Review of Fighting Better: Constructive Conflicts in America by Louis Kriesberg

Reviewed by Heidi Burgess

December 29, 2022

Citation: Louis Kriesberg, Fighting Better: Constructive Conflicts in America. Oxford University Press. December 2, 2022.

The author, Louis Kriesberg, is a longtime colleague and friend. I debated whether to refer to him as "Kriesberg" or "Lou" here, but opted for the more formal approach, as that is more typical for our other book summaries and most reviews.

Quite independent of that, I must say this book is a scholarly masterpiece, unlike any other I have read in the conflict resolution field.  It takes readers back to 1945, and in one chapter on political power, back to 1765, to help those of us who have little (or in my case forgotten) historical knowledge about the struggles for justice that have taken place in the past. Kriesberg clearly illustrates how we got to where we are now in terms of status, class, power, and racial struggles, drawing lessons from that journey to suggest how we should best go forward if we are to make progress towards justice now. 

In Chapter One, Kriesberg acknowledges that America is deeply divided, but, he points out, this is not new: 

Americans have often been divided and antagonistic in profound ways throughout their history. Destructive conflicts have been waged many times throughout US history. However, many conflicts were also constructively conducted so that they yielded progress toward greater liberty and justice for all Americans. In this book, I compare conflicts, examining how some conflicts, since 1945, were waged more or less well and other more or less badly. ( p. 1)

And from that comparison, he provides suggestions (indeed, history itself provides the suggestions) about what we should be doing now if we want to attain "greater liberty and justice for all Americans."

The book focuses on what Kriesberg calls "three primary dimensions of all human societies: class, status, and power." Although he does not include race in that list because he correctly sees race as a problematic concept, he does devote two chapters to African American inequality, which he lumps in with "status conflicts." These (class, status, and power) are the arenas,he says, "in which many conflicts arise and are waged." (2)  Disputants seek to change (or maintain) the degree of inequality in each dimension, and particular peoples' placement along those dimensions. 

I examine how conflicts can be waged constructively, by analyzing significant American conflicts that did or did not work out well for the contenders and the country as a whole. The specific objectives set by adversaries and the methods they chose to achieve them are examined. I also note how the contenders’ objectives may or may not be consistent with advancing equity in class, status, or power. At times, I offer possible alternative ways of framing the particular objectives and other strategies of contention that might have been deployed to enhance equity. Such analyses should yield guidelines for waging future conflicts constructively. In effect, the book can serve as a coach for people entering, waging, or settling a conflict.1 Fighting better is a way to overcome contemporary challenges and preserve democracy. (p. 2)

Each of the following chapters examines a particular type of struggle (class, status, power, race) over a particular period of time. 

For instance, Chapter 2 focuses on class conflicts between 1945 and 1969, examining in detail the labor struggles of that era, as well as the broader fight against poverty. That time period was characterized by many major strikes, perhaps, Kriesberg observes, because such labor stoppages were illegal during World War II, and also "after the war, the demand for consumption goods was high and labor availability was tight, giving workers leverage to strike effectively." (p. 14)  Frustration about labor disruptions, however, resulted in passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which reduced the protections for workers and their ability to strike. At the same time, however, Congress created the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service as an independent agency of the U.S. government.  "The agency was given the mission of preventing or minimizing the destructive impact of labor- management disputes by providing mediation, conciliation, and voluntary arbitration services. These are important elements in conducting many kinds of conflicts constructively." (p. 15) This was, not only a boon to labor-management relations, it also was a primary impetus for the development of the broader conflict and dispute resolution fields. Also constructive was the continued growth and power of unions in this era, despite the Taft-Hartley Act.  

Unions and the collective bargaining associated with them tend to provide corporate and societal benefits. Thus, companies with union contracts have higher retention rates for workers and the companies have lower recruitment and training costs. Information about collective bargaining and the agreements reached in the 1950 and 1960s between blue collar workers and large companies were publicly known. White- collar workers knew that their pay grades were affected by those agreements.15 Corporate leaders sought good government relations and good public regard, and many seemed to think the country’s economic well- being coincided with their companies’ well- being. Giving themselves very high salaries would have been unseemly in this interdependent context. There was some common good sensibility.

