polarized climate, characterized by its complete lack of trust, intense hostility, and widespread fear of the other side, it is very difficult to forsake effective political tactics that violate the spirit (if not the letter) of democratic norms. The danger that the other side might take advantage of the weaknesses that this would produce is high. The difficulty is further complicated by the fact that there are large numbers of independent actors with the inclination and the ability to pursue harsh tactics, even when their leaders forsake such tactics. This makes it hard to imagine any kind of comprehensive political "disarmament" agreement that would restore democratic norms of fair play. This, perhaps more than anything, is the problem that has, over the centuries, made it so difficult to make and keep the peace.

Escaping the Spiral of Bad-Faith Escalation

The question is how to escape this trap. It seems to us that the answer lies in the decisions we all make about how we want to approach divisive political and social issues. We can decide that the enemy poses such a genuine and serious threat that we must devote our personal efforts to helping advance the continuing quest for victory, despite the costs and risks of defeat. 

Before doing so, however, we ought to ask whether the political victory that we aspire to is really as virtuous as we would like to think.  Are the enemy images that we carry around in our heads as justification for our all-out struggle against the other side accurate and trustworthy?  Or are they distortions attributable to our unbalanced media consumption, cognitive biases, escalation and polarization dynamics, and the deliberate hate-mongering efforts of bad-faith actors?  While there are certainly cases in which genuinely evil social movements arise within a society that must be vigorously opposed, it is also clear that there are a great many cases in which our all-out antipathy for the other side is completely unwarranted. (Polls in the United States suggest that the degree of difference between "ordinary citizens" on the left and the right are not nearly as great as we think they are.) 

We need to ask ourselves the following questions. Is the other side really as dangerous and immoral as our more activist leaders would like us to think? Have our efforts to redistribute resources to those that we think are more deserving become excessive and unfair? Has our effort to live our lives (and teach our children) according to our moral values crossed the line to the point where we are starting to deny others the right to live according to their values? Are we treating the other side with the same level of respect and tolerance that we want from them? 

If we are repressing people who mean us no harm, if we are denying their ability to pursue their legitimate interests, values, and needs, if we are treating other groups with disrespect, then we, too (though perhaps inadvertently) are acting as bad-faith actors, who are not only driving the escalation spiral further, but are also likely to create so much backlash that we are unlikely to obtain our own goals either. 

The Relationship between Bad-Faith Actors and Grassroots Supporters

One of the big advantages of this three-way (red, blue, gold) framework for looking at today's deeply divided societies is that it provides a basis for separating unscrupulous, bad-faith leaders from their grassroots followers. Instead of having a society at war with itself, this approach unites society in a common effort to combat divisive, antidemocratic forces. It provides a basis for grassroots citizens on both the left and the right to join together to challenge the bad-faith actors that, in reality, constitute the biggest threat to our mutual well being and to the democracy we all support.

For this to work, we have to first understand why normally honorable, good-faith citizens might align themselves with a strong leader who, if viewed from a reasonable and neutral perspective, would qualify as a bad-faith actor. In our hyper-polarized environment, where both sides are desperately trying to defend their interests, grassroots citizens often feel that they have no alternative but to support strong and highly partisan leaders who are willing to dispense with democratic niceties and do what it takes to prevail. What matters is their ability to vigorously oppose the other side.

To a somewhat lesser degree, the same selection process applies to media outlets that take an aggressive and hardline view of the threat posed by the other side (while also discounting any legitimate grievances that the other side might have). Similarly, there is an attractiveness to public interest groups that take a particularly uncompromising and aggressive approach to advocacy. Conversely, it seems to many as if supporting leaders who are willing to compromise or collaborate with the other side (who are therefore usually seen as "weak") is seen as a formula for defeat. But actually, those are the leaders who would actually be able to make significant progress on solving our pressing social, economic, and environmental problems.

Sadly, this creates gigantic opportunities for unscrupulous and corrupt individuals who aspire to something close to true authoritarian power (or, at least, plutocratic wealth).  As these individuals accumulate power and influence, they are, in turn, going to make the other side increasingly fearful and willing to throw their support behind equally strong (and unscrupulous) leaders.  It also leads grassroots citizens on both sides of the divide to demonize and dehumanize one another in ways that lead adversaries to conclude that the other side has no legitimate grievances or reasonable aspirations, and, for that reason, the golden rule does not apply. The result, of course, is the intensification of the escalation and polarization spiral. 

The advantage of the three-way, red/blue/gold way of thinking is that it provides a path out of this predicament. Instead of demonizing everyone on the other side, this approach suggests a two-part strategy. The first part focuses directly on challenging bad-faith actors, their unreasonable demands, and especially, the hate-mongering tactics that they use to inflame tensions. The second part focuses on reaching out to grassroots citizens on the other side in a bridg- building effort that honestly tries to respond to their legitimate grievances in ways that convince them that compromise is a viable option — one that is much more likely to protect their interests than the all-out confrontation being pushed by the bad-faith actors.  This is an approach that could benefit greatly from the presence of responsible, compromise-oriented leaders.

The Bad-Faith Continuum

We have found it useful to distinguish a number of different types of bad-faith actors — each operating within a different institutional setting. Within each of these actor groups there is, as suggested above, a continuum ranging, at one end, from the most sinister and cynical actors who offensively initiate the use of evermore extreme tactics. At the other end there are reluctant, defensive actors caught up in the escalation spiral who feel they have no choice but to fight fire with fire. 

For those on the sinister, cynical end of the continuum, the strategy for limiting their influence needs to first focus on exposing their efforts (which depend, for much of their effectiveness, on the fact that people do not know what they are doing). Beyond this, there is a need to harden the system in ways that take away some of their more effective tactics. This might include, for example, measures to make it harder to create fake social media accounts and use those accounts to create online mobs to attack people or reforms of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which would make communication platforms liable for promoting libelous content. Other possibilities include real-time disclosures of who, exactly, is paying for political advertisements and free speech protections which make it harder to suppress legitimate political criticism. Finally, there is a need to prosecute and hold criminally responsible those who engage in true bad-faith tactics. (Since these tactics often take advantage of legal loopholes, new legislation may be needed.) We will have more on these and other strategies in future installments in this series.

For the reluctant, defensive end of the continuum, the strategy needs to focus on highlighting the dangers associated with bad-faith tactics and showing people how the use of more constructive advocacy strategies can provide a way to escape the escalation spiral while doing more to protect their core interests. This should be paired with efforts that show that the other side is not actually as bad as the prevailing stereotypes suggest, and that "ordinary people" on both sides of the divide actually share many interests, needs, and values in common.  Such efforts would, of course, also be reinforced by the above efforts to harden the system to take away bad-faith opportunities, while also enforcing laws designed to protect the system.

Bad-Faith Actor Types

In the next post in this series, we will look at the six specific types of bad-faith actors including: geopolitical rivals, aspiring (and established) authoritarians, religious and secular theocrats (who seek to impose their group's cultural views of the larger society), inflammatory media, the advocacy industrial complex, and nihilists who are so alienated from society they simply want to destroy it. We will then go on to discuss, in more detail, what can be done to counter each of these types of bad-faith actors. 

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