Meeting the Authoritarian Populism Challenge 3: Communication, Governance, and Economics

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

December, 2018

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Referenced Resources and Photo Credits found at the end of the transcript.


This is the third in a series of posts on strategies for resisting authoritarianism and bridging the red/blue divide. This one focuses on using a "conflict mirror" and pragmatic compassion/empathy to see yourself as others see you so that your can avoid antagonizing people unnecessarily. Also stressed are strategies for limiting media bias, promoting respect for people outside your "bubble," resisting the "free rider" syndrome, fighting corruption, cultivating a common history, and really addressing the challenge of providing economic opportunities for all.

Full Transcript

Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. In this post, we're going to look at a different set of challenges posed by authoritarian populism. In particular, we're going to focus on five challenge areas that we identified in the context of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding. These include communication-related problems, fact-finding difficulties, challenges associated with collaborative governance, and a range of economic issues associated with making the invisible hand really work.


This and all other posts in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar Series are offered as preliminary ideas for discussion. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Slide 2. If you want more background on this series, on Massively Parallel Peacebuilding, or and our analysis of the authoritarian populism problem, it's all available on the website and the web page for this particular video.

Slide 3. Communication problems are another set of issues that we will have to address if we are going to be able to more constructively handle today's deep social divisions. We need strategies for communicating more accurately, promoting more mutual understanding, seeing ourselves as others see us, and seeing others as they really are (not as the often inaccurate characterizations that we imagine— that makes the other side seem more evil and us more virtuous). I would like to highlight a few ways of addressing this.

This post is part of a series of posts on Authoritarian Populism Name & Logoand strategies for more constructively addressing the red/blue divide.

It is also part of the larger Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo seminar series.

Slide 4. Pragmatic Compassion / Empathy -- The idea that I like most is based on Karen Armstrong's "Charter For Compassion." Armstrong argues, I think pretty persuasively, that all of the world's major religions have, as one of their core beliefs, some version of the golden rule, "that which is hurtful to you, do not do to others." This is something I call principled (or altruistic) compassion. This seems like something that is worth cultivating wherever possible--and indeed, her charter has been endorsed by over two million people around the world (source: Wikipedia "Charter for Compassion"). 

Still, in deeply divided societies, it may be a step too far. For these cases, I talk about something I call "pragmatic compassion" (or "pragmatic empathy"). Here, the underlying principle is pretty simple (and, obviously, tactically sound):  you don't want to make people any madder at you than you absolutely have to.

Slide 5. Building a Conflict Mirror -- To pursue this, you need to build what we call a "conflict mirror." Like a conventional mirror, this is a mechanism for looking at yourself as others see you. If you find, when you put yourself in somebody else's shoes, that you look pretty ugly, you might want to change that. This, I think, is something that small groups of people could help a community do by showing them how the things that they're doing (that they think are perfectly reasonable) are actually antagonizing their opponents in unnecessary ways. Talking about people with whom you disagree in disrespectful ways is one obvious example. We're not saying you have to agree with other people.  But you don't have to confront them in overly antagonistic, hurtful, hateful ways, either.

Slide 6Balancing Complaints with Compliments – Here are a couple of examples of how you might apply this principle. You could make a point of balancing complaints with compliments. One of the things that most everyone finds disagreeable, when it's addressed toward their group, is when the other group has absolutely nothing nice to say about their side. Instead, there is just constant stream of complaints about how the opposing group is the source of all evil and everything that has ever gone wrong in our society. Meanwhile, the other group is held blameless and thought to be the source of all virtue. It's not surprising that people tend to turn off when faced with this kind of litany. It's a whole lot smarter to say, you know, there are some of things that, at least to me, are problematic with your approach and I think that it would be wise to change. (This parallels the long-standing advice to use "I" instead of "you" messages. There is a separate post on that.) At the same time, however, highlight things that the other side is doing well, or things that you agree on, areas of common ground, and and opportunities to work together for mutual gain.  More simply, just try to balance your complaints with compliments. And, don't complain about things that really don't matter that much.