Hmmm...need I say more?

Other benefits of this era were the "War on Poverty," which, while not successful in eliminating poverty entirely, had important long-term effects. "A hallmark of the War on Poverty was to strive for the maximum feasible participation of the poor in shaping and administering the programs.  Although ridiculed by some critics, this feature had enduring benefits in the struggle to reduce poverty." (p. 20)  Although its provisions were cut back by the Nixon administration, the "Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 and related subsequent legislation did more than reduce the proportion of people in poverty. The legislation expanded the safety net for all who were in poverty or might fall into poverty as a result of accidents, medical crises, old age, or low earnings." ( p. 23) The GI Bill and other veteran programs also were established in this period, reducing income and wealth inequality further, although, Kriesberg notes, there was considerable racial discrimination in the administration of these programs.

Chapter 3 examines the period from 1970 - 1992 which was characterized by rising class inequality.  The cause of this growing inequality is widely debated, some saying it was due to "large immutable forces," particularly technological and global market developments, such as increasing automation, and growing world trade, investment, and communication, which put U.S. workers in direct competition with low-wage workers in developing countries.  Others say it was intentional policy decisions—related to automation and globalization in part, but also relating to labor unions, tax policies, and governmental anti-poverty programs. The result, however, was not only growing wealth and income inequality, but also second-order problems related to health (both physical and mental), and life expectancy, among others.

Kriesberg spends a lot of time examining the policies of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Although he doesn't use this quote, the sections remind me of Rosalyn Carter's alleged comment that Reagan "made us feel comfortable with our greed." This attitude led to the formation of numerous advocacy groups and think tanks on both sides of the inequality ideological divide, for instance Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Enterprise Institute, which while founded in 1938, became much more active in the 1970s, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. Reviewing their advocacy actions, Kriesberg observes  

I do not regard the struggles as conducted by these advocacy groups to be very constructively waged. The failures to be more constructive relate to the narrow beneficiaries of the groups’ efforts, at the expense of large numbers of fellow citizens, rather than engaging in discovering mutually beneficial outcomes. When their efforts are successful, they contribute to increased inequality in the United Sates, not to liberty and justice for all. Furthermore, their actions are pursued in ways that often are obscured and unrecognized, thereby undercutting US democracy. Moreover, the arguments used in these groups’ ideological struggle are often derived from dubious information rather than empirically based policies and principles.

Kriesberg then looks at two liberal advocacy organizations: the Ford Foundation and the Roosevelt Institute, which he sees as constructive actors, as they worked to diminish inequality and did so on the basis of empirical knowledge.  

In 2015, Darren Walker, Ford’s president since 2013, announced that the foundation’s crucial task was to disrupt the drivers of inequality. Program officers discussed what drivers there were and how they might be overcome.47 They stressed five drivers: entrenched cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance, and inclusion; failure to invest in and protect vital public goods; unfair rules of the economy; unequal access to government; and persistent prejudice and discrimination. They make grants to respond to these drivers in seven interconnected ways, including civil engagement and government. Their grants tend to support activities that sustain and build the infrastructure that responds to and disrupts the drivers of inequality.

Kriesberg also looks at the polarization of the media in this chapter, substantially caused by the end of the "fairness doctrine" during the Reagan administration.  This doctrine, first established in 1949, required that "radio and television stations provide free airtime for responses to controversial statements that were broadcast." Its repeal led to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and 8 years later, Fox News.  Another important driver of political polarization he discusses is social media, which began to expand rapidly in the 1990s.

Chapter 4 For all the backslides discussed in Chapter 3, things got even worse starting in 1993 to the present, given, as Kriesberg puts it, "extreme class inequality can generate even greater inequality." (47) This problem was made worse by relatively low levels of inter-generational income and wealth mobility, which is lower in the United States than in other developed countries. While there is some movement in the middle three quintiles, there is enormous stability in the lowest 1/5 and highest 1/5 of the income ladder. Kriesberg spends considerable time in this chapter recounting the ideological and policy conflicts between the Clinton administration and Newt Gingrich's Congress.  While Clinton tried to chart a middle course, agreeing to some Republican demands (such as deregulation and welfare reform), he also pursued a number of liberal goals, such as universal health care. Nevertheless, Gingrich and the Republicans opposed him however they could, including impeaching him for sexual improprieties. Kriesberg observed that:

It might be argued that Clinton’s approach of accepting some Republican policies and ideas reveals the weakness of the constructive conflict approach. Such conciliatory actions by Clinton were not reciprocated by the Republican Party leadership; indeed, he was subjected to severe hostility.

