Using the MPP Action List: The Authoritarian Populism Example (Part II)

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video highlights a few of the actions from each of the ten challenges on the MPP Action List that are particularly important for addressing the U.S. Authoritarian Populism problem.

See also Part I of this post.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability. 

Slide 1.  This is Guy Burgess. This is the second post in our series on using the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Action List as a framework for addressing the authoritarian populism problem. 

Slide 2.  As you may remember, we built a rather long "Action List" of things that, in one way or another, "need doing" if we are going to be able to address intractable conflict more constructively. What we have done, with respect to authoritarian populism, is go through that list and highlight those actions that we think are likely to be especially important in this context. 

Slide 3.  With this post, I would like to give you a quick overview of some of these actions with the understanding that this has some danger that a long list like this will get a big boring. Hopefully, I'm hoping that I can keep things succinct enough so that's not too much of a problem, and I will be successful at showing you where we are going with all this. 

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See Syllabus for other MPP posts.
See full MPP Action List and the
Authoritarian Populism Action List.

There is also some risk of the "drinking from a fire hose" problem that could lead to real information overload. To limit this, I would like to suggest a couple of things that you might keep in mind as I go through this. 

To start with, notice that there a lot of things that need to be done before we can successfully address authoritarian populism.. But, put that in context of the many widely circulating and, I think, overly simplistic images of the problem. Too many people think that all they need to do is win in the next election (and defeat the bad guys). That's not enough. That doesn't bring about cultural change.  

What we really need to do is change the way in which the society deals with some of its most fundamental conflicts, while resisting the efforts of tyrant wannabes to exploit those conflicts. 

We also need to remember that each of the things on this Action List have to be done countless times in countless conflict interactions throughout all levels of society. It is not enough for a few people to try to do this in a few instances.

This leads to another big idea that I hope you get from this post – the importance of specialization. In many cases the Action List highlights things that are so difficult to do that any one person can realistically be expected to do only a few. So, we need a lot of different people working on different aspects of the authoritarian populism problem. 

Finally, remember that you can look at the full list with associated descriptions on the website – you don't need to remember all of this.

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Slide 4.  Simply ask yourself which of the things on the Action List you might be able to do. 

Slide 5.  I've organized these ideas around our 10 challenges (using the same slides that I used in an earlier post to introduce each challenge). But I want to focus on here, however, are the highlighted actions within each challenge that have to do with populist authoritarianism. Within these items, there are a few that I've highlighted in red that I think are especially important.

Slide 6.  Within the context of first challenge, "Figuring Out What's Going On," I think that the most important thing is to "see the complexity of the conflict" and get past simplistic "us versus them" images of what's going on. 

Slide 7.  To help you do this, we are going to talk about a lot of different mapping strategies starting with Paul Wehr's approach. We will then show how this basic idea can be extended to address other aspects of conflict. 

Slide 8.  Another thing that Heidi will talk about is a distinction between the core conflict issues and a whole set of overlying conflict problems. Both need to be mapped so you can see the real complexity of the situation.

So, the first MPP challenge focuses on getting a broad understanding of the conflict, and then the remaining nine challenges focus on individual destructive dynamics and alternatives or responses to those dynamics.

Slide 9.  We will also show you one way in which the populist authoritarian conflict can be graphically mapped. This approach, which I call the Red/Blue/Gold Divide, is a way of taking the left / right conflict and breaking it down into a series of critically important constituent parts. Once you do this, it's a lot easier to see important differences between the authoritarian populism conflict and the more traditional left / right conflict that most people are focused on. It also clarifies strategies for promoting democracy and resisting "divide and conquer" attacks from authoritarians. 

Slide 10.  Challenge 2: Defending and Promoting Democracy is obviously very important in the context of resisting authoritarianism. 

Slide 11.  This means, for example that we need people who are able to identify and encourage others to resist a wide range of divide and conquer provocations. In the earlier post, I highlighted articles describing some of the specific things that the Russians have been doing to divide US society.  We have, of course been doing similar things ourselves in the name of "mobilizing the base." We need more effective ways of focusing attention on these actions--including the downsides of the "mobilizing the base without talking to the middle" strategy,  and saying "no, we are not going to allow ourselves to be divided that way for selfish political purposes." 

