By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
June 8, 2022
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 would propose focusing on seven elements that are essential for successful democracies.
Seven Essential Elements of Successful Democracies
- The Ability to Limit Destructive Escalation — Democracies must provide citizens with ways to address grievances and resolve disputes that do not escalate conflicts to destructive levels where substantive debate is replaced with mutual hatred and a desire to hurt one another. They must also provide mechanisms to de-escalate conflicts when they do become overheated. Right now, in the United States, people on both sides of the Red-Blue (conservative-liberal) divide seem to believe that the only way they can protect their vital interests is by winning the next election. And the way to do that, many people believe, is to drive distrust and hatred of the other side higher and higher. Between traditional and social media, both sides are stoking anger, fear, and hatred, and disseminating false stories, in order to get people to believe their sides' view of "the truth." This distorts the images that people have of both their friends and their enemies. It progressively erodes critically-important social taboos against illegitimate and, sometimes, morally abhorrent confrontation strategies, including violence. This is not an environment in which democracy can flourish. It might not even survive.
Healthy democracies are ones in which our leaders model and encourage respect for the other side by utilizing the many de-escalating and escalation-limiting strategies which are commonly used by the conflict resolution field. (These include, for example, face-giving (i.e., allowing others to save face), rumor-control, escalation-limiting language, reframing, conciliatory gestures, empathy-generation/humanization and more.)
- Communication Process That Promote Mutual Understanding — Democracies must promote respectful and truthful communication, while condemning and, when possible, isolating disrespectful and false communication. (We do not call for blocking such communication, however, as we strongly support freedom of speech. Without such freedom, it becomes impossible to challenge ill-advised policies and actions.) However, social norms should strongly discourage the kind of misleading and hateful political communication that is now so widespread. Rather than asserting that one side is right, and the other wrong, or one side is good and the other evil, we must practice and promote thoughtful speech and careful, respectful, active listening. This means we need to make the effort to genuinely understand what others believe and feel and why. That should then give us all a much better understanding about areas of common ground, the nature of remaining disagreements and how to move forward constructively on both.
- Reliable Analyses of Problems and Potential Solutions Based on Verified Facts — Successful democracies must be able to reliably identify the problems they face, based on an understanding of verified facts, not the self-serving analyses and manufactured truths that are being promoted by both sides. (The Left tends to think this is only a problem of the right, but it is not. The Left does it too, but they do it differently. Problems cannot be solved without an accurate understanding of what the problem is and what is causing it. Hyper-polarization causes people to oversimplify their understanding of problems by simply blaming the other side, without considering the way in which they may be contributing to the problem or the role of factors that are beyond anyone's ability to control.
In order to be able to solve our mutual problems effectively, we must be able to constructively investigate and discuss factual issues in ways that result in a broad consensus regarding objective facts and the implications of those facts for problem-solving strategies. This, of course, also requires acknowledging and sensibly addressing outstanding (and sometimes irreducible) uncertainties.
To do these things, the "experts" that society employs to investigate these issues must conduct themselves in ways that are genuinely worthy of the public's trust. In other words, the experts must be open about their methods, share their data, and be willing to explain their data, findings, and conclusions both to other experts, and to the extent possible, to the general public. If the public doesn't understand or trust the science, they are very unlikely to follow its guidelines. So scientists need to be able to explain their work in accessible language without jargon, and without talking down to lay listeners or readers. And, they need to focus on answering questions that make a difference in people's lives.
- Fair and Equitable Power Sharing Public trust in and willingness to support liberal democracy ultimately depends upon the belief that the government will be responsive to and responsible for protecting the rights and interests of all citizens, not just the powerful. Ironically, now, both sides of the political divide seem to feel as if the government is not treating them fairly. On the left, there are a wide range of "marginalized" groups that feel as if they have been unfairly treated as long as they have lived in the United States. On the right, there are many who are struggling, but are not "marginalized" according to the left. Nevertheless, they feel that they are being unfairly treated now. For instance, in the U.S., most of these people think that Trump actually won the election which was "stolen" from him (and hence from them). They also think that all of the Left's policies designed to help people of color and other minority groups (such as LGBTQ) are discriminatory against whites.