I think that a broader and more calculated constructive conflict approach might have been more effective. No doubt, Clinton was a superb and often effective political tactician as president. But his progressive goals might have been better advanced if they were fought for in the context of confronting the Republican priorities that protected the interests of narrow interest groups, rather than to the interests of the country as a whole. That would have entailed arousing and working with nongovernmental actors and the people who were adversely impacted by the changing circumstances and growing inequality.

In framing the conflict with Republicans, Clinton’s acceptance of the priority of shrinking the government was not productive. The Democrats might have framed the contentions in terms of the goals that would be met by government action that would benefit all the people in the United States. The common benefits might be stressed: if poor people had the resources to be economically productive, all the people in the country would benefit. The GDP would increase, and tax revenues would rise. (p. 51)

But the Republicans could have conducted themselves much more constructively as well:

They might have acknowledged and welcomed the Democratic policies that were similar to Republican preferences, avoid nasty name- calling, and not persist in personal investigations of the Clintons that were not well grounded. Instead, they chose fierce opposition and name- calling. Unfortunately, there was little pressure from proponents on either side favoring more constructive strategies.(p. 52)

Such destructive behaviors continued, of course, under George W. Bush, primarily revolving around 9-11 and the catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. These were foreign policy disasters: they greatly harmed the all the countries involved (including the United States, whose reputation was greatly diminished), but they also further drove inequality, as money was pulled from domestic programs aimed at reducing inequality, and put into war fighting instead (although it should be noted that Bush tried his best to fight these wars "on the cheap," meaning the military did not have the personnel or the equipment they needed to do their assigned jobs effectively.)

Furthermore, the wars intensified divisions within the United States, which in turn hampered cooperation between the two major political parties. They also increased public distrust of the government and politicians, increasing people’s belief in the incompetence and/ or dishonesty of public officials. Such sentiments discouraged turning to the government to help solve pressing social problems.

This chapter continues with discussions of the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, history which is more familiar to many of the book's likely readers.  Summed up quickly, Obama sought to enact many policies that would reverse the damages done over previous administrations, but was hampered by continuous opposition by the Republicans. A backlash against what he did accomplish and/or the simple fact that he was African American, along with significant missteps on the Democratic side, led to the election of Trump, who took antagonism to liberal/progressivism and to government itself to a whole new level. While Trump (and many of his followers) believe his administration was a great success,  Kriesberg argues their policies "served only a small proportion of the people and were contrary to advancing life, liberty, and justice for all. Second, they failed to enduringly achieve the populist goals they claimed to be seeking. A somewhat more constructive approach might have achieved more constructive results." (p. 68)

Chapter 5 looks at efforts to reduce African American inequalities from 1945-69. Kriesberg starts out be explaining why he doesn't describe those struggles as "racial conflict." Race is a socially-constructed concept, not a biological one, and who is what race changes over time. The American concept of race, he explains, 

was developed by the dominant strata to explain and justify treating some humans as inferior and even treating some of them as if they were commodities. The Indigenous peoples were deemed to be wild and inherently inferior.

While primarily looking at the post-war period, this chapter briefly reviews the status of African Americans after the Civil War, particularly the losses suffered by southern African Americans during the Reconstruction era and all African Americans during the depression and afterwards. The bulk of the chapter describes and assesses the constructive/destructiveness of postwar efforts to improve race relations and the status of African Americans. He looks at executive actions (e.g., Truman's executive order ending racial discrimination in the armed services), social movement organizations' use of institutionalized methods (including lawsuits such as Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS and nonviolent, non- institutional social movement actions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit ins, marches and the bus "freedom rides." These actions together resulted in much constructive change including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and many other local changes to reduce racial discrimination. However, most of this progress was brought to a halt when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, and widespread riots ensued.  This resulted in significant backlash against African Americans, which was then used to justify retreats from integration efforts and the institution of strong law-and-order policies that particularly hurt African Americans.

