The Hyper-Polarization Discussion: Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going

Uncertainty Graphic

Newsletter 173 - November 7, 2023


From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

For this Newsletter, we are going to step back from our continuing series of posts and review (especially for new subscribers) our goals in publishing this newsletter (and the larger Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base). We also plan to highlight some of the key posts that help explain what we are trying to do, and what we've learned.


Looking Back

 We started this blog (which we also called a "discussion" and a "newsletter" because it is all three) in March of 2022, so 20 months ago. Sad to say, hyper-polarization and conflict are still with us, stronger than ever. That's no surprise — we certainly were not intending or expecting to "solve" either with this blog. Rather, we were hoping to share important ideas that weren't being widely shared elsewhere, and give our readers new and interesting things to consider as we all grapple with our continuing conflict challenges.

Hyper-Polarized, Society-Wide Conflict

At the beginning, we shared two "framing documents." The first was written for the Conflict Resolution Quarterly as the first of what they were calling "Feature Articles."  These articles were designed to be controversial and to spur discussion. Ours had one of those impossibly long titles typical of academic writing: Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper-polarized, society-wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies. The paper provides a pretty comprehensive overview with the way in which we started our thinking about the problem of hyper-polarization. As such, new subscribers might find it interesting.    The paper starts by arguing that

political hyper-polarization and the resulting political stalemate is the number one problem facing the United States and a great many other countries. It is more important than climate change, inequality, health, race relations, immigration — or any of the other so-called “existential” problems, because none of those problems are going to be addressed, let alone “solved,” unless we can fix the hyper-polarization that has driven effective problem analysis and problem solving into the ground. [1]

We go on to distinguish between "power-with" and "power-over" forms of social organization. A democracy that lives up to its ideals is a power-with strategy for handling the gigantic stream of disputes that characterize all societies. This contrasts with power-over forms of organization in which an individual or a cultural group seeks to dominate and marginalize other groups within society.  At the extreme, this can lead to authoritarianism (and battles between those who aspire to authoritarian power).

This is a theme we revisited recently by asking whether some ongoing efforts to "save our democracy" are actually pursuing a power-over, rather than power-with, vision. In this recent post, and the original CRQ framing document we emphasize the importance of building a truly collaborative democracy, and pointed out that the conflict resolution field knows a lot about how to make collaborative approaches work in difficult situations  So, we argued, the peacebuilding and conflict resolution fields could do a lot more than than they are currently doing to help people in the United States and elsewhere where democracy is threatened.

Massively Parallel Peace and Democracy Building

In the CRQ framing article, we also introduced the notion of "massively parallel peacebuidling" (MPP) which is an idea that we have been developing for a number of years.  The basic notion is that modern democracies (and autocracies too, for that matter) are extremely complex systems that cannot be "fixed" with one approach or one organization or group of people doing just one thing. Rather, it takes a "massive number" of people and organizations, working in different places, doing different things, fulfilling different roles. They are not coordinated by some top-down leader who has designed the whole response system, but it develops naturally and organically, with most people working in roughly "parallel" efforts focused on a shared goal: for instance, making power-with democracy work more effectively in a particular local or national situation. 

As we have continued to write about MPP, it has become clear that this is no longer an abstract, far-fetched idea. In the course of the networking that we have done over the last year and half, we have become aware of a myriad of people, programs, organizations and networks that are, in various ways, trying to limit hyper-polarization and strengthen democracy. In our Colleague and Context Colleague Activities and Beyond Intractability in Context Newsletters, which typically (but not always) come out on Sunday mornings, we have sought to highlight many of these efforts.  These newsletters highlight things that our colleagues in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields are doing, as well as links that help us all understand the larger societal context  in which we are working.  The good news is that there is so much going on that we can't keep up. That said, we have been able to identify dozens of links each week to materials that help us better understand the conflict problems we face and what might be done to better address those problems. These materials also make it clear that we really are part of a much larger, "massively parallel" effort to heal our society that is already underway. 

Democracy As a Conflict Handling System

Another major focus of our Substack newsletter is described in a second "framing paper" published on BI, This one focuses more on revitalizing democracy than on hyper-polarization, although the two are closely linked. The paper's title highlights its key theme, The Key to Revitalizing Liberal Democracy: Think of It As a Conflict Handling System. At its core a well-functioning liberal democracy is a system that resolves societal disputes and makes decisions in ways that are wise, efficient, fair, and nonviolent. We argue that successful democracies need to do seven things:

  1. Limit destructive conflict escalation,
  2. Provide and encourage communication processes that promote mutual understanding,
  3. Undertake and encourage reliable analyses of problems and potential solutions based on verified facts,
  4. Share power fairly and equitably,
  5. Seek a common vision for the future that includes all citizens, not just some,
  6. Provide a trusted and broadly supported problem-solving process, and
  7. Utilize systems thinking to tackle problems at their full level of complexity.

