Essential Elements of Successful Democracies - Part 2

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Newsletter #64 — Dec. 5, 2022

In This Issue

From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


(The Last Three of) Seven Essential Elements of Successful Democracies

In our last newsletter, we suggested that there are seven essential elements of successful democracies, and we explained the first four: 1) The Ability to Limit Destructive Escalation, 2) Communication Process That Promote Mutual Understanding 3) Reliable Analyses of Problems and Potential Solutions Based on Verified Facts and 4) Fair and Equitable Power Sharing. Here we discuss the last three elements.

  1. Underlying Common Vision  — When former South African Ambassador to the United States, Ebrahim Rassool was asked what lessons the United States could learn from South Africa's reconciliation process, he said that "we must begin from the end." By that he meant that we need to develop a society-wide image of the nature of the country we want to live in. Right now in the United States, the Left has such an image, and the Right has a competing and very different image. These dueling visions set the stage for a continuing struggle over which image is going to be pursued, and as we said in the previous section, together with our current power balance, that just swings the pendulum back and forth every few years.
    A much better approach would be to encourage people to focus more on the underlying interests that we all have in common. (There actually are many, as we all want peace, health, respect, security, and prosperity for ourselves and our families). We then need to build a collective image of how we could work together to come as close as possible to attaining those goals for everyone.
    Rassool explained that in South Africa, that started with the African National Congress (ANC)'s statement that "South Africa belonged to all who lived there."  That statement, made before Apartheid was dismantled, acknowledged that South Africa belonged to whites as well as blacks.  That concession played a big part in allowing white South Africans to accept the end of Apartheid without massive violence. If the Left and the Right in the United States would make a similar pledge—that the United States belongs to all who live here—and move from there to an effort to make it a place where people from all sides would want to live, that would go a long way to cooling down the culture wars and making our democracy functional again.
    Collective visioning processes can help people figure out how to live together, work together, and solve mutual problems together. This would provide substantive benefits (such as reducing inequality, improving health care, education, the environment, etc., and it would also help reduce violence, fear, distrust, uncertainty, and other emotional downsides of hyper-polarization and the resulting authoritarian tendencies. 
    As Rassool pointed out with reference to South Africa, this vision also provides a constructive framework for coming to terms with the unrightable wrongs of the past. In South Africa it led to (and made possible) the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This process might have been seen as a threat (and hence blocked) by the white power structure, had the collective vision of the future not been developed first. But it was accepted, and widely praised as being a key tool to help South Africans of all races learn from and recover from their past.
    The same is beginning to happen in various local jurisdictions in the United States.  But it is likely to become much easier to do much more widely, amd even at the national level, if a collective vision of the future is developed first.  (Such a vision is, of course, only the beginning. Transforming deeply-divided societies requires living that vision over the long-term—a continuing and difficult challenge as South Africa's history demonstrates.) 
  2. Ability to Solve Problems — Successful democracies need to be able to integrate successes in each of the above areas into a trusted and broadly-supported problem-solving system.  Such a system would employ collaborative principles to give all stakeholders a role in jointly analyzing the nature of mutual problems, and developing, evaluating, selecting, and implementing options for addressing those problems while also fairly distributing benefits, costs and risks. Other types of less collaborative problem solving are also sometimes effective, such as expert problem solving. Still, the more the people affected by a decision are involved in making that decision, the more likely it will be accepted.  Such collaborative problem solving is a very tall order if the earlier steps are not taken. However, it is a natural outgrowth of those steps once they are followed.
    We should note that collaborative principles are supposed to be at the core of democratic decision-making processes. In the United States, for example, legislation (including financial appropriations) must secure majority (and, sometimes, super majority) support in both the Senate and the House as well as the President's approval (which often depends on support from affected government agencies).  Successful legislation must also work within the framework of judicial precedents and individual rights. Legislating is also a public process and, in order to continue to win elections, representatives must seek out and consider the views of their constituents and the interest groups that represent them before acting.  Successfully doing all of these things requires everyone to engage in a complex array of negotiations which, in theory, collaboratively balance competing interests.
    In today's hyper-polarized environment, however, this process has almost completely broken down, leaving us with little more than an all-out struggle for power between the two competing factions. The ethical and legal limits that normally constrain such struggles are also collapsing and now causing large numbers of people to question the legitimacy of the entire system.
  3. Systems Thinking —  Implicit in the discussion of the first six key elements of a successful democracy is a seventh and final element, the ability to think systemically and pursue all of these elements simultaneously.  We believe that the conflict resolution-related insights implicit in the above elements offer real promise for helping us bend the arc of history away from the dystopian trends outlined in several of our past newsletters, and back toward a more vigorous pursuit of the democratic ideal. But this can only be done if people think about, strive to understand, and engage with the entire conflict system, instead of simplifying it into an "us-versus-them," "good-versus-evil" narrative.
    Decision makers and citizens need to examine and understand the complexity of the parties, their interests, needs, values, concerns, and fears. Disputing groups are not monolithic, as is often assumed, but they are actually quite heterogeneous on a wide range of dimensions. The facts of most of the highly-contentious issues are also highly complex.  Answers about how to respond to climate change, poverty, crime, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, and education, for instance, are all very complex. None of these issues can be adequately understood and managed by listening to the narratives presented by just one side or the other.  It is essential that we listen to each other to understand what the different sides believe, and why they believe that. Is it because they have a misunderstanding of verifiable facts?  Is it because their life background or current situation is different?  Only when we understand the sources of different beliefs and opinions, can we solve problems in ways that are likely to be accepted by a majority of people and hence stand a chance (maybe even a good chance) of actually working. 