Kriesberg concludes this chapter by saying that 

Constructively waged fights did contribute to significant progress toward more equality between African Americans and Whites, especially in the South. Perversely, destructively waged conflicts by supporters of segregation often backfired and actually contributed to progress. Moreover, relatively fierce contentious efforts to overcome or simply reduce the great status inequalities of African Americans relative to Whites were often ineffective or even counterproductive.


Considering the progress toward greater equality for African Americans beyond the place and time of the southern civil rights struggle, the evidence presented in this chapter indicates limited progress. Government policies, market forces, and widespread prejudice sustained considerable discrimination and segregation. However, progress is multidimensional. Progress in many arenas for many people can occur alongside stagnation and even backsliding for other people in some realms. The next chapter analyzes that complexity, after 1969.

Chapter 6 continues the discussion started in the last chapter as it relates to equality in education, housing, justice and well-being. In education, Kriesberg notes that segregation did diminish after Brown (very slowly and with much pushback at first) until the late 1980s, when it began to increase again. However, schools with predominantly African American enrollments continue to be less well funded, have less competent and qualified teachers, and less parental involvement, all of which contribute to continuing deep racial achievement gaps despite numerous programs intended to address that problem. If this achievement gap is to be remedied, remedies in all of these areas will be necessary. But Kriesberg points out, "Needed changes are more likely to be achieved if people do not simply decry their dire conditions and the injustice of them. It is also necessary to identify what changes should be made and what strategies can establish the desired changes.".(p 110).

Kriesberg goes on to note that housing inequality has continued, although African American housing segregation has declined somewhat since 1970, in part due to policy changes, and in part due to a decrease in White prejudice toward African Americans. Even some Republican administrations have been helpful. For instance:

In 1986, President Reagan and the US Congress created the Low- Income Housing Tax Credit.58 It has become the longest- lasting and largest affordable housing program in US history. It is based on a public- private partnership model, offering tax incentives to attract private equity investments for both nonprofit and for- profit developers. It is a flexible and decentralized system, but also one that yields great profits for lawyers, accountants, and investors. It provides government subsidies for affordable housing, but does not entail government construction, which had so dramatically failed. The engagement of all the stakeholders in constructing and sustaining affordable housing is making a large contribution to providing affordable housing for low- income Whites and African Americans.

The topic of justice, interpreted to mean equal treatment in and by the justice system, is also a mixed bag, but has seen many fewer successes than failures in terms of increasing equality between the races. We still have not recovered from the harsh "law and order" policies that were put in place following the 1960s riots, although some laws were passed in an effort to do so. Differential treatment of African Americans by the police has also continued, as became abundantly clear after George Floyd's death and the protests that followed. Although the extent of the protests were unprecedented in the United States, the African American Lives Matter movement arose at the same time that Trump was seeking re-election as a "law and order president." 

White supremacists saw an opportunity to gain influence. On the other hand, an increasing number of Americans worried that the opportunity to transform race relations in the United States was being lost and American democracy itself was becoming endangered. Political polarization was deepening.

This chapter concludes with an assessment of African American well-being. While there are still many challenges, and some setbacks, African American's acceptance by most whites, and their prestige has increased over the years. We have a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, we had a African American President and many other African American political leaders at lower levels; we have a greater recognition of the notion of "white privilege" and what that means for African Americans, and along that vein there is much more consideration of the notion of needed reparations than there was in 1945 and even 1970. Kriesberg concludes:

In the post–World War II years discussed in this book,[the] conventional view of the US has been shifting. Increasingly, the US is now generally viewed as a diverse country. The virtues of its diversity are increasingly celebrated; they include more information and greater creativity. Diversity contributes to a more expansive economy in many spheres. The direct actions of African Americans in conducting themselves as equals have been crucial and effective.

