Become "Part of the Solution"



Newsletter #229 — April 16, 2024



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by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

In 2017, we created a Things You Can Do to Help Blog on Beyond Intractability that had a series of very short essays on things everyone (not just leaders or "influential people") could do to help address intractable conflict and hyper-polarization in their relationships, communities, and nation.  The need for everyone to get involved in this effort is even greater now than it was then.  For that reason, we thought it would be useful to revisit some of those ideas in this and coming newsletters. The first post we are revisiting is one that was entitled "If You're Not Part of the Solution, You're Part of the Problem." Like most of our essays, this one focuses on the United States, with the understanding that conflict is a human universal and that many of the ideas presented here can be adapted to other settings. 

The Course of Conflict Is Determined by All of Us

We started out our original post by observing that the course of conflict is not determined by just the actions of a few leaders (though that's obviously important). Rather, it is determined by the cumulative behavior of millions of grassroots citizens.  Right now, in the United States, these citizens can be roughly grouped into three big categories: the "True Believers," The "Transpartisan Pro-Democracy Advocates", and the "Disillusioned, Disengaged, and Politically Homeless."   

True Believers

The first category is the politically engaged "True Believers." In their "Hidden Tribes" report, More in Common authors Hawkins, Yudkin, Juan-Torres and Dixon call these the "Wings." (Others, who are less charitable, call the extreme members of these groups the "wing-nuts")  This group includes both "Progressive Activists" (who make up about 8 percent of the population) and the "Devoted Conservatives," (who make up about 6 percent of the population.) Though these numbers are small, these True Believers are by far the most vocal and the most visible grassroots citizens. They are the people on both sides of the U.S. political divide who are very engaged with their party, their party's issues, and its candidates. They post on social media, write books and articles online and off, they run for office, work in advocacy organizations and they certainly vote. They know the right answer for all of our communities' and nation's pressing problems, be it immigration, climate, race, abortion, sex/gender, or whatever, and they know that their party's way is "right," while the other side is, at least, "wrong," and in many cases, evil.

So the solution to solving their communities' and nation's problems is to disempower the other side — make sure they are sidelined from the decision making process so much that they cannot possibly implement any of their goals — now or in the future. The goal is to vote them out of office.  Discredit them so no one will vote for them. Gerrymander districts so that their votes won't count. Make voting harder (or easier) depending on who is voting — your people or their people (something that is usually phrased as promoting "fairness"). Give money to, and otherwise support, the other side's worst candidates, because they will be easier to defeat in the next election.  Given that the other side is flat out wrong, and an electoral victory by "them," would be a catastrophe, true believers don't mind if they (or their candidates) "bend" the rules a little bit — maybe a lot.   "The other side does it too," they argue, so if your side doesn't bend the rules as much or as more, the other side might win. And that would be truly utterly unacceptable and, perhaps, even a mortal threat. It is also common for the advocates to see their own efforts as part of a broader defense of "our democracy." After all, a real democracy would not make the kind of blatantly indefensible decisions that the other side advocates.

The ultimate result of this way of thinking is not only continued hyper-polarization and stalemated (hence ineffective) government, but also the increasing risk of violence — before, during, and after the upcoming election. Death threats received by Congressional representatives (which are already at record highs) may well go up. Intimidation at polling places took place in 2020; it is likely again in 2024. And post-election violence, such as the attack on the U.S. Capitol, might well happen again, perhaps to a much greater degree.  According to the 14th annual American Values Survey, conducted in August 2023 by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, 23% of all Americans agreed with the statement "because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” This number was highest among Republicans (33%), compared to 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats.   41% of Republicans who had favorable views of Trump agreed with the statement, and 46% of Republicans who believed the 2020 election was stolen agreed to the statement that "true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country." Since Democrats now control the government, it is understandable that they would feel less of a need to take extreme measures to reverse course. Whether this would persist should Trump be re-elected is an open question. 

It is clear that the "true believers" are the principal source of energy behind hyper-polarization.  The bigger question, of course, is whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.  We have long argued that constructively handled conflict is society's learning engine — the mechanism through which we force ourselves to address and find solutions for difficult problems. We have also argued that destructively handled conflict and, especially, conflicts driven by bad-faith actors, undermine this process.  Some activists truly believe they are fighting "the good fight" to "save democracy" or "pursue justice" or "protect life", any of which will be grievously harmed, they firmly believe, if the other side wins. Others are cynically manipulating these activists as part of a corrupt, "divide-and-conquer" strategy designed to inflame and then profit from social tensions.