If you do this, it's reasonable to expect that the level of opposition that you run into will be a whole lot less. Not only does this tend to de-escalate the conflict, it strengthens your ability to protect your vital interests.

Slide 7. Flip the Wording Exercise -- Another idea is something that you might call a "flip the wording" exercise. One of the wiser things that the United States did following the tragedy of 9/11 was to refrain from blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few terrorists. (This was something that enjoyed strong support on both the left and the right). A headline and a picture like the one on the left, "Muslim Americans are the biggest terror threat to the United States" would have been considered inappropriate and counterproductive. The same would be true for a headline that said immigrants are the biggest terror threat to the US." In the years following 9/11, we were wise enough to largely avoid this mistake.

To see how this applies to the current situation in the US, all you have to do is substitute one word and one picture. Instead of somebody who looks like a Muslim terrorist, have somebody who looks like a white terrorist and you have a headline, "White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States." The problem is not white Americans, it's a very small group of folks who are engaged in criminal activity who may be motivated by extreme, white-supremacist views. The wording of the headline and the tone of the article should reflect that and make it clear that not all whites are demons.

Slide 8. Individual, Not Group Responsibility --  A related way to look at this is is by focusing on on individual, and not group, responsibility. When bad things happen, there are criminal perpetrators who, at least if the law enforcement community is successful, are held accountable in their actions. Folks who incite violence and illegal activity should be held accountable. But the larger group to which the criminals belong shouldn't be tarred as also being extremist. Instead, you want to reach out to the larger group and reassure them that they are not being viewed as synonymous with the extremists. If you can do that, that will go a long way towards diffusing things. Right now, I think, it is common to ascribe to whole groups the characteristics of just a few extremists. And, that's big part of why we're in such deep trouble.

Slide 9. Another big challenge highlighted by Massively Parallel Peacebuilding focuses on obtaining and effectively using real facts. In the context of today's widespread fake fact rhetoric, this is especially important. In this context, there are some interesting projects that one might undertake to help address the problem.

Slide 10Top of the Media Bias Curve -- The people at have actually come up with a fairly rigorous methodology for placing news sources on the bell curve diagram shown on the slide. Go to their website to get the details. At the bottom of the figure, you find extreme groups on the left and the right that tend to traffic in information that's unreliable or outright fabricated. Near the top of the curve and on both shoulders, you've got relatively reliable information that presents ideas from different perspectives. So one of the things that a community group could do is to try to highlight and promote news sources that provide thoughtful, unbiased looks at arguments from both sides.

Slide 11. Bubble Limits -- Another key to dealing with the fact-finding challenge is to recognize the limitations of what we know and how our worldview is determined by the "bubble" in which we all inevitably live. When we look outside the bubble, we need to resist the temptation to look at the other in hostile and disrespectful ways. This is an interesting map of the results of the 2016 election. The darker the red, the more Republican or conservative the voters. The darker the blue, the more Democratic or progressive. The lighter colored areas are more evenly divided (purplish). It's easy to see that we live in geographically separated enclaves with most of the progressives on the coasts and in a few liberal communities scattered around the country (and in the big Native American reservations in the southwestern U.S). The rest of America is pink or red.

Slide 12. Fly Over / Don't Look Down On -- A related observation and a metaphor that, I think, highlights a critical idea, especially on the part of progressive elites who tend to spend their lives flying from one progressive enclave to another. As they fly over the Republican parts of the country ("flyover country" as it's called), there's a tendency to "look down on" the inhabitants in ways that are unconsciously disrespectful and condescending. There is, of course, a reverse version of this on the conservative side reflected in how they think of the big liberal cities. It's important to have respect for communities that are very different from yours.

Don't just assume, just because they're different, that they are bad. Don't ascribe to entire communities the most negative traits that you've heard about in our highly-escalated rhetoric where people are trying to push the "hate bait" and intensify partisan enthusiasm.