Chapter 7 addresses conflicts about gender and other collective identities,  from 1765 - 2002. Since this review is getting very long, I will only say that this chapter covers the struggle for equal rights for women and people who identify as LGBT or Q. (I do not group those together as one, as there are getting to be considerable internal conflicts between each of these identity groups--they are not at all monolithic).  This chapter also considered ethnic differences, particularly issues revolving around White identity. Before 1945, Kriesberg notes, that before 1945, and even for quite awhile after that, immigrants coming to America "were expected to assimilate into the preexisting White culture, as in a melting pot, and be White Americans with shared identities as Whites and as Americans. It never quite happened." (p. 165.)  

The celebration of diversity was increasing due to moral and ethical changes and demographic changes. The legitimacy of the demands by Indigenous and African American people in the United States for equal rights and living conditions was difficult to deny. Indeed, the recognition by Whites that their policies had imposed dire circumstances upon non-Whites was growing.

But some White Americans still claim that Whites are supreme over African Americans and hence have a right to subordinate them. People with such beliefs used their official positions during the Jim Crow era to impose their views.  But this approach was widely condemned and was eventually repealed.  Now a plurality (64%) think ethnic diversity is very good for the country, while only 14% think it has a negative effect.( page 167.)

In Chapter 8, Kriesberg examines (in)equality in political power from 1765 - 2022. After examining what the notion of "power" means, and how it is expressed in the political context, Kriesberg observes that American values and ideals uphold the notion of power equality.  But the reality is not so equal. Examining the struggles of the Joseph McCartney era over communism, the anti-Vietnam war protests, and student-led civil rights protests, Kriesberg discusses what worked and what didn't to bring about changes in relative power and social status. He also looks at the ebb and flow of the power of established political parties and the relationship between them. While the two parties used to cooperate at least to some degree, starting with Newt Gingrich's leadership of the House of Representatives, in 1995, the Republicans have become increasingly antagonistic, pursuing distributive (power-over) approaches instead of integrative (power-with) approaches. 

The Republican Party focused on striving for distributive power against the Democrats. It had taken on aspects of being a collective identity, which was more salient for them, relative to the US collectivity as a whole. This was associated with viewing the opposition as an enemy and promoting a sense of loyalty to one’s own threatened community. This can justify breaking norms of good conduct and believing false allegations about the antagonists. These became signs of solidarity and loyalty, particularly for the right- wing radicals.

Insofar as that process entailed rejecting the primacy of traditional US aspirations to forge a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, Republican Party conflicts against Democrats were often waged destructively, for nonconstructive goals. According to the approach taken here, such conduct in America tends to be self- destructive, or at least less constructive than a more inclusive approach would be, were it taken. Fighting very aggressively often provokes strong resistance from expanding coalitions and a backlash.

This distributive approach results in violence much more often than do collective (possibly win-win) power contests.  The role of violence in US political power conflicts is the topic of Chapter 9. 

Chapter 9 Baby boomers, like myself, tend to think primarily about the 1960s riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and then the violence surrounding the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, the riots after George Floyd was killed in 2020, and the January 6, 2021 events at the Capitol of being the main examples of political violence.  But this chapter points out there have been many more—the MOVE standoff in Philadelphia in 1977, Ruby Ridge, ID in 1992, Waco, TX in 1993, many actions taken by white supremacy and Christian identity groups such as the KKK and the Aryan Nation over all these years, the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in 1995, the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018— this chapter covers these and many more. 

It also covers the way in which Trump encouraged violence and otherwise hyper-polarized, hateful attitudes and behavior towards anyone who did not wholeheartedly support his assertions and policies, be they Democrats or what came to be called RINOs--"Republicans In Name Only" (meaning any Republican who did not support Trump's policies). 

This chapter discusses the 2020 election and aftermath in detail, concluding that while Trump failed in his attempt to retain the Presidency, "the changes he and the party are introducing in many states to suppress and manipulate future elections do threaten America’s democracy." (p. 213) While this is still true, a bit of good news is the November 2022 elections, which occurred after this book went to print. Voters decisively rejected most election-denying candidates, at least at the state level, and refused to seat secretaries of state who promised to tamper with future elections if the Republicans did not win.  So while gerrymandering remains a big problem, and many MAGA Republicans remain in power, the threats Kriesberg feared in that statement are at least somewhat reduced.