Doing these seven things will be difficult, no doubt.  But all are possible.  Years ago, renowned economist and peace theorist Kenneth Boulding coined what he called "Boulding's First Law":  "If it exists, it must be possible." The same can be said of all of the elements listed above.  All of these are done successfully by conflict resolution professionals routinely as well as by civically-motivated citizens and organizations. But they don't work when they aren't used. 

There are substantial obstacles that need to be overcome, however, when undertaking these seven elements.  Those we will be discussing in the next newsletter.


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Kristen Hansen: Are Bridge-builders Being "Too Nice" to the Right?

This essay was in response to a comment that said that "many bridge-builders unwittingly aid and abet the right by being too nice to or about them." Kristen responded by suggesting first, that bridge-builders (along with anti-MAGA conservatives and democrats and cross-partisan democracy reformers need to be precise in distinguishing between "the political class" and the many millions of Americans who vote "MAGA."  Those voters do so for many legitimate reasons. Very few, she asserts, are voting for autocracy, although social psychology suggests that 1/3 of American voters  "might be attracted towards more authoritarian leader styles," particularly in times of heightened uncertainty or threat." What can we do, she asks and then answers by suggesting that we " reduce the sense of threat, including the perceived threat that left-leaning Americans pose to their values and preferences. In other words, we need to figure out how to shrink the "Radical Socialist Left" boogeyman in their minds and hearts.  We do that through proximity, invitation, and piercing stereotypes with our humanity.

She goes on to say "the primary role of bridge-builders in America at this time is to "call in," not to "call out." That this does not make us irrelevant, in fact it makes us essential. We can't "save democracy" by canceling, condescending towards, or vilifying half the electorate within it. That isn't good math. The system we are trying to "save" needs as many adherents as possible, from all across our diverse and widening ideological spectrum."

She explains in more detail in her full post why this is so essential and how we can do that, including giving six examples of ways the Left or Bridge-builders from either side of the U.S. political divide might approach people on the other side by focusing on actions and outcomes and avoiding vilifying or condescending to people on the right or those drawn to more authoritarian styles of governing.

Read Kristen's Full Post


Matt Legge: Beware the Popular Idea That You Know a Hidden Truth

In this essay, Matt explores the ubiquity of the asleep/awake metaphor referring to people who either "understand" the true nature of society (or their place in it) and those who are unaware (or "asleep") to such truths.  He gives examples of this metaphor being used not only on the Left (as in "wokeness,") but also on the right, and in many of the world's religions going back hundreds of years. While its ubiquity suggests that this metaphor resonates widely, it has significant downsides.  First, "it presents the world as a simple binary: Either you’re awake or you’re asleep. Either you see things as my side tells you to, or your views can be written off as mere dreams with no bearing on reality. ...Feeling like you’re in an elite minority that has woken up to a secret creates a vast, perhaps insurmountable rift between your perspective and mainstream society’s. This could readily contribute to affective polarization—feeling negatively toward those who don’t see things as you do, even dehumanizing them. ... The metaphor positions group members as prophets who know it all already and therefore don’t have anything to gain from listening to, or collaborating with, outsiders. There isn’t much that a sleeping person can offer an awake one. " 

Matt goes on to explain how much hyper-confidence can "reducecuriosity;and intellectual humility when hearing alternate perspectives and experiences. And evidence shows that both of these are hugely beneficial in making conflicts  more constructive." So he urges his readers to listen more to "thoughtful and credible people who think differently from you." Listening doesn't mean agreeing, he says, "it just means rejecting the too-easy assumption that you’re the only one who knows the truth."

Read Matt's Full Post


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From the BI Knowledge Base

Wendell Jones: Complex Adaptive Systems

This essay was written in 2003, when few conflict resolution scholars or practitioners were thinking in terms of systems. Since then, systems and complexity thinking has gotten much more popular in the conflict and peacebuilding fields. But the essay Wendell wrote for the BI Knowledge Base is still worth reviewing for anyone not clear about the difference between “complicated” and “complex adaptive” systems. The distinction is essential for successfully navigating democracies and reducing hyper-polarization.

Wendell started out his original essay by observing that European and North American cultures hold tight to several assumptions:

  • Every observed effect has an observable cause.

  • Even very complicated phenomena can be understood through analysis. That is, the whole can be understood by taking it apart and studying the pieces.

  • Sufficient analysis of past events can create the capacity to predict future events.

While these assumptions have served us well in understanding the physical world, they do much less well when we try to understand the social and political world—as those are not merely complicated, but complex adaptive systems.

Complicated systems are determined—the same input creates the same output in a predictable way. Complex adaptive systems are made up of independent “agents,” each of which behaves according to its own decision rules, and these behaviors interact in highly unpredictable ways. … [Thus, ] complicated linear and determined systems produce controllable and predictable outcomes. Complex adaptive systems can produce novel, creative, and emergent outcomes. …

Wendell goes on to ask: “does this mean that intervention in difficult or intractable conflict is destined to be fruitless? Of course not. But, he says,

making a difference in the midst of intractable conflict will not come from a reductionistic analysis of the system, conducted in hopes of designing and deploying a "definitive" intervention. Instead, evolutionary progress toward resolution can be possible through mindful experiments from within the conflict and then moving with the self-organization that follows.

Read the whole article to learn more about that this means for effective responses to societal hyper-polarization.


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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.