The only way democracy is going to be seen as legitimate and be supported is if all sides feel as if the government treats them fairly. This means they must have faith in electoral processes and outcomes, and they must feel as if the people in power do speak for and act for them. In order for this to happen, we have to revamp our electoral processes so they aren't a winner-take-all "51% hammer-effect" affair. [Guy invented the term "51% hammer-effect" to describe the process where, when one side wins an election by the slimmest of margins (sometimes less than 51%), it then uses its majority to "hammer" the other side—putting in as many of their desired policies and people (such as judges) as possible, and blocking everything the other side wants to do.] This has our society careening from one set of policies to the polar opposite every 2, 4, 8, or more years. It is also leaves everyone feeling extremely insecure, since one of the things that majorities typically try to do is to solidify their electoral position and make it harder for the other side win in the future. For democracy to work, people need to feel okay with losing an election, knowing that their vital interests will still be protected and they'll have a reasonable chance of winning the next time around.
In addition, our politicians need to start acting the way they often talk shortly after they win office. For example, in the United States Obama, Biden, and indeed, even Trump, promised in their first inauguration speeches that they were going to represent all the people in the country, not just their own party. But they didn't govern that way. Obama tried—he was far more open to compromise initially than his supporters wanted him to be—but the Right wasn't willing to work with him at all. Indeed, they did everything they could to discredit him and block him from succeeding. The Left's goal with Trump was the same, and the Right has been treating Biden the same way as well. Unfortunately, other democracies, in their own way, suffer from similar dynamics.
Successful democracies can't work this way, which is why there is widespread consensus that U.S. democracy is badly broken. It won't be fixed until we start electing people who are willing to use fundamental conflict resolution approaches: listening to all sides to understand all parties' interests and needs, doing some form of joint fact-finding to determine what, actually, our problems are, and negotiating and compromising to make decisions that benefit the vast majority of the population, not just their "chosen" groups. This is the way "power-with" governance works, and this is what is needed if liberal democracy is going to earn the public support it needs to succeed.
- 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 both 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 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.)
- 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.
- 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 the beginning of this essay 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 issues, 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 routinely successfully by conflict resolution professionals as well as by civically-motivated citizens and organizations. But they don't work when they aren't used.
The conflict resolution field has long thought the reason that their services aren't widely used is that they aren't good enough at publicizing their work. Not enough people know about conflict resolution options; if they did, many mediators and other conflict experts assume, their skills would be more widely used. Unfortunately, our years of work with intractable conflicts, has taught us that there is much more to it than that. As we see it, there are five obstacles that must be overcome before these elements can be successfully implemented in ways that will strengthen democracy.
- Complacency: The first obstacle is complacency. We need to help people understand the severity of the hyper-polarization problem and the risks of continuing our current trends. Not only is democracy at stake in the U.S. and elsewhere, the well-being of all humanity is at stake. Our inability to deal with conflict is preventing us from solving other problems, such as pandemics, climate change, inequality, race, immigration, or anything else.
So far, almost everyone is thinking about these issues, and every other social, economic, and environmental issue, in us-vs-them terms. They still think the answer to inequality is to make sure that THEY are on top. The answer to climate change is to make sure that their side's policies prevail. Compromise is seen as totally unacceptable and almost treasonous; the only acceptable goal is to win and then, if at all possible, dominate (and, in many significant ways, oppress) the other side.
We have talked elsewhere about where this is leading us: paralytic political dysfunction, domination and oppression, authoritarianism, large-scale civil unrest, even war. Even as we watch these dystopias unfold, most people don't understand that it is their behavior that is contributing to those ends—it is not just "the other guys." It is all of us. So it is going to take all of us to change our attitudes and our behaviors, if we want to change the likely outcome of the social trends we now see.
- The Scale and Complexity of Societal-Level Conflict: The second obstacle is the immense scale and complexity of society. As a field that prides itself on managing conversations around a table, most conflict resolvers have not yet learned how to apply their insights and processes at the societal level. At best, they try to implement lots and lots of table-oriented processes. But the numbers don't add up. A typical table-oriented process involves 10-20 people. Most societies involve one to 350 million (the United States) to over a billion people (India and China). So it would take hundreds of millions of dialogues to reach a whole society. And, even if this were possible, those dialogues would still constitute only a small fraction of the social interactions that determine individual conflict behavior.
This is, no doubt, a large challenge. But some conflict resolution organizations have been successfully applying small group insights at much larger scales. For instance, Search for Common Ground has for decades been using radio and TV soap operas to reframe conflicts away from win-lose confrontations and toward efforts to humanize and complexify "the other," and to teach fundamental conflict resolution skills such as de-escalatory communication, negotiation, and collaborative problem solving.
All of the elements of successful democracy can and must be scaled up to the societal level, while also being widely implemented locally, which is still where most peacebuilding work needs to be done. In other words, we need to expand the "market share" of constructive conflict interactions while limiting the percentage of interactions that are being handled in destructive, power-over/win-lose ways.
