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

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video explains how we are going to illustrate how the Action List can be used by applying it to a real-world case--the conflict over what we (and others) call "authoritarian populism" in the United States.  While on first glance this would seem to be a leftist slam against the right, it isn't.  There are populists on both sides of the conflict, many of whom are legitimate, and only a few of whom are what we call "authoritarian wannabes." It is against them that both sides must work, and we must come together through conflict transformation and MPP to make that work.

See also Part II of this post.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability. 

Slide 1.  This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I'd like to talk about the mechanics of actually implementing Massively Parallel Peacebuilding and, in particular, how to use the Action List that we talked about in an earlier post. Instead of talking in general terms, I'd like to talk about how you use these ideas to better address a specific conflict. And, the conflict I have in mind is the one that I think is on top of most people's minds, at least in the United States. This is something that we call the "Authoritarian Populism" conflict. More about that in a minute.

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Authoritarian Populism Action List

Slide 2.  As you may remember the "theory of change" underlying Massively Parallel Peacebuilding is the belief that people increasingly understand the urgency of the conflict problem and they want to help do something about it, but they don't quite know what to do. They are having trouble identifying the "things that need doing" and determining whether or not those things are actually being done (so they don't duplicate effort). More importantly, they are having trouble determining what they can do to help (or what they might be able to learn how to do to help) within their available time constraints.. 
Slide 3.  The Massively Parallel Peacebuilding part of the Frontiers Seminar started with an introductory series of posts that outlined the nature of the intractable conflict problem and, especially, the challenges posed by scale and complexity. Then we presented an "Action List" which is a very substantial menu of all of the things that need to be done. Then, ultimately, we will have post describing each Massively Parallel Peacebuilding action. 
Slide 4.  As you may remember, we organized all of this around a series of 10 challenges and, within each of those challenges, a list of specific actions that is presented in a kind of checklist form. The idea is that people can go down the list of Challenges and then go down the list of Actions and look for places in which they might be able to make a contribution. 
For example, the yellow highlighting on this slide illustrates a challenge that somebody interested in "imagining the future" and might focus on and an action item under that challenge – "imagining a realistic future that both the left and the right might want to live in," even if they don't get to win outright. 

