Massively Parallel Peace and Democracy Building Roles - Part 1



Newsletter #223 — March 27, 2024



An Update on the MPP Roles

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

In Newsletter 179 (December 3, 2023) and the two accompanying videos, (Introduction and Roles) we explained our concept of massively parallel peace and democracy building (MPP for short). We went on to explain that we use this phrase as a way of describing the natural process through which democratic societies respond to the challenges they face. In other words, massively parallel processes are the way in which complex social systems learn. MPP is a division-of-labor-based approach that involves thousands or even millions of people performing many different roles in different places and contexts, which, all done roughly at the same time, are helping to bring about positive social, political, and economic change. The December videos offered an initial outline of the many different roles that we see massively parallel peace and democracy builders as already playing. Since these videos were recorded, we have been refining, expanding, and reorganizing our catalog of MPP roles and systematically trying to identify individuals and organizations who have been taking on each role. This is the first of a new series of newsletters (presented in text rather than video format) that outline our latest thinking and provide many more links to examples of what people in each role are actually doing.

We should be clear that we are still offering just a few examples for each role. There are a great many more people and organizations working in each of the areas that we highlight. We should also be clear that this massively parallel movement is not quite as parallel as the word implies. Within the movement, there are major differences about the kind of democracy and the kind of society that people think we should be working toward.  There will be a continuing need for efforts to work through these differences in ways that take us closer to the kind of society in which most everyone would like to live. We also need to remember, as we pointed out in Newsletter 77, that MPP is in direct competition with another massively parallel process — one that is driving hyper-polarization and undermining democracy.

By definition, MPP roles are being filled by good-faith actors — people who are honestly trying to help make democracy work for the benefit of everyone. As will quickly become apparent (especially in the conflict strategist section), there are serious differences of opinion over how, exactly, this should be accomplished and what the relative priorities should be.  These are differences that will ultimately have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis by people in the various conflict actor roles.  When this is done in wise and equitable ways (a big, but surmountable, challenge), these conflicts have the kind of positive impact on society that we imagined when we said that intractable conflict can become the "engine of social learning."

We have divided the MPP roles into two large categories: strategists and actors.  This distinction is based on the fundamental distinction between right-brained thinking and left-brained thinking, which amazingly, is differentiated, not only in humans, but even in very primitive insects.  The right brain looks at the "big picture," and determines what needs to be done — this is the strategy side of the brain.  The left brain tells the body what to do in response to what the right side "sees." So these are the actors.  We argue that the same principle applies to societies, with their complex specialization and division of labor systems. As we see it, some people specialize in right brain, "big picture," thinking, while others are the "detail people" — the actors who actually do the work.

Conflict Strategists

We start by highlighting the work of the "big picture" thinkers that we call conflict strategists. W have broken them down into three big categories: conflict lookouts, "democracy firsters," and complexifiers. 

Conflict Lookouts

Conflict Lookouts alert society to dangers (especially, conflict-related dangers) that they believe society needs to urgently address. In many cases, they also highlight steps that they believe society needs to take to limit those dangers. Examples include organizations that are engaged in what has been called "early warning," such as The Fund for Peace, which has long maintained the "Fragile States Index," and the Trust Network that has an early warning/early response project focused on U.S. political violence that Madhawa Palihapitiya described in BI's interview with him.

We now have five principal subcategories of conflict lookouts: checks and balancers, canaries, anti-discriminators, thoughtful alarmists, and "Paul Reveres." These lookouts tend to look at a single problem from a single perspective. They seldom focus on the complex trade-offs that are required to balance efforts to deal with their problem with efforts to deal with problems that other lookouts find equally or even more serious. 