We also need folks who can teach the broader population how to identify and resist the very high-tech propaganda tricks that they are being subjected to us on social networks like Facebook. These include, for example, very sophisticated, personality-based propaganda pitches delivered by trolls masquerading as friends. 

Another thing that we really need are people willing and able to challenge anyone trying to gain power by demonizing and scapegoating others. 

Finally, we have to protect the "rule of law." If we get to the point where legal constraints no longer matter, it will be a short step to the point where violence and intimidation become the way in which disputes are resolved. So, again, the second challenge is especially important in the context of authoritarianism. We need lots of different people working on these aspects of the problem.

Slide 12.  There is also a need for people to work on projects that would help society more constructively frame its big conflicts.

Slide 13.  Again from the Action List, there is a big list of things can be done to improve framing. One of the most important is resisting the kind of demonization that can quickly lead to dehumanization of the other side. We are not far from the point where people no longer care what happens to their adversaries. And, to the extent that they do care, they wish them ill. 

Another thing that would really help is for the two sides to acknowledge that they have in some important ways contributed to the divisions within our society (generally by overreaching when they are in power). One of the most effective ways to start de-escalating a conflict is by acknowledging and apologizing for some of the things that you did wrong. 

Another thing that I think would be important (and again, I'm just highlighting a few here) is to focus more on individual and less on group responsibility. In the years after 9/11, we were wise enough to argue again and again that all Muslims should not be held accountable for the crimes of a few. It is similarly important that all members of any group (immigrants, whites, or men, for example) not be held accountable for the crimes (or even the overreaching actions) of the few. 

Slide 14.  With respect to "reconciling the past and envisioning the future" there is a critical need for something that we don't really have, a vision of a future in which both the left and the right would like to live (and, therefore, would be willing to work toward). 

Slide 15.  Right now we have two competing and largely incompatible visions. So what we need to imagine is a future that embraces even more diversity. In addition to diversity based on race, culture, gender, and ethnicity, we need much better ways of handling the diversity of cultures, values, and lifestyles that exist within our society. Such diversity surrounds things that we deeply believe in, and things about which we think that the other side's views are unacceptable and should be challenged.  This is what makes envisioning a more diverse diversity so difficult. We will talk more about this difficult issue in subsequent posts because it's absolutely key. 

Slide 16.  Another big challenge involves finding effective ways to limit and reverse the escalation spiral (which certainly has gotten out of control). 

Slide 17.  In this context, one of the ideas that we talked about in an earlier post that is highlighted on the Action List is the notion of using a "power strategy mix" to more effectively advocate for your interests by focusing more on persuasion and exchange and much less on forcing people to do things that they don't want to do (which tends to generate a backlash effect which makes things worse rather than better).

Another thing that could play an important role in limiting the escalation spiral (and something that we are not doing very well) involves treating our opponents (and also our allies) with respect. The politically active people who are our adversaries have deeply-held beliefs that they are trying to protect. We should treat them respectfully even though our opponents may, in anger and frustration, say things that are over-the-top, outrageous. Treating people respect tends to de-escalate things very (or, at least, not ratchet things up). 

Still another idea (remember that there are lots of such ideas) is to encourage "disarming" actions. When you have a highly escalated conflict, one strategy for starting to reverse things involves making a concession that is seen as so surprising that it forces the other side to rethink their image of the conflict and their enemies. Here, one classic example is Anwar Sadat's (former President of Egypt) bold statement that he would go to Jerusalem to try to make peace with Israel. That changed everything. 

Slide 18.  We also need to promote more accurate communication.

Slide 19.  Again, there are lots of ideas, but one of the key ones is to systematically try to "see ourselves as others see us." When we act in the world, we all tend to have a self-righteous image of our own behavior that is likely to be very different from the image that our adversaries have of us. We need a whole set of interventions and techniques that help us see ourselves the way the other side see us. This will enable us to discover things that we are doing that make other people mad (and that we don't really need to do). If we can just stop doing those things, we can start to limit the escalation spiral. 

