Canaries, Constructive Advocates, and Intermediaries

Canaries, Constructive Advocates, Intermediaries Graphic

By Guy Burgess 

January 2, 2023

The above figure illustrates a simple, but useful, way of thinking though the tension that exists between those in advocacy and intermediary roles. The figure is built around a simple metaphor of a bridge built to span the deep divisions that exist on so many contemporary issues.  The ultimate goal is to build sustainable agreements on how to wisely and equitably balance competing interests and negotiate complex trade-offs. For simplicity, the figure envisions a simple, bilateral bridge between groups in competition on a complex cluster of issues (e.g. energy policy, combating discrimination, family relationships). While this two-sided approach is appropriate, given the hyper-polarized nature of so many societies, the issues are much more complex than that, with a wide array of competing interests and interest groups. The real challenge is figuring out how to span these many different, but interlocking, divides. 

The value of this metaphor is in the way that it highlights three different but complementary and essential roles. It explains why, even when the stakes are high and the issues are of critical importance, we shouldn't abandon intermediary roles in favor of evermore forceful advocacy.

At this point, the first role ("canaries") is the most extensively developed with lots of individuals and organizations working in such roles. There are many fewer people working in the second (constructive advocacy) and, especially, the third (intermediary) roles. We think that strengthening these two roles could do much to enhance society's problem-solving efforts.

The first role we somewhat cryptically refer to as the "canaries" because, in the old days, miners would take canaries into the coal mines because they were more susceptible to the buildup of methane gas. By watching the canaries for signs of sickness, the miners would be able to detect a methane buildup in time for them (and, hopefully, the canaries) to escape. 

As we use the term, "canaries" refers to those individuals who are focused on warning us about some particular natural hazard or societal problem that they believe represents some major (and, occasionally, existential) threat that is not widely recognized and must be urgently addressed (e.g. climate change, systemic racism, immigration, globalization).  

We very much need canaries. With their intense commitment and specialized focus on particular problems, they prevent us from being "blind sided" by unseen threats. They are also the "squeaky wheels" who persistently pressure us to address important issues even when other concerns try to divert our attention.

The theory of change underlying the work of canaries is, to mix metaphors, a "scared straight" approach. The assumption is that, if you just sound the alarm in a sufficiently frightening way, people will prioritize the threat and respond by immediately taking appropriate corrective measures. 

Unfortunately, as the giant inventory of threats that are not now being adequately addressed demonstrates, this theory of change seldom works. The reason is that, as a society, we face lots of such threats — threats that different citizens with different perspectives prioritize differently. People intuitively understand that prioritizing some threats undermines efforts to address other threats. The result is often a dysfunctional stalemate with a cacophony of interests claiming that their issue is the most important and must be prioritized. Unfortunately, the intractable nature of such stalemates has a way of preventing effective action on most everything.

This is where the other two roles come in. 

Constructive Advocates
Constructive advocates share the canaries' deep concern about a particular threat and are deeply committed to finding ways to effectively address that threat.  Rather than specializing in the nature of the threat (as the canaries do), their area of expertise is in the complex dynamics surrounding public policy conflicts. Their role is helping the canaries build an effective strategy for persuading the larger society to meaningfully address their issue. Constructive advocates help canaries understand likely sources of opposition and craft sustainable strategies for minimizing and, where necessary, overcoming that opposition.  The constructive advocates do this by recognizing that other people (other canaries) are concerned about other critically important issues and that the only way forward is to build a broad-based coalition that simultaneously and effectively addresses a wide range of concerns. 

In doing this, the goal is to build a base of support that is broad enough to be sustained through the inevitable swings of political power.  This requires building support across the political divide — something that, in today's hyper-polarized environment is difficult, but not impossible.

In their efforts to do this, constructive advocates know how to respond to pushback against their efforts in respectful ways that limit the kind of opposition that arises when people feel disrespected and feel that there their concerns are being neglected. Constructive advocates know how to use different lines of evidence to persuade people from different perspectives that their concerns are, indeed, valid. (They are also flexible enough to modify their views when others raise legitimate concerns.) 

Constructive advocates focus on crafting and then persuading people to support mutually-beneficial approaches to complex and interlocking arrays of problems — approaches that usually involve lots of mutually beneficial (though sometimes painful) exchanges. In doing this, the use of political force is minimized and, when it is used, it is legitimized with persuasive explanations of why the proposed actions are in everyone’s best interest and, often, with incentives for those who are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance the common good.  Efforts to force people to do things against their will are pursued only as a last resort. 

Formal and Informal Intermediaries
Developing a constructive advocacy strategy capable of limiting opposition and truly building the support needed for effective action is not easy. While sincerely trying to empathize with one's adversaries can certainly help, it really is hard to put oneself in somebody else's shoes — especially when they inhabit competing information bubbles that offer very different narratives and worldviews. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to craft complex policies that balance competing interests in isolation. 

There is really no substitute for communicating directly with competing groups and for collaborating in the development of mutually-beneficial policy proposals. Not only does dialogue and collaboration produce mutual understanding that is critical. It also establishes relationships with opinion leaders and their constituents — constituents who must be supportive of any successful collaboration. 

This is where the third group comes in — people who put aside their personal preferences and devote their energies to helping parties with competing preferences and worldviews navigate the complex conflict dynamics that make it so difficult for collaborative problem-solving efforts to succeed.

This is the role that is played by our most effective political leaders and by the many formal and informal intermediaries who support their work. Included here are those in dialogue and related "bridge-building" fields that focus on breaking down misleading stereotypes that lead contending factions to misunderstand and, sometimes, demonize one another. Beyond this, there are those who are try to offer a vision for a society in which (despite competing values, interests, and worldviews) diverse groups can coexist in the spirit of tolerance, respect, constructive debate, and, where needed, mutually-beneficial collaborative problem-solving. 

These intermediaries (and the processes they facilitate) also provide constructive advocates with the information that they need to help their group understand how they might better be able to advance their interests by working with (rather than against) the interests of others.

Much of the success of our society is attributable to the fact that so many people pursue these roles in good faith and with skill and dedication.  They do this despite the fact that their work is often underappreciated and sometimes even resented (because it often asks people to make difficult and painful compromises).   Their work also tends to "fly under the radar" and go unnoticed in a media environment where conflict and dysfunction dominates and agreement and success is considered boring. There are, of course, also bad-faith political actors who have found ways to benefit by inflaming conflict and promoting political dysfunction.  

Still, it's quite clear that the electorate much prefers leaders who can actually workout mutually-beneficial compromises that solve problems. It takes the efforts of all three of these types of actors: canaries, constructive advocates, and intermediaries working in support of those leaders to make this possible.