This second, bad-faith group is clearly part of the problem, not the solution.  The first group of principled advocates could be making things better or worse, depending upon whether or not they are engaging in conflict constructively or destructively. What is the difference? We would argue that a big part of constructive conflict behavior is treating the other side(s) with respect; honestly listening to and considering their interests, needs, and concerns; and working to find a solution to the issues at hand that, as much as possible, meets the interests and needs of both sides.  When this is impossible — when the interests are diametrically opposed, for example — then constructive conflict behavior works within the spirit of democratic processes to resolve the dispute using established, legitimate procedures.

No matter what decision is reached however, constructive advocates must leave a livable space for people who disagree with them. Here, the Golden Rule applies. Are they treating others in the way in which they would honestly like to be treated? If so, they are probably part of the solution. If not, they are likely part of the problem. Similarly, if activists are fighting to give everyone the freedom to live life according to their moral beliefs (and extend those freedoms to others), then they are probably part of the solution. If they are trying to force their moral beliefs on others, then they are probably part of the problem. And lastly, if they are fighting for reforms that would more fairly distribute wealth, income, and status across the society, then they're probably part of the solution. If they are just trying to get more for themselves and their group at the expense of others, then they're part of the problem.

"Transpartisan" Pro-Democracy Advocates

There is a second major group that's trying to be part of the solution to democracy's troubles. We call them Transpartisan Pro-democracy Advocates. The word "transpartisan" isn't widely used, but it means crossing political divides (as opposed to having some members of each as in "bipartisan," or supposedly ignoring politics, as in "nonpartisan.") The term "transpartisan" is used by a group of people we have been meeting with monthly who have formed what they call the Inter-Movement Impact Project (IMIP). IMIP's goal is to "strategically connect pro-democracy leaders, reformers, change agents, and constituency groups who are working to defend and strengthen American democracy, ethical government, civic health, social cohesion, and social justice at the national, state, and local levels." Over the 18 or so months that we have been meeting with IMIP, participation in their meetings has grown dramatically with most participants representing organizations of hundreds or even thousands of people each.  (One of the biggest, perhaps, is the Listen First Coalition, which is a coalition of "500 organizations working to combat toxic division by bringing Americans together." Another member is the Bridge Alliance, which itself is made up of over 70 organizations working in the areas of bridging divides, civic education and engagement, elections and governance, and trustworthy information.)  Representatives of these groups get together monthly to update each other on their activities, looking for ways in which collaboration would allow them to do more than any of them is able to do alone. Amid today's deep divisions they are working hard to act in truly transpartisan ways that bring people together, at the local and national level, to solve local problems and diminish hyper-polarization and threats to democracy at the national level.

By meeting with these folks and getting on their mailing lists, we have become aware of a an even larger network of people and organizations (many of which are not members of IMIP), who are also working in many different ways to pull America back together.  Some of the efforts are well thought out and strong; others are less so. The task that they have undertaken is enormously difficult and, understandably, different groups are at different points on the learning curve. But there is a growing cohort of people who do recognize the peril of America's current trajectory, and who have chosen to try to change that trajectory in whatever domain they can influence  They are all part of what we have called the "massively parallel effort" to strengthen democracy (that we have been writing about here, here, and here). It is this effort that we hope many more people will join, not necessarily by joining one of the IMIP organizations or projects, but finding something that makes sense for them, even if it is just changing the way they interact with their estranged brother with whom they haven't talked to in years because of his politics.

The Disillusioned, and Disengaged, and Politically Homeless

The third category of grassroots citizens are the Disillusioned, Disengaged, and Politically Homeless.  Some of these people are disengaged because they simply don't have time to be politically active.  They hold down full time (or more) jobs or maybe several jobs.  They have kids, sports activities, church and hobby activities. They are far too busy just trying to do what has to be done to be worrying about issues that don't directly affect them. Or, even if the issues do affect them, they don't see their involvement as making a difference, so why should they waste their time when they could be making progress on their other priorities?

Others in this group used to be engaged, but dropped out, finding that the benefit was not worth the costs. They got angry, fearful, and/or depressed by reading all the bad news and hate-filled rhetoric that prevails across almost all media channels. They lost friends, some lost jobs, and for what?  They still didn't make a difference.  So they dropped out of the political fray.

Another category of disengaged citizens are the moderates — moderate liberals, moderate conservatives, people who really do sit in the center and see truth on both sides. Unlike the True Believers who are convinced that the other side represents an existential threat to almost everything that they care about, moderates are conflicted about the issues and looking for compromise, rather than the victory of one side over the other. This group also includes those who can't find a political home in a two-party system that is increasingly dominated by evermore extreme right and left-leaning factions. The moderates disengage because they can't figure out how to get a foothold in the current hyper-polarized environment and they are being sidelined and even hate-mongered by the True Believers.  More moderate, "traditional" conservatives are denounced as being "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only) and are just as despised by the Trump supporters as are progressives. Conservative Democrats, sometimes called "Blue Dogs,"  are also decried by their more progressive colleagues. Many RINOs and Blue Dogs have quit serving or have been voted out of office because they can't get anything done and are widely despised.