Kriesberg concludes this chapter by saying:

The changes in power inequality in America since 1945 are complex. They are influenced by, and in turn influence, rising class inequality and significant declining status inequality. The changing disequilibrium among these three ranking systems underlay many conflicts. That makes consideration of how to contend constructively very important. The progress toward greater equality for previously relatively low- status people should be seen as progress toward attaining a more perfect American union. Nevertheless, some people are aggrieved by such changes. Conflicts are inevitable and conducting conflicts well is important. Unfortunately, American history is replete with badly managed conflicts and considerable violence related to that progress toward greater equality.

The increased ranking of people in previously subordinated members of several collective identities, as discussed in chapters 5– 7, marks progress in fulfilling American values and aspirations. That progress was made, significantly, by applications of constructive conflict methods. Nevertheless, some people have experienced those gains as losses to them. They resent that. The political power system could provide instruments to mitigate resentments and destructive ways to express the resentment.

Chapter 10 This chapter focuses on "better ways of fighting" that can restore democracy and again make progress on the overarching values on which America was based: liberty and justice for all. Here Kriesberg advises understanding and utilizing the seven elements of his "constructive conflict approach," an approach that he has spent a lifetime developing, and which has become the core of his (and co-author Bruce Dayton's) book Constructive Conflict, recently out in its sixth edition. Those elements are:

1. Many conflicts are conducted constructively relying largely on legitimate, institutionalized procedures or supplementing them.

2. Importantly, constructive conflicts are generally conducted using blends of persuasion and positive sanctions, and some coercion, minimizing violence.

3. Opposing parties in constructive social conflicts recognize that they are not homogeneous, unitary actors; rather, each consists of shifting components.

4. Members of each side in a conflict social construct their conflict, which can contribute to being constructive by viewing the conflict as an aspect of a broader relationship.

5. A constructive approach generally entails opponents noticing and considering each other’s concerns, which can result in some mutual, but unequal, benefits.

6. Constructive conflicts are usually importantly interconnected, including recurring over time and with members of each side also engaged in many other conflicts, checking overzealous focus on one conflict

7. Recognizing that conflicts are not static, the approach fosters constructive conduct by utilizing fresh changes within any side or in the conflict’s context.

This chapter also considers those strategies in the context of four severe challenges currently facing the United States, all of which are currently being approached in primarily destructive ways.  These are 1) intensifying climate change, 2) COVID and its effects, 3) rapidly changing global political and economic conditions, and threats to the U.S. democratic system. All of these threats have significantly impacted efforts to attain class, status and power equity. These negative effects, he says, however, "are not immutable; they depend on the way inevitable conflicts are waged. The challenges can be good opportunities if conflicts are waged constructively."

The remainder of the book contains a long list of suggestions for constructively addressing class, status, and power inequities.  Some will fit in some circumstances; others will fit elsewhere.  His suggestions are not a "one-size-fits-all" panacea for our current woes.  But they certainly do suggest that there are myriad ways we can do better than we are doing now, and that is the responsibility of all of us, no matter who we are, and what class, status, and power position we are in, to play our role in pursuing equity in constructive, not destructive ways. 

Taken as a whole, the book provides more than ample evidence of why we should do this.  Constructive conflict not only works better for the individual participants; it works better for everyone.  Destructive conflict approaches, while sometimes appearing to be beneficial to the instigator over the short-run, almost inevitably leads to backlash that reverses any gains made and hurts everyone over the longer run.

This book makes that point loudly and clearly, over and over again.  It presents a detailed history of what has worked and what has failed in the struggle for class, status, and power equity over the last 75 years.  Anyone who hopes to make progress on any of those issues, or on any of the "existential" challenges of our time--climate, COVID, global political and economic threats, or threats to democracy should read this book before they consider their strategies for pursuing their goals. 


1 I say "alleged" because Guy has long quoted her that way, but I can't find it on Google.  Even if she didn't, it sums up his attitude toward inequality, as is well documented elsewhere: Where Greed, Unofficially Blessed by Reagan, Has Led,   Homeless Choose to Be, Reagan Says,   Decade of Greed?