by Heidi Burgess
Jan. 1, 2023
Oxford University Press just published a new book by our friend and colleague Lou Kriesberg, entitled Fighting Better: Constructive Conflicts in America. We just posted a fairly lengthy summary/review of it in our book summary section. As I said there, 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. I wanted to create a blog post focused on the tenth (and last) chapter of the book when is where he focuses most directly on the lessons presented in the first nine chapters to draw conclusions that are directly relevant to this blog.
The title of chapter ten is "Recovering and Advancing Equality in the Future." He starts out by listing seven core elements of what he calls "the 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. 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 socially 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.
As an example of the first element, Lou talks about the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill (The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021). This plan was not supported by the Republicans; it was passed by using the Senate's "reconciliation process," which allows for budget-related issues to avoid a possible filibuster and pass with a simple majority vote. Since the Senate was tied 50-50, Vice President Kamala Harris cast the deciding vote. While it would have made a better conflict resolution story to say this was really a result of R/D reconciliation in the conflict resolution sense, it does demonstrate that effective measure can be taken through legitimate, institutional channels. You don't always need to go around or over the system. Sometimes you can use the system to meet your goals.
An infrastructure bill signed later that year was more of a collaborative effort between Rs and Ds. It certainly did not have universal Republican support, but there was R and D collaboration in writing the bill, and it was eventually approved by most of the Democrats voting "yes," along with Mitch McConnell and 17 other Republican senators and 13 Republicans in the House. Both these bills helped to reduce poverty, and hence were a constructive way to work for greater status and class equity or "justice for all," the goal Kriesberg seeks in the book.
An example of element 2 is the protests at the state and city levels for increasing the minimum hourly wage. So too has been the protest of many workers to low wages and unsafe working conditions when they left the workforce en mass during COVID.Those nonviolent actions have resulted in increases to wages, improvements to safety conditions and Lou suggests, possibly a new period of union organizing, which he demonstrated earlier in the book leads to reduced inequality and improved corporate productivity. goals each side wants.
This is also an example of element 7 - taking advantage of changing conflict contexts. COVID massively changed the context of almost all social and economic relationships in this country, and it enabled actions--such as the passage of the American Rescue Act and the Infrastructure bill that had not been possible before.It also is changing the nature of work and work/life balance (as it is called, though I think the phrase is ridiculous because it suggests that work isn't part of life). But, it is making it easier for men to participate in childcare when they are working from home, and making it easier for women to enter the workforce. This, unfortunately, isn't true for lower-tier service workers who cannot work from home, but due to their widespread quitting, it might result in better wages and working conditions in the future.
The infrastructure bill also is an example of element 3. While most Republicans opposed the bill because they oppose all government spending whenever they can, a small number, including minority leader Mitch McConnell, broke with the rest of their party and voted for the bill. Democrats' willingness to work with McConnell and other willing Republicans is what got the job done.
An example of element 4, Lou suggests that
a persuasive way to win support for reducing poverty and income inequality is to stress the burdens and costs of poverty and inequality borne by the society as a whole. The trauma of COVID- 19 revealed the extra dangers of illnesses and deaths resulting from poor living conditions and inadequate medical support. Attention to improving living conditions of the poor and low income members of the society also promises benefits to all. People who are a burden due to their failures to be productive members of society would become able to help expand material and nonmaterial benefits to other society members.
As an example of element 5, Lou talks about the continuing fight over abortion. Although emotions are very high now as a result of the Dobb's decision which removed the abortion protection of Roe. v. Wade, Lou says
There are possible options that may ameliorate the intensity and destructiveness of the conflict. Efforts of some people on opposing sides to converse with each other and work together to promote policies that would minimize abortions could emerge. This would include reducing unwanted pregnancies with family planning. It might also include greater opportunities to facilitate adoptions of newborn infants whose mothers believed that they could not care for them. In addition, a good safety net might enable a mother to care for her infant. If the intense conflict were transformed, pains and tragedies could be reduced. Cooling the heat of the conflict would be a step forward.
As an example of element 6, most of the conflicts Lou reviews in the book—and there are hundreds—are all interconnected to some extent. So are the problems they are addressing. That's because (in our words) our society is a complex adaptive system, and everything is connected to everything else, at least indirectly. So any action you take in one conflict is likely to have an impact on actions you take in other conflicts. If you play a highly aggressive, no-holds barred, winner-take-all game, you are likely to generate backlash, which Lou explains happened over and over again in the history he covers. Anger over unfair treatment in one domain leads to lack of cooperation in other domains. If either the Ds or the Rs want to get their needs and interests met over the long term, Lou demonstrates in this final chapter, and in the book as a whole, that working collaborative and in good faith yields better outcomes. Working adversarially in bad faith may win short term benefits, but it just energizes the opposition, who will come back and beat you the next time around. The benefits of cooperation are abundantly clear in this book.