- Bad-Faith Actors: The third obstacle is what we call the bad-faith actor problem. Many powerful people have abandoned good-faith efforts to make democracy work and are, instead, actively working to drive citizens apart for their own profit or power. This is nothing new: the notion of "divide and conquer" has been around for millennia. But modern technology—particularly the Internet and social media—have given bad-faith actors incredibly powerful tools that we have yet to figure out how to block or control. These bad-faith actors are systematically attacking all seven of the elements of successful democracies: they are using traditional and social media to drive distrust, polarization, and escalation; they are drowning out effective communication and fact-finding with destructive communication and fake facts (often using what the Rand Corporation calls the "firehose of falsehood" technique). They are trying to monopolize power and discredit any vision of the future that doesn't include them in charge. And, they are undermining all attempts at collaborative problem-solving while doing their best to get us to view every problem as an existential struggle for survival between "us-and-them," good-and-evil. But the only survival they care about is their own.
- Confusion, Inattention and Resignation of Good Faith Actors: A fourth obstacle is that many good faith actors don't know what to do about hyper-polarization, they don't feel as if it is "their problem," or they don't think there is anything they can do that will make a meaningful difference. Many people—both conflict resolution experts, but also people in many other roles—are distressed by the hyper-polarization and general societal dysfunction they see, but they don't see how their skills can play a role in addressing that. We are not going to be able to implement the seven elements of successful democracy unless we help many, many more of these people understand how they can make a significant difference in at least one of those areas, and get them to start working toward those goals. This will require a very large public information/training effort—through community groups, churches, schools, business—wherever people gather. And this will require much more funding going into such programs. Given the many ways in which hyper-polarization is undermining almost everyone's interests, it should be possible to recruit the needed people and raise the needed funds. And, to do this, we need to clearly distinguish this effort from the many ongoing efforts to advance a partisan agenda under the guise of "saving democracy."
- Lack of Clear Examples of "Things that Need Doing:" The fifth and, perhaps, the most challenging obstacle is the fact that most people do not have a clear image of exactly how they could successfully contribute to the kind of very large-scale effort called for by the above analysis. Developing such an image requires a combination of big-picture and task-specific thinking. People need to learn how to identify, within the vast web of social problems that need attention, specific contributions that they can imagine themselves making—contributions that are consistent with their skills, personality, and areas of potential influence, which are truly needed (not unnecessarily duplicating effort or reinventing the wheel). Although we hope everyone will work on improving their own conflict skills and interactions on the individual level, such efforts can become much more powerful when people make the effort to integrate their efforts into the complex (and as yet inadequately developed) array of networks and organizations that are working in similar directions. Finally, they need to be willing and able to stand up to opposition that they are likely to receive from strongly-committed partisans on both the left and the right who tend to view anything that looks even a little like compromise as an unacceptable concession that must be vigorously opposed.
While there are certainly other ways to conceptualize the hyper-polarization problem, we think that the framework presented above (with its examination of the seven key elements of democracy and the five obstacles to implementing those elements) is a way looking at the big picture that makes it easier to see the specific things that need to be done to fix the problem. It is a framework that helps us to deal with a very large and complex problem by breaking it down into a series of very different, but critically important, tasks that individual citizens and organizations can realistically be expected to accomplish. In other words, it is an approach based on the principles of specialization and the division of labor that are at the core of our complex society.
Building on the ideas presented above (and in a related paper published in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly (CRQ)) we created this matrix that we think makes this all easier to visualize.
This matrix can be read two ways. One can start with the seven elements of democracy (left-hand column) and look at the obstacles (across the top) that will have to be overcome to implement each element. Conversely, one can focus in on the obstacles and then look at how those obstacles (and efforts to overcome them) play out with respect to each of the seven elements of democracy.
Reading Across the Matrix:
Reading from left to right, the matrix can be used to suggest things that individuals and groups focused on implementing one of the seven elements of democracy should consider. For example, those focused on improving the communication between opposing sides need to consider how they might pursue their efforts in ways that:
- Combat complacency by promoting wider public awareness of the degree to which we misunderstand our fellow citizens and the dangers associated with those misunderstandings,
- Effectively use mass communication strategies capable of reaching a very large audiences, while teaching individuals how to improve their own conflict communication skills,
- Identify and find ways to prevent or counter bad-faith efforts to cultivate inaccurate and overly inflammatory images and frame all problems in existential good-versus-evil terms,
- Cultivate better understanding of problems that can lead good-faith actors to seriously misunderstand one another and develop strategies for overcoming those problems, that work, not only at the interpersonal level, but also at the societal level,
- Provide examples of practical things that large numbers of people and organizations can do within their areas of influence to improve communication, understanding, and collaboration between disputing individuals and groups, both small and large.