Also contributing to the disengagement problem are a wide array of institutional obstacles that hamper participation of moderates and, especially, the politically unaffiliated.  The unaffiliated are, for example, often unable to participate effectively in primary elections and in the larger the candidate-selection process. Many jurisdictions are also so overwhelmingly tilted toward one of the two major political parties that the party's candidate selection process (i.e. party conventions and primaries), in effect, determines the ultimate winner. Other institutional obstacles make it much, much harder for those who seek to challenge the dominance of the two major political parties to mount effective campaigns.

For these reasons and others, moderate voters are are especially disillusioned and disengaged.  In the upcoming US Presidential election, they generally don't want to vote for either of the Presidential candidates, not only because both are seen as "too old," but also because Biden is seen by moderates as too far left, and Trump is too far right (and far too dangerous for myriad other reasons).  But No Labels couldn't recruit a prominent politician willing to run as a "unity candidate," which might have provided moderates someone they could have gotten excited about.  Apparently, all possible candidates concluded that they couldn't win, and they didn't want to act as spoilers. No Labels also complained that the major parties were engaged in an intense, unethical, and potentially illegal campaign to convince potential candidates not to run. So many in what the Hidden Tribes report calls "the exhausted majority" have given up and also withdrawn from the fray.

What Does This Mean?

If nothing changes, we'll keep going the direction that we are going.  The True Believers make up only 14% of the electorate, but they are the active, noisy ones — people who are sometimes called the "squeaky wheels."  They are driving the narrative on both sides and setting us all on a collision course with disaster.  The Transpartisan Pro-Democracy Advocates are trying hard to stop this runaway train, and they are growing in numbers, but so far do not have the numbers or visibility and credibility to change the True Believers' course. 

That could change, though, if they could get more help.  If some of the True Believers come to understand that their approach is not winning — that their extreme demands and hateful language are just alienating potential voters — perhaps they will be willing to consider a more moderate course. And if the Disillusioned and Disengaged figure out that there is a viable place for moderates to be heard and to make a difference, perhaps they will be willing to engage again.

In our original, 2027 post we wrote:

Margaret Mead is famously quoted as saying: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." In the context of complex, intractable conflicts, it will take more than a small group of people — it will take a very large group of people, each person making his or her own, small steps. All of these actions will likely be different, all of them  will focus on different problems and different locations.  But together, they can add up to a potent force against evil which flourishes when people assume either that there is nothing they, personally, can do about it, or that "everything will turn out all right — it always has before."  

We can't tell anyone what to do, or how to do it — the answer is very person- and situation-specific.  Just look around you at the problems most pressing in your locale, choose one, and start doing whatever you can to make the situation better — keeping in mind that one can't just "fight harder," one needs to "fight smarter."  Focus on acting in ways that First, Do No Harm. Look at the conflict dynamics that are stopping people from doing what needs to be done.  Figure out how to change those dynamics. Get ideas from this website and others focused on constructive conflict engagement. Recruit your friends to do the same...and find out what others are doing along the same'll start being that potent force for good!

In explaining why the Disillusioned and Disengaged should re-engage, we ended the 2017 post with an excerpt from Pastor Martin Niemöller's poem "First they Came." Now, it seems appropriate to reprint the poem in full:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

-- Martin Niemöller as quoted in Wikipedia

As we said in 2017, if people assume they can't do anything to improve the political conflict in the United States, the situation will continue to deteriorate  If they assume it will all turn out all right, they are depending on others to fix things for them.  So far, that hasn't worked out very well. 

Now, probably most of you who have read this far are not among the disengaged (though you may be disillusioned).  We get disillusioned too.  But we find that the best way to deal with disillusionment and despair is not to withdraw and let the forces of hate, chaos, and violence to take over.  Rather, the thing to do is to work for a future that we can all believe in, in a constructive, rather than escalating, polarizing, and hence self-defeating way. 

And the best way to do that, as we have said again and again (and will say so going forward) is to treat everyone with respect (even those who may not deserve it), to listen to what they have to say (including people we profoundly disagree with), and try to figure out a way in which we can all work together to reach the goals that we all want.  Because, as More Like Us shows in their work on the Perception Gap, most of us are not nearly as divided as we seem.  The True Believers (or Wings or Wingnuts) are deeply divided from their equivalents on the other side. But most people are in the middle, in what More Like Us calls "the exhausted majority."  Let's become the active, hopeful majority and begin working together to show the True Believers that collaboration is a better way to protect everyone's interests, and is the only way Democracy can be saved.  

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