The last point to make in this context is the very critical role that respect plays in determining the course of conflict. One of our colleagues has been instrumental in organizing the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies program which has, over several decades, been very successful in observing and helping people understand that humiliation and treating people with disrespect is one of the huge drivers of conflict. So what we need in this context are community groups that urge us all to think about the other in respectful ways and to discourage disrespect while giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Slide 13.  Another set of ideas stems from the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding challenge having to do with working together collaboratively. In today's deeply divided society, it is kind of hard to see how this kind of collaborative problem-solving could actually happen. One step toward this goal, however, would be to bring together small groups of people on the left and the right who would actually try to work out collaborative ways of addressing common problems and then publicize their proposed agreements, so that more people might understand that in spite of today's us-versus-them animosity, there is a viable alternative of actually working together.

Slide 14. Identifying Common Ground / Constructively Addressing Differences -- One model that might be used in this context is a common ground exercise that I used to do with my students. You start with a group on both sides of the contentious issue. You then get them to sit around a table and identify the points of agreement that exist within the context of the larger conflict. Next, ask them to focus on the sub-issues on which the parties disagree. We then try to identify which of these disagreements are attributable to different images of the basic facts. These are issues where the parties could conceivably work together to find answers which they all could trust (and thereby diffuse part of the conflict). Next, the focus shifts to disagreements which are attributable to value differences and different priorities. These obviously, get a lot tougher.

So, the idea is to first talk about what possible compromises might advance the interests of both parties. Then we asked participants to talk about strategies for more constructively addressing those areas in which you do have value-based disagreements. This is the constructive confrontation idea that we have been developing on the website and Heidi just made a Things You Can Do Post about. I think that bringing together folks to do something like this for a wide range of contentious issues would be an effective way of demonstrating that we don't have to stay stuck in the "fight it out mode" that we've got ourselves caught in now.

Slide 15. Resisting the "Free Rider" Syndrome – If we are going be able to get folks on both sides of the political divide to agree to work together collaboratively to address common problems, then we also have to be able to resist the "free rider" syndrome. If there are sacrifices to be made and costs to be paid, we need to do that equitably and everybody needs to be involved.

In this silly little diagram, I show a bunch of folks working together to pull this rather heavy weight up a hill and another bunch of folks who are just standing around and enjoying the advantages of getting the weight pulled up the hill without really doing anything. That sort of thing breeds the kind of resentment that makes collaboration impossible.

We need to apply this principle to all of the big problems that we face. Take climate change as an example. While I might be being a bit unfair here, I do think that this is a big part of our lack of response. It seems to me that there is a tendency on the part of the progressive left (and, especially the elite, relatively wealthy left) to be very enthusiastic about fighting climate change and insistent that we scale back sharply on our use of fossil fuels and our use of giant pick-up trucks and that sort of thing. These measures impose huge costs on relatively conservative communities---especially those whose economy is based on oil, gas, or coal production, those whose lifestyle really benefits from having large vehicles (mass transit isn't a viable option and small cars have lots of disadvantages). At the same time, you don't hear the globe-trotting cosmopolitan elite talking much about efforts to reduce air travel or jetting off for a weekend excursion across the country. This group also tends to get really nice subsidies for putting solar collectors on their houses and buying a Prius (which is something that, for them, is relatively easy to afford.) However, if you're relatively wealthy, Priuses and solar panels aren't really very painful, especially when compared to what you're asking of more conservative folks (particularly in the rural energy-producing parts of the country).

I think that the ability of the climate change movement to pull folks together would increase fairly dramatically if they were willing to make sacrifices that were comparably painful to the sacrifices that they are asking others to make. Maybe, for instance, folks who are relatively wealthy should tax themselves some to help alleviate the impact on communities that are dependent on oil and gas production.

This is just one example of what I see as a big part of why we have trouble collaborating. What we need are citizen groups that call upon us all to make equitable sacrifices. And, folks who are wealthier should have to make a bigger sacrifice because they can afford it. (The level of pain should be comparable.) Again, I should stress that this problem cuts both ways. There are undoubtedly cases where the right is asking the left to make an inequitable sacrifices too.

Slide 16. Another area in which there is a need for working together is in promoting good governance. 