Reading Down the Matrix:
Reading the matrix from top to bottom, the matrix can be used to highlight things that people focused on a particular obstacle need to be considering. So, for example, those wanting to look at ways good-faith actors can be more effective need to:
- Figure out how good-faith actors can pursue their interests and needs without further escalating the conflict, and how to reduce escalation and polarization where it has already gotten to be destructive,
- Establish constructive communication between disputants at the interpersonal, group, and societal levels,
- Institute and utilize effective, collaborative fact-finding strategies that overcome the problems of distrusted experts and disinformation,
- Develop and implement models for fairly sharing power,
- Develop an image of the future in which everyone (not just one's own side) would want to live,
- Establish collaborative problem-solving strategies to bring about that vision, and
- Do all of this while thinking systemically about how each thing we do influences all the others.
In addition, by reading the chart this way, we can also see that bad-faith actors try to:
- Drive escalation,
- Block effective communication,
- Spread misinformation and "fake facts" (as they have come to be called), while they label actual "facts" as "fake" to get them discredited,
- Monopolize power for themselves and disempower everyone else,
- Promote a self-serving vision for the future
- Solve problems by forcing their desired solution upon everyone else, and
- Stop us from thinking systemically by simplifying their message (and hence our narratives) to one that names their group as "good" and "right," and the other as "wrong" and "evil."
So those are the things we need to address if we want to counter bad-faith actors' attempts to undermine democracy.
The matrix can also be viewed as a strategy for breaking the hyper-polarization problem down into its constituent parts. In this context, the matrix cells correspond to a whole series of "how can we deal with this?" questions. In the dynamic version of the matrix that we are building for Beyond Intractability's new Constructive Conflict Guide, each of the cells will link to knowledge base resources with more in-depth information about the nature of the challenges posed in each cell and strategies for meeting those challenges.
In conjunction with the CRQ paper and BI's Constructive Conflict Initiative, we have long been trying to imagine how, given their scale and complexity, modern societies could mount the kind of massive, societal-level effort called for in the above discussion. The approach that we have found most promising and realistic is something we call "massively-parallel peacebuilding" (MPP).
MPP is not some kind of innovative new strategy that we are trying to persuade everyone to adopt. Rather, it is a phrase we use to make society's natural problem-solving processes more visible and understandable, and to then encourage people to help strengthen those processes. While there are plenty of reasons to worry about current trends, it is also important to remember that the learning processes implicit in complex social systems have repeatedly enabled societies to find their way through comparably serious threats (such as wars, natural disasters, and economic crises). While these processes are almost always messy, painful, and deserving of Charles Lindblom's favorite famous phrase "muddling through," they do, at some very fundamental level, work in ways that permit the continuing evolution of society. Our goal is simply to make this process less painful and to help the evolutionary process produce a more broadly-desirable future.
As we see it, the most important driver behind this progress is Adams Smith's "invisible hand." Though they have many downsides, market mechanisms provide strong incentives to anyone who can figure out some way to make things better. (This includes incentives for those who can figure out how to reverse the perverse market dynamics that often transform this invisible hand into an "invisible fist" capable of producing a variety of "tragedies of the commons.")
Massively-parallel peacebuilding (or, more broadly, massively parallel problem-solving) starts by recognizing that, because of our differing perspectives, experiences, and worldviews, it is not realistic to expect everyone to agree on a single plan to save democracy. Instead, MPP relies on large numbers of independent projects, each of which, in its own way, trys to fix (or at least improve) one element of our broken democracy. MPP is an approach that recognizes that the hyper-polarization problem is so big that nobody can really wrap their mind around it all. It recognizes that these limits require us all to specialize and focus on a few conflict problems (cells in the matrix), while we encourage and rely on others to address the other cells. Ideally, these independent efforts should have enough awareness of what others are doing to assure that all problems are addressed, that wasteful duplication of effort is limited, and that we all learn from each other in ways that enable everyone to move up the learning curve more quickly.
This kind of effort is actually already underway, although it may not be readily apparent. Consider, for example, the Bridge Alliance, an association of roughly 300 organizations and five million participants, all working on different aspects of hyper-polarization in the U.S. There are also many people trying to develop and campaign for reforms to electoral, legislative, and judicial institutions they that would strengthen collaborative governance and limit hyper-polarization. These are just two examples. There are already people and projects working on every cell of the matrix.