  • Checks and Balancers focus on breakdowns in governmental safeguards designed to prevent corruption, power concentrations, and, potentially, an authoritarian takeover of democratic institutions.  These are the journalists and interest group "watchdogs" who watch for and issue alarms about the overreach of government actions, for instance, the Supreme Court going beyond its adjudicatory role and, in essence, making or changing laws, or the President doing something similar with executive orders that exceed his constitutional authority.  Examples of these organizations include: The Project on Government Oversight, the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who issued a report on abortion and legislative overreach, and the National Constitution Center's Restoring the Guardrails of Democracy project. Other examples include groups highlighting the need to defend free speech, trying to make people understand what authoritarianism is really like, and warning of dangerous increases in support for more authoritarian governance on both the left and the right.
  • Canaries warn society about substantive threats less directly related to conflict processes and democratic functioning like climate change, toxic pollution, infectious disease, and financial instability.  Examples here include the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and the WHO (World Health Organization), In addition to major organizations like these, there are lots of small scale projects and individual writers who are warning us about serious problems like the ways in which billionaires are distorting our politics, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the decline of objective academic research, local opposition to green energy facilities, and the fertility crisis.
  • Anti-Discriminators call attention to what they believe to be unfair treatment of some groups by the larger society. Examples are Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, and the League of United Latin American Citizens. While members of these organizations are also actors, the organizations as a whole are focused on documenting the unfair treatment (for instance structural violence) that might otherwise remain hidden, with its extent and impact under-estimated or ignored. There are also anti-discriminators on the right that focus on what they see as "reverse discrimination," brought about by the overzealous efforts of the left to protect "under-represented" groups. This includes, for example, groups like the the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism which is strongly critical of DEI program and authors like David Bernstein who argues that the system the US uses to allocate racial preferences is illogical and unfair.
  • Thoughtful Alarmists warn us of the risk of large-scale violence and social disintegration that accompanies escalating political hostility. In addition to the Fund for Peace and the Trust Network, mentioned above, other examples include the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and VIEWS -- the Violence Impacts Early-Warning System and authors like Tom Nichols who warns us about a new era of political violence and David French who asks us to take threats of "national divorce" seriously. Still others like Rachel KleinfeldCSIS, and the Guardian help us sensibly analyze available data on political violence.
  • Paul Reveres alert us to to the fact that geopolitical rivals are threatening and sometimes directly attacking Western democracies. In the wake of the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, increasing tensions over Taiwan, and more general concern about the security implications of the United States' hyper-polarized dysfunctional politics, concerns about the ability of Western democracies to effectively defend themselves are becoming increasingly widespread. Examples include the way in which Carnegie Europe alerts us to attempts by geopolitical rivals to influence domestic political activities, Olaf Scholz urges us to take the immediate steps to avoid a new Cold War, Samantha Power warns us about the inadequacy of current strategies for countering autocracy, Paul Gigot voices concern about the resurgence of isolationism, Hal Brands reminds us that effectively defending democracy against often ruthless rivals may require us to compromise some of our most basic liberal beliefs, and  urges us not to overreact and forget the many ways in which the US is still astonishingly strong compared with its geopolitical rivals. 

Democracy Firsters

Democracy Firsters, like us, argue that we must address the short-comings of democracy, and the conflicts that are pulling democracies apart, before we can use those democracies, or indeed, any other approach, to successfully address our many other substantive problems including national security, climate change, oppression, inequality, racism, health care, etc. Examples, in addition to Beyond Intractability's Constructive Conflict Initiative, include the organization aptly called Democracy First and Issue One (whose subtitle is also "Fix Democracy First"). Both are trying (in the words of Issue One) to "unite Republicans, Democrats, and independents in the movement to fix our broken political system and build an inclusive democracy that works for everyone." Issue One together with the Harvard Program on Negotiation have formed the Rebuild Congress Initiative, which "creates the deliberative space and fosters the social cohesion necessary to strengthen our democratic institutions. This includes cultivating networks, fostering deep dialogue, and, where possible, building consensus among elected officials, influencers, and experts from across the political and ideological spectrum. Another such organization was the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (which operated from 2019-2022 and looked at ways in which Congress could change its operating procedures to do its job better.  It is described by its co-chairs here and by Lorelei Kelly in her BI interview


Complexifiers help us deal with the immense scale and complexity of modern society that makes it so difficult for even the smartest and the most dedicated "good-faith" actors to make the decisions needed to wisely and equitably lead modern democracies. We have broken this group down into seven subgroups. These include: 

Conflict Actors 

By themselves, strategists do not have the power to transform deeply divided societies. They don't even have the power to make healthy democracies function.  That depends on the actions of everyday citizens, as well as people with specialized skills working in at least BLANK key roles in six major categories: communicators, issue analysts, peacemakers, power balancers, visionaries, and problem solvers.

Civic Actors 

Before going on to the conflict actors with specialized roles and expertise, we want to highlight the critical role that must be played by grassroots citizens who must conscientiously exercise their civic responsibilities, while also supporting larger democratic system and the people working in the many roles outlined below.  Fortunately, great many people are working to help cultivate such a citizenry. These include Alexandra Hudson's efforts to help us understand and nurture the "soul of civility," the American Bar Association's Cornerstones of Democracy Project, Adorney and Eduardo's argument that civility helps us better protect our interests, and calls to strengthen civic education from the American Enterprise Institute, Educating for American Democracy, and Richard Haass

In the next newsletter in this series, we will highlight some of the things that those in the 50+ roles mentioned above are actually doing. Our hope is that this will give you a clearer idea of the scope of the ongoing massively parallel peace and democracy building effort and convince you, if you are not doing so already, to take on one of these roles.

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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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