The 2022 Election – Did It Make Hyper-Polarization Better or Worse

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Newsletter #62 —November 17, 2022


In This Issue


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

The 2022 US Election, Hyper-Polarization, and Democracy 

The United States is now in the process of finalizing the results of its 2022 "mid-term" elections (and, already, starting work on the 2024 campaigns). At this point, there is reason to hope that the 2022 election will mark the beginning of the end of President Trump's brash strategy of denying the validity of unfavorable election results and the larger phenomena of of left-and right-leaning "performative populism" that replaces reasoned discussion of key issues with theatrics. These developments give us reason to hope that we may be entering a new era that is more favorable to political leaders willing to negotiate workable compromises to today's many tough challenges.

Unfortunately, the strategy that helped Democrats challenge "Trumpism" (and avoid typical mid-term losses for the ruling party) was based on pushing Republicans to nominate more extreme, "Trumpist" candidates and then running a campaign based on demonizing those Republicans as enemies of democracy.  Not only was the strategy very risky, but the strategy also seriously undermines the Democrat's claim to be the true defenders of democracy. If these Trumpist candidates are really such a serious threat, how is it defensible to increase their chances of getting elected (at the expense of more moderate Republicans (including some who voted to impeach President Trump)

Still, the gap between policies being advocated by Democrats and Republicans is so large and so consequential that both sides find rule by the opposing party to be completely unacceptable. Since the electorate remains closely divided, there is intense competition for the small number of voters needed to switch partisan control of the government from one side to another. And, given the enormous stakes involved, it is not surprising that both sides are going "all out" in a desperate effort to prevail.

In short, the 2022 election has not reversed, and may even have amplified, hyper-polarized political trends — trends that, for decades now, have been on a upward trajectory.  The good news is that widespread concern about the problem has produced a great many promising initiatives designed to strengthen democratic institutions. While, individually, none of these initiatives is going to be sufficient, they collectively offer real reason for optimism (provided that we can find a way to apply them at sufficient scale and provided that we can assure that, together, they address all aspects of the problem).

Doing this requires a framework for identifying all of the things that need doing and strategies for promoting such efforts at the full-scale and complexity of modern society.  This is a task that could benefit greatly from the collective insights of the conflict and peacebuilding fields and their long-standing efforts to help deeply-divided (and, often, war-torn) communities peacefully govern themselves in mutually beneficial ways. This perspective encourages us to think about democracy as more than a series of political institutions and campaigns. More importantly, democracy is the dispute handling system designed to help citizens find wise and equitable ways of resolving the enormous stream of disputes that characterize modern societies. It depends upon an underlying spirit of freedom, tolerance, and respect that binds together today's highly diverse societies.

In the CRQ paper that we used to initially frame the hyper-polarization discussion, we outlined our thoughts on what such an effort might look like. This vision was elaborated on in a secondary framing paper which examines the ways in which democracy is a dispute-handling systems and things that might be done to strengthen its performance in that regard. Since this paper is quite long, we will be sharing it in several newsletters (starting with this one) as well as in the hyper-polarization discussion.   Our principal goal in convening the hyper-polarization discussion is to further develop this vision by drawing upon the collective expertise of discussion participants in ways that get increasingly specific about what those with conflict and peacebuilding-related expertise could do to help heal our societies.  In the next few newsletters we will be raising, for discussion and refinement, these ideas. 

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

The Key to Revitalizing Liberal Democracy: Think of It as a Conflict Handling System: Part I

Liberal democracies have come under attack in recent years in many parts of the world, as many people feel that the promises made by these systems—prosperity, freedom, respect for diverse identities and beliefs—have not been fulfilled. As a consequence, many have turned to populist movements that they hope will do a better job of defending their identities, beliefs, and interests. But such movements most often end up supporting aspiring (or actual) autocrats, who are most interested in defending their personal power and prosperity, not that of their followers.  Destructive conflicts between competing populist movements also commonly result in political dysfunction and stalemate, intense intergroup hostility, and sometimes violence. A far better solution is to "fix" liberal democracy so that it actually does deliver on its promise of prosperity and "liberty and justice for all." 

There have been a lot of proposals of ways to do that. (See, for example, How to Fix American Democracy; 10 Ideas to Fix Democracy; Fix this Democracy Now). Many of these focus on one particular aspect of the problem—for example, regulating social media, which is correctly seen as a major contributor to intergroup distrust and hate, or limiting gerrymandering and voter suppression which are also rightly seen as crippling the very basic democratic notion that all voices should be heard. We would like to add a different set of ideas for fixing democracy in the U.S. and elsewhere—one that is more systemic and based on the insights of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields.