Many of our blog posts (including some written by us, and some written by outside contributors) have helped us flesh out what these elements mean and how they can be accomplished. For example,

​In addition to these general posts, we have been focusing a lot of attention on the following critically important topics: 

Hyper-Polarization, Good or Bad and the Question of Neutrality
Our exploration of the issue of power sharing quickly morphed into a discussion of oppression, justice, advocacy, neutrality, and peacebuilding. We got into a debate with Jackie Font-Guzman and Bernie Mayer over the question of whether a focus on hyper-polarization encouraged injustice, and whether polarization was actually necessary to bring about justice to oppressed people. Many more people weighed in on this question, which became one of our first four "focus areas." A related focal area looked at whether hyper-polarization was a serious threat at all.  That overlapped, of course, with the earlier discussion, because some, like Jackie and Bernie, suggested that hyper-polarization isn't a worry, its a good thing. But other contributors agreed with us, that it is a serious concern, and they explained why. Key posts in this series include:

​Bad-Faith Actors
We've also started to devote more attention to the special challenges posed by what we call bad-faith actors — people who, for a variety of reasons, have decided that it is in their interest to inflame societal tensions and undermine good-faith efforts to make power with democracy work for the benefit of all. A recent discussion has involved the question as to whether Hamas is a "bad-faith actor" and, hence, should be dealt with differently than we do with good-faith actors.  Some of the key posts in this series include:

Scale and Complexity
Another focal area looks at strategies for dealing effectively with the astonishing scale and complexity of society-wide conflict. We have long recognized that intractability is attributable, at least in part, to problems navigating the scale and complexity of these conflicts, as it is to the difficulty of the substantive issues involved. Here we have posted a combination of theoretical articles, and others explaining actual interventions that worked "at scale." Posts that give you an idea of the kinds of issues that we are addressing in this context include:

Massively Parallel Peace (MPP) and Democracy Building
A final major area, which we alluded to above, looks at  ongoing efforts to strengthen democracy and bridge our deep divides together with the theory underlying our massively parallel strategy for dealing with scale and complexity. Put another way, these posts describe the pieces of the MPP puzzle. Many of the colleague and context activity posts add to this set of real world examples.  Examples of these posts include:

Looking Forward

We have been very happy with what we have been able to accomplish so far.  We've posted 115 blog posts over the last 19 months. Over 50 of you have contributed pieces — either pieces you have written for this discussion or pieces you have allowed us to repost.  We greatly appreciate that, and very much hope we can coax more of our readers to contribute your thoughts.  We really do want this to be a discussion, not a monologue.

We are also steadily gaining subscribers. We very much appreciate those of you who have pledged to pay for the newsletter, saying it is worth paying for. But BI was founded on the notion that we wanted to get as much quality information about conflict and its resolution out to people around the world for free, and we remain committed to that idea.  Fortunately, since we have the funding needed to continue this work, we are not seeking financial contributions. If you have money to contribute, we urge you to donate it to one of the many excellent organizations that we highlight. For those of you who value what we do, the way you can help us most is by sharing our newsletter with your networks and encouraging your friends and associates to sign up to be free subscribers. And, as we just said, contribute your thoughts when you have something to add.

We know some of the things we post are controversial, such as our posts about the relationship between hyper-polarization, oppression, and justice, and much more recently, our discussion of the Hamas attack on Israel, Israel's response and the role of the international and peacebuilding communities in all of that. We've been gratified at the level of support that we received from these posts and the willingness of others to share their opinions on this important topic. So, if you have something to add, please share it! And that applies to all the topics we cover, not just the especially controversial ones.

The biggest problem that we see with the Newsletter/Blog/Discussion (and the larger knowledge base) at the moment is that it is such a dauntingly long list of posts that it is hard to see how the various pieces relate to one another. There are some themes, but there are also many posts which cover different areas.  Some of these are submitted by readers and we appreciate that.  You take us to places we wouldn't otherwise go, and share expertise we do not have ourselves.

In conjunction with a major restructuring of the entire BI website So we are now in the process of trying to better organize newsletter content.  While the original Knowledge Base Essays were organized by topic, nothing else was ever organized that way, which makes finding materials and navigating the site more difficult than it should be. (Though we should point out that the search system does help a lot in that respect.) 

We also have changed focus somewhat since the beginning of the Newsletter/Discussion/Blog and even more so since the beginning of BI. While we are still very much focused on intractable conflicts, we are now more focused in particularly on the conflicts that are threatening democracy in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. That is somewhat of a narrower focus than we had at the beginning of BI, but it is a wider focus than we had when we started the discussion and focused particularly in on what we called "hyper-polarization."  While we still think that is a big problem and we'll still be writing about that, we will also be broadening out to other threats to modern liberal democracies in the U.S. particularly (which is where our personal expertise lies), and also around the world. And we'll be trying much more to focus on things that are currently being done and could potentially be done in the future to address these threats. 

In addition to our broad, general mission, we will still allow ourselves to focus our attention on important, conflict-related events where we feel we have something to contribute. For example, as I am writing this, we are one month into the Israel/Gaza war of 2023, which was started by Hamas' terror attacks on Israel on October 7. We did point out that one reason Hamas (and likely Iran) thought they should attack when they did was that both Israel and the United States were crippled by hyper-polarized political conflicts that made Israeli defense much weaker than it might have been.  But this isn't primarily a hyper-polarization story. It is a story of extreme bad-faith actors and a question of how either military responses or peacebuilding responses can deal with people who are dead set on completely destroying another group of people.  That is an issue of extreme importance, that we will continue to discuss here (and we particularly welcome our readers' ideas on that).  We will also be looking at the ways in which this crisis is Introducing a major new flashpoint into our deeply divided politics in the United States.

We again want to thank our subscribers and contributors for making this newsletter/blog/discussion a success.  And we look forward to continuing our discussions with many of you in the months and years to come! 


Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion!

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About the MBI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017.

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