While these people and projects are making important advances, these efforts are not yet nearly extensive enough to prevent them from being overwhelmed by the combination of positive feedback loops driving the escalation spiral and the deliberate efforts of bad-faith actors to further amplify our divisions. We need many, many more people and organizations doing this kind of work. One reason why efforts to combat hyper-polariztion have not attracted broader participation is that, when viewed separately, these relatively small scale efforts seem hopelessly inadequate. These same efforts, however, look much more formidable when viewed together as a complex collection of mutually-supporting activities. We believe that making this larger reality more widely apparent will make it easier to persuade others to get involved in the kind of very large-scale effort that is required to reverse the hyper-polarization spiral.
It is also important that we don't allow current difficulties to lead us to give up. Constructive social change requires patience. Sometime, quite possibly soon, there are likely to be events that make the folly of hyper-polarization more widely apparent to a broader swath of the population. This, in turn, is likely to create windows of opportunity for change. When that happens, we need to be ready to offer a broadly attractive vision of exactly how a revitalized democracy could work. This essay, our article in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly, and the larger Beyond Intractability project are all aimed at helping assemble such a vision.
Addressing the Concerns of Skeptics
While we have gotten many positive comments about these ideas, some people found it too complex and overwhelming and very few found it compelling enough to drop what they were doing and start doing something different. We have several responses to these concerns.
First, most people don't have to stop doing what they are doing and do something different—they just need to stop doing things in ways that make things worse. We are not asking anyone to stop their current job and become a mediator. But we are asking mediators to think about ways they can engage on higher levels or teach their clients about listening and other conflict management skills instead of solving their problems for them each and every time. And we are asking others to look at the way they engage with other people, read the news, interpret current events, and interact on social media. We hope many more organizations will add trainings on conflict skills so many more people come to understand how to solve problems using power-with strategies, instead of relying on power-over approaches, which are so dominant now. And we hope, once more people come to understand the benefits of this approach to problem solving, they will start voting for politicians who act this way, instead of voting for bad-faith actors who actually want to destroy our democracy rather than save it.
Second, yes, this is a huge undertaking, but it has precedents. Consider the global response to climate change. In many ways the effort to address the hyper-polarization problem is analogous to the early stages of the climate change movement when a small group of people were starting the process of persuading society that the threat posed by climate change was serious enough to require shifting to a new and not yet fully invented energy system. Due to the success of this effort, everyone now knows what the problem is (even if they don't believe it, they know about it). And huge numbers of people around the world are trying to address it. The response isn't yet enough; we need to do more. But think how much worse it might be if no one had done anything!
And, it seems likely that the political polarization problem is actually more tractable than climate change. The changes people would need to make to fix political polarization would likely be significantly easier than the changes we are asking people to make to combat climate change (like giving up cars and planes and fossil fuels.) Reducing polarization is easier!
In our new Constructive Conflict Guide, we will explore other precedents for such large-scale actions. There actually are many. Some, unfortunately, are the mobilizations to wage war, but others were to bring about major social changes: the U.S. civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement, the marriage equality movement in the United States, are all examples of such massive mobilizations. Even if you don't agree with the goals of one or more of those movements, it can't be doubted that they did engage millions of people and accomplished significant change. So again, citing Boulding's First Law: if it exists, it must be possible. Massive social change IS possible if people decide they want to work at it!
In the context of Adam Smith's invisible hand, it is also worth noting that this analysis highlights a great many opportunities for the next generation of conflict scholars, educators, and practitioners who could build their careers, advance the frontier of the field, and make a critical contribution toward building a brighter future for all of us. While these insights and techniques are, we think, a "necessary" part of the solution, they are a long way from "sufficient." The goal of this essay is to highlight aspects of the problem that have, thus far, been mostly beyond the reach of the current generation of conflict resolution and peacebuilding practitioners and suggest ways in which we might be able to form partnerships that will enable us to better engage the remaining problems. While we would love to be able to offer a quick (and somehow undiscovered) solution, we don't think that's at all realistic. That said, we do believe that there are many things that could be done over the near-term with tools and skills we do have to make things better (and to buy us time to find a more complete solution ).
We want to add one last thought on the relationship between progressive partisanship and peace building. Some of our friends say that they want to be "on the right side of history," by which they mean they want to be upholding the values of the Progressive Left, the political affiliation of many in the conflict resolution field. We would argue that being on the "right side of history" is not being Left or Right, but rather on the side of a peaceful, effective democracy. We also need to remember that democracy is much more than a set of political norms and institutions—it is a society-wide dispute handling system. We think that the above matrix provides a framework for thinking about the many things that we need to do to assure the effective functioning of this system.