Democracy is, in essence, a conflict-handling and dispute-resolution process. (Here we are distinguishing, as John Burton first did, between short-term, relatively focused "disputes" which can be resolved, and longer-term, broadly-focused conflicts which usually persist for long periods, but can be handled in more or less constructive ways.) Democracy provides a "power-with" approach to balancing competing interests and needs, ideally allowing all those with an interest in a decision to have a say (though usually indirectly) in that decision. 

This is distinguished from "power-over" approaches in which the most powerful party dictates what will be done, regardless of the interests and needs of others. This power-over approach often results in continuing destructive conflict, as different sides struggle for power, resulting in the almost total inability to address substantive problems as well as larger issues of social domination, oppression, authoritarianism, and, quite often, violence.  

Democracy, in contrast, is intended to be a way to fairly and nonviolently resolve the myriad disputes between different people's, organizations', and groups' interests and needs and produce laws, regulations, policies and individual decisions that reflect the will of the majority, while also protecting the rights and vital interests of minorities. The goal is to make decisions and allocate resources in ways that are widely seen as legitimate and which benefit as many people as possible. 

Populists and others across the globe have rightly pointed out that democracy has not been doing a good job at fulfilling its promises. Many people rightly feel unjustly treated; they feel as if they have no agency and no voice in matters that affect their lives; and they feel that their governments are pursuing policies that are antithetical to their values and needs.  But instead of abandoning democratic, power-with principles in favor of a power-over approach (with all the inherent dangers listed above), we believe that we should work together using power-with approaches to upgrade and improve democracy so that it comes closer to fulfilling its promises.  We further believe that the collective insights of the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields have much to contribute to this process. Drawing from those insights, we will, in the next newsletter, focus on seven areas in which major efforts are needed to strengthen democracy: 1) limiting destructive escalation, 2) communicating in ways that promote mutual understanding, 3) reliably analyzing problems and potential solutions, 4) fair and equitable power-sharing, 5) developing a shared vision for how democracy can hold together the diverse society, 6) mutually beneficial problem-solving, and 7) combining these efforts and will large-scale, systemic approach. 


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From the BI Knowledge Base

Finding Common Ground / Constructive Approaches for Addressing Differences

We have decided to add a new section to our newsletters highlighting one or more  articles from the Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base which relate to the items we are discussing in the Hyper-Polarization Discussion and this Newsletter.  Today's selection is an exercise that Guy Burgess developed a number of years ago to help people (students, concerned citizens, even decision makers) find common ground and a constructive approach to addressing differences in even the most controversial, intractable conflicts. This exercise can be used on high-school and university classrooms, but also in community groups, professional groups, and family groups. The exercise asks participants to think about and then discuss five questions:

  1. On what issues, sub-issues, and facts do you think there is broad agreement among members of contending groups?
  2. On what issues, sub-issues, and facts do you think there is clear and strong disagreement among members of contending groups?
  3. To what extent is each disagreement attributable to different images of objective facts? And, to what is extent is each disagreement attributable to differing values or moral beliefs? 
  4. For differences attributable to differing images of objective facts, can participants imagine some sort of joint fact-finding process that would resolve each disagreement in ways in which all could have confidence?
  5. For differences involving moral beliefs and values, can participants imagine a more constructive and effective way of engaging one another and discussion the issue constructively? Here the goal would be to create opportunities for mutual education and persuasion, limiting instances in which the other side's arguments were never seriously considered, and reducing attempts to force people to do things against their will.

An optional 6th question is: What do you think that the various groups are now doing that contributes to the destructiveness of a conflict, while also undermining a group's ability to protect its own interests? 

If participants have a hard time coming up with answers, the facilitator or teacher can give one or two examples, which can help participants begin thinking about other, related ideas.

We have found this exercise to be very helpful in getting people to better understand the nature of the disagreement (beyond a simple "us-versus-them" explanation) and, more importantly perhaps, how that disagreement can be more effectively handled and decisions made that will benefit everyone.  This is different from traditional dialogues that explore in detail what participants' beliefs are and why they think that way, but don't take the next step to figure out what can be done to address those differences constructively.

The discussion guide is described in much more detail in the Knowledge Base article Finding Common Ground / Constructive Approaches for Addressing Differences: a Discussion Guide.

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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.

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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

Once or twice a week, we will compile BI news, along with new posts from our Hyper-polarization Blog and elsewhere on BI into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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