The flipside of this are techniques designed to help us see others (and especially our adversaries) as they really are. Right now, we seem to be locked in a dehumanization spiral where we tend to focus on the most terrible things that the most extreme elements within the other group does. This gives us a really distorted view that leads to images of the other side that are so evil that it is hard to imagine anything other than all-out confrontation. But, if we can really start focusing the way people actually are (and get out of our bubbles) that can change an awful lot. 

Slide 20.  Another challenge focuses on obtaining and using "real facts." This is important especially in the era of "fake facts" and fake charges of "fake facts."

Slide 21.  One example of a place where we need a lot of concerted effort focuses on making people aware of and willing to counteract the "confirmation bias" -- the tendency to seek out only information that tells you what you want to hear. It is great to know that what you have been saying all along is right. So it would seem great to avoid considering information that might seriously challenge your views and actions. But, of course, we might be wrong!  Unless we strenuously work to counteract the confirmation bias,  we can easily develop highly distorted views of the world (which afflicts both sides of the fake-news debate).

Slide 22.  We also need to learn how to work together collaboratively.

Slide 23.  In this context, too, there are lots of things that need doing. Of these, I tend to think that the most important would be to put together some kind of back channel (Track II) effort to negotiate some realistic compromises that would be mutually beneficial to the left and the right. These informally-reached compromises could help demonstrate that today's unwillingness to compromise has real and substantial costs in terms of lost opportunities for beneficial collaboration that would advance everybody's interests. We, at least, want to get those ideas and those opportunities out on the table, so people can see what it is that they're giving up in the name of continuing confrontation. 

Slide 24.  We also need to promote much better governance. 

Slide 25.  Obviously, in this context, the deep distrust of government that one sees on both the left and the right is at the core of this populist revolt. We need a set of measures that really do assure transparent and ethical government with meaningful and effective oversight. We cannot allow oversight measures to simply be used as a weapon that favors the left over the right (or vice versa). 

We also need to encourage and strengthen a series of grassroots interest groups focused on addressing the whole range of democratic shortcomings while also defending society against authoritarian tendencies. As I've said before, the MPP strategy of mobilizing a large-scale effort requires a series of interest groups focused on addressing the many different aspects of the problem. Right now we have a lot of groups championing partisan causes. We need more interest groups willing to champion collective causes (protecting democracy and resisting of authoritarian rule.

Slide 26.  The final challenge relates to the promotion of the invisible hand.

Slide 27.  Here, I would like to highlight just one really important thing. Somehow or another we have to make the economy work for everyone, not just the few. Right now, those at the top of the economic hierarchy are doing very well (the 1% of the 1%).  The remainder of the top 10 or 20% (the cosmopolitan elite) are doing pretty well though life's a surprising struggle even for them. Everybody else has been really struggling for quite a long time (in spite of low unemployment rates). Low pay and underemployment are masked by employment rate statistics. What we really need are a lot more creative ideas for restructuring the economy in ways that really meet basic human needs. Without it we can expect continuing populist revolt. 

Slide 28.  A final point isn't even one of the challenges. Still, in a sense, it is even more important.  We have to find ways to overcome the "free rider" problem – the tendency for people to sit back and let others handle it. This goes back to the earlier slide with the famous Pogo cartoon, "we have met the enemy and he is us." Since we are all part of the problem we have to be part of the solution.

Slide 29.  So, this is what we see as the next steps for the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding part of the Conflict Frontiers Seminar. At this point, we are rapidly getting through the initial introduction to the concept and will be adding, over the next several months, a series of posts that look in much more detail at specific challenges and specific actions that can be done. Most are ones that "everyday people" can do.  Some take government action, but people have to demand that their government act!  In developing the Action List, we intend to focus initially on the populist authoritarian conflict in ways that will elaborate on many of the ideas that I've just introduced. 

Slide 30.  To do this in a timely fashion, we still need to raise additional funds. What we have produced thus far has been done on a shoestring budget. We really need your support! So, if you're in a position to contribute something it will enable us to create new content, publicize the project among potential users of the information, convene and facilitate discussions, and refine and operate the underlying computer system. We would appreciate any help you can provide.

Referenced Resources:

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