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Another person might, for example, decide to focus in on the strategies for limiting (or reversing) the escalation spiral (shown in beige).  Within this context, they might decide to focus on the dynamics that cause hate and actions that might break down those dynamics. 
We obviously have a long list of actions. Ultimately, what we need to do is to get lots people working on different aspects of the problem. 
Slide 5.  As I mentioned earlier, the example that I want to use to show how you how all of this works is something that we, and a number of other people call, for want of a better name, "authoritarian populism." We are focusing on this example in an effort to accomplish is three things. First, we want to demonstrate the near-term usefulness of the MPP approach. We think that there are a lot of the ideas that people could immediately implement in ways that would make a scary situation a lot less scary. As we continue to develop the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding project, we are first going to focus on adding components that address this authoritarian populism problem. 
Second, we see this as something of a test of whether this whole idea makes sense in the context of a serious real-world conflict.
Third, we want to provide suggestions about how we can unite to address this very real problem that is facing the United States right now.  While we were starting to do that (and will continue to do so) in the Things YOU Can Do To Help Blog, MPP goes much further in suggesting ways we can all act to counter the quickly escalating conflict that is gravely damaging the United States.
Slide 6.  Before we get too far into this, I think a "partisanship disclaimer" is in order. We've been talking a lot in earlier posts about how the underlying goal of the Moving Beyond Intractability project is to help strengthen, improve, and promote democracy in ways that resist the slide towards anocracy (anarchy), autocracy (tyranny) and war. In thinking back about when I first started teaching at University of Colorado, I had to sign a pledge to help uphold the Constitution of the United States (and the Constitution of the state of Colorado). In other words, the only thing that the University demanded was that I worked to preserve US democracy. To the extent that President Trump is acting in ways that pull away from that goal, I don't see opposition as partisan. I'm simply trying to defend the democratic system. So, there will be times I am quite critical about the way that things are going. Still, these criticisms are not offered in the context favoring the liberal over the conservative side of the debate. It's in the context of trying to make democracy work as a marketplace side of ideas where we can have a continuing struggle between competing views and where a better society will emerge from that debate. 
Slide 7.  Authoritarian populist movements are not unique to the United States – the US media is reporting them in all sorts of places. Still, a certain amount of humility, on our part, is in order. While we know a fair amount about how this is playing out in the United States, we don't know nearly as much about how these issues are playing out in other countries. So, we will rely on people from other countries to contribute their perspectives on this broad issue. 
Slide 8.  But our efforts to apply Massively Parallel Peacebuilding techniques to the problem of Authoritarian Populism will focus on how that problem manifests itself in the United States. While we don't pretend to speak to the problem as it manifests itself in other countries, we do think that a lot of the destructive conflict dynamics and the "things that need to be done" actions apply to lots of other places. You can make a very good case that this is one of the biggest challenges facing human society across the globe in the early 21st century.
Slide 9.  In the United States, the authoritarian populism conflict is unfolding in the context of the divide over both cultural and distributional issues between Republicans and Democrats. The pictures of the Obama and Trump inaugurations on this slide illustrate the divide. While the pictures look remarkably similar, the audience is composed of different people who care about different things. It's important to remember that the authoritarian / populism conflict is not a left / right conflict. The differences are something that we will delve into in a lot more detail over the next series of posts.
Slide 10.  The populist side of the populist/authoritarian conflict arises from populist revolt against establishment elites that tend to be clustered around the big cities on the coasts  (e.g. New York, Washington, and San Francisco). Populism is not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing – it's a bipartisan. 
Slide 11.  This is something that you see, most notably, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (though there are a lot of other prominent populists on both sides). These leaders seek to represent people who have lost faith in the establishment and the elites. 
Slide 12.  They have lots of good reasons for having lost faith. There are lots of articles that try to understand this anger and why just restoring power to the elites is not the solution. Here are some interesting articles (that are found in the reference section) that can help you start to understand the drivers behind this revolt. 
Slide 13.  The bottom line is that populism is based on a very legitimate set of complaints about the way society's elites are managing things and a lot of frustration about the failure of those elites to successfully deal with the real-world problems faced by grassroots citizens. 
Slide 14.  As I showed you in an earlier post, this is being reflected in the United States (and all over the world) with deteriorating support for democracy and increased support for different types of authoritarianism (rule by the military, experts, or "strong leaders"). Again, as I talked about in the earlier post, this is especially worrying because of Lord Acton's law, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It's really important that those who are thinking about abandoning democracy to understand the implications and dangers of what they are contemplating. 
Slide 15.  So, the second half of the authoritarianism/populism conflict is the push away from democracy and toward one of the three dystopias that we've talked about earlier (anocracy, autocracy, or war). In particular, we are interested in autocracy because it is the autocratic tyrant "wannabes" (or plutocratic "wannabes") who are trying to take advantage of the populist revolt and use it as a mechanism for taking control of (or solidifying control of) US society.  
Slide 16.  Thus, the core issue that we want to examine in connection with authoritarian populism is how can we defend democracy and stop the authoritarians while still making democracy address the real and legitimate grievances of the populists.  In other words, we are trying to prevent a high-tech version of George Orwell's 1984.
Slide 17.  There are a lot of reasons to think that this is going to be the big dividing line of the 21st century. Foreign Affairs has an interesting article arguing that a new, high-tech, artificial intelligence-based form of autocracy will be the biggest threat to liberal democracy. This is similar to what China has been developing with their dystopian technological system for keeping track of absolutely everybody and giving them "social credit scores" to measure their compliance with the authoritarians wishes. This kind of authoritarianism would be very different from what we saw with Stalin and Hitler. It is now uncertain how this is all going to play out. Clearly, however, if democracy is going to survive, it has to get a get a whole lot better at dealing with these conflicts.
Slide 18.  So, the big issue we want to address is how do we deal with populism in the context of "divide and conquer" provocateurs who are trying to exploit deep the divisions and distrust between the left and the right that exist within US society. We need to prevent them from using these tensions to gain control.
Slide 19.  Here we are especially worried about the use of scapegoating and hate-mongering techniques to advance the authoritarian's objectives by demonizing particular groups within society. This demonization allows authoritarians (and "wannabes") to, first of all, justify the ruthless and sometimes brutal repression of their opponents. It also allows them to deflect blame that might come their way because of corruption and mismanagement. It's always the scapegoated group's fault.  Finally, scapegoating generates an intensifying, dehumanizing feedback loop where the two sides increasingly think of themselves as implacable, mortal enemies that couldn't possibly imagine working together to, for example, combat the authoritarians who are trying to take over society.
Slide 20.  Again, this is a set of issues that has generated a whole lot of ink (or, in the electronic era, bytes). Here again is a selection of articles that I found especially useful in trying to understand how this is actually playing out and what we have to do to defend ourselves.
Slide 21.  The articles also raise the possibility that once authoritarianism takes hold (especially if it is supported by sophisticated propaganda and social control technologies) it will be very, very hard to dislodge. 
Slide 22.  Another series of articles looks at the deliberate efforts on the part of Russia to pit Americans against one another as a way, perhaps, of solidifying Donald Trump's hold on power or maybe a way of just promoting chaos and weakening the United States in ways that would allow Russia to do they want in other areas. 
Slide 23.  In truth, the Russians have lots of good reasons to be mad at the United States. But, you see in Robert Mueller's Russia indictments (especially, the first round of indictments) a systematic picture of how very high-tech propaganda techniques are being used to drive us further apart. So, now our problem is to figure out what's actually going on and address it. 
Slide 24.  It is also important for the United States not to blame all of its problems on Russia. They have been doing the same sort of things that we've been doing to ourselves in an effort by our various political factions to gain power and authority over the society. So, in this context, Russia's actions (which are still not completely clear) have poured resources into the US political conflict and allowed tactics that US political actors are prevented from using.
Slide 25.  In part, this is also an outgrowth of what might be called "mobilizing the base" dynamics. This interesting and very academic article from Sage documents how, over the last several elections, winning strategies have not focused seeking support from the so-called swing voters in the middle by persuading them that their approach offers a better way of governing the society. Instead, what both parties have been doing is "mobilizing the base" by making their highly-partisan base so angry with the other side that they would actually bother to vote. It turns out that elections are being determined by who can most demonize their opponent. Obviously, this is a formula for extreme escalation. 
Slide 26.  Whenever I hear people complaining about the situation I have this flashback to a quote that I had always attributed to Mark Twain (though I gather Charles Warner said it first), "everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Everybody is, in one way or another, about the authoritarian populism problem, but very few people are actually trying to do anything about it (except trying to mobilize the base so that their side wins the next election) which then actually escalates the conflict even further. 
Slide 27.  We need to get past that. And, that's what we are trying to do with the broad set of theoretical ideas underlying Massively Parallel Peacebuilding.
Slide 28.  We need to get down to an Action List of specific things that need to be done to address the problem. 
Slide 29.  In the next post we are going to go through this Action List and try to highlight just a few of the things that really have to be done if we are going to get a handle on the problem of authoritarian populism. 

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