Louis Kriesberg: Asymmetric Polarization

by Louis Kriesberg

June 27, 2022

I think the new article by Guy Burgess, Heidi Burgess, and Sanda Kaufman about possible conflict resolution applications to transform the society-wide conflicts that threaten liberal democracies is very important.  It offers many insights about the complexity of society-wide conflicts in the U.S. and ways for conflict resolution ideas to transform destructive conflicts by applying constructive conflicts.  Their formulation of a massively parallel approach to saving American democracy is especially significant.

I have several comments that I think would enhance the authors’ analyses and prescriptions. First, I think the use of the term polarization, although widely used, is misleading.  It suggests an equivalence of opposing polar parties.  The authors’ discussion of bad actors exposes a lack of equivalence.  We are beset by terribly destructively waged conflicts that have already badly damaged American civil life and its democratic institutions.  Many more Republicans than Democrats have for several years conducted conflicts destructively.   They sometimes suppressed and ignored important matters of contention and raised distracting issues to advance self-serving gains. That asymmetry does pose problems for constructive conflict resolvers, but those problems can be and have been overcome.  For example, by passing some bi-partisan bills.

Other comments are more limited.  On page 9, a few items. Perhaps President Johnson’s successful campaign to reduce poverty might be an example.  Later, the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks is celebrated, but it is widely recognized that the Global War On Terrorism was misguided and contributed to unfortunate wars.  Later, the term “deep state” has been used in other senses.

On page 10, reference is made to the need to identify principles of waging constructive conflicts.  The Rowman & Littlefield book, Constructive Conflicts, in editions 4, 5, and 6, co-authored by   Bruce W. Dayton and Louis Kriesberg, provides varying sets of core ideas of constructive conflicts. (eds note: the 6th edition is coming out in august of this year).

On page 12, reference to constructive debate might be explained – attention to attentive listening?  A civic Group Library might highlight discovering shared benefits, win-win outcomes…

On page 13, reference is made to visioning; Elise Boulding practiced that method.    Later, there is an assertion that “we” set aside personal political partisanship and avoid progressive advocacy.  I disagree.  There are times and places where that can be effective for promoting democracy and justice.  Progressive goals can result in incremental gains.  President Clinton’s acceptance of the Republican Party’s goal to “end big government,” did not get him concessions from Republicans.  His concessions did not stop extreme hostility and lies against him and Hilary.   President Biden’s progressive domestic goals have actually helped achieve some significant gains. 

The reference on page 11, to King, Gandhi and Mandela, point to the need at times for radical goals.  Constructive conflicts can be waged with nonviolent coercion, blended with persuasion and the promise of mutual gains.  Concessions to bad actors can be self-defeating.  Resistance, while winning defections from supporters of bad actors can be a useful strategy.