Slide 17. Corruption -- One area that deserves attention is the importance of fighting corruption. I think that if you filter out all the misinformation and rhetoric and you get down to the core issues, you will find a lot of agreement on this. Here I have cited on this post's webpage a couple of articles with some stunning statistics that demonstrate that the greatest rate of return on the planet is lobbying. If you can spend a modest amount of money to get favorable government rules or contracts, you can get very, very rich. Finding ways to control corruption is key to getting people to trust democratic institutions as a mechanism for cooperatively working together in ways that get us beyond today's us-versus-them climate.

Slide 18. A related challenge arises when one side or the other does something that makes it impossible for the two sides to work together and compromise by destroying the ability of the government to work effectively. One example is the recent budget deal which will result in gigantic budget deficits in times of economic prosperity (not in times when you need government spending to stimulate the economy and recover from a recession). Over time, this is going to dramatically worsen the federal government's balance sheet and choke off spending for things we could do together to advance the common good.

Slide 19. A Common History -- Another governance-related challenge revolves around the importance of creating a common, relatively agreed-upon history of events including ongoing and recent political crises and the many alleged scandals that are lurking around. Thinking back on the Watergate era, there really were bipartisan investigations that established the history of what happened that is now pretty widely accepted. We need something like that now. Whether it happens remains to be seen. In the current climate, we need to do more than focusing on one actor like President Nixon or President Trump who did (or may have done) something that was pretty much indefensible. We need to acknowledge that there have been mistakes made and be truthful about those mistakes, no matter who made them. This goes back to the truth and reconciliation approach I was talking about earlier. If we can give ourselves a common history, then we can build on that. Otherwise we are going to have both sides offering self-serving histories that will reinforce the conflict over the longer term.

Slide 20. Finally, I would like to talk about one aspect of the last of the challenges on our Massively Parallel Peacebuilding list --- promoting the invisible hand and making market economies work. A big part of the energy underlying populist movements on both the left and the right is the failure of the economy (even in today's booming economic times with our relatively low unemployment rates) to deliver rewarding employment opportunities and a livable wage to anybody who wants to work. This is a problem that is projected, for lots of credible reasons, to get worse in the years ahead, in part because of artificial intelligence and the automation in a staggering number of jobs, and in part because of globalization and a global workforce which effectively imports what Marx called the "reserve army of the unemployed" in ways that drive down wages. What's also concerning is that not very many people seem to be taking the problem seriously. While Democrats talk about relatively modest job programs, I don't think anybody's really coming to grips with the severity of the employment crisis that we're likely to face over the next decade or two.

Slide 21. The Omega Prize --  In this context I've been thinking, again, about what a small citizen effort might be able to do to bring more attention to the problem. One idea builds upon the example of the XPRIZE and the XPRIZE Foundation. What they have been doing is offering cash prizes to those who come up with the best ideas for addressing neglected problems. Some of their prizes address very serious topics like increasing clean water availability or figuring out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other are a little bit wacky.

I got to wondering, could a small group could encourage a lot more people to try to grapple with this coming employment challenge with something I'm calling the Omega Prize. While somebody would have to put up the prize money (it could also be a scholarship fund), it's not the money, it's the publicity that's important. The goal is to get a lot more people and, especially, young people, to devote their energies and their careers to addressing the problem. For the proposed Omega Prize I would suggest the following challenge: "How can we, despite artificial intelligence, globalization, immigration, and the concentration of wealth (which is a big part of the problem) create a true full-employment economy that offers a livable wage, rewarding work, and social respect for all?" If we can do that and if we can mobilize that sort of energy, I think we'll be in a lot better position to address our other problems. Something my students ask about a lot is what they could do to "make a difference" and "what's the next big opportunity?" I tell them that the real innovation that we need (and that will make whoever comes up with it rich) is not another iPhone. It's figuring out how to give all these energetic, but underutilized people a rewarding opportunity to contribute their talents to the larger society and in so doing, earn a living wage.

Slide 22. In my next post, we're going to explore steps that the super rich and the meritocratic elite might be persuaded to take to help promote social equity and to address a lot of the underlying energy behind the authoritarian populism challenge.

Referenced Resources

Photo Credits