Mapping the Authoritarian Populism “Conflict Complex,” an Overview

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

September, 2018

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The future of democracy depends upon its ability to constructively respond to the widespread, populist questioning of its basic institutions and increasing support for more authoritarian types of governance. Responding effectively will require a clear understanding of how the many different facets of the problem relate to one another and how efforts to address some issues could undermine efforts to address others. This post introduces and briefly summarizes a series of six additional posts that will offer a number of tools for better understanding the nature of authoritarian populism-related problems and how a massively parallel peacebuilding-based strategy can help.

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability and clarity.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. With this post I'd like to introduce you to an upcoming series of posts that will apply conflict mapping ideas to the Authoritarian Populism Problem.

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Slide 2. As you may remember from earlier posts, we have been outlining a strategy, which we call Massively Parallel Peacebuilding, which we see as the best way to get a handle on very large-scale, very intractable, very complex conflict problems. And as you may also remember, the Massively Parallel Peacebuilding approach is built around 10 key challenges.

Slide 3. The first of these challenges is to simply "figure out what's going on." With this post I would like to introduce you to a series of posts that will explain how various conflict mapping strategies can help you understand "what's going on" with the the Authoritarian Populism Problem.

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Slide 4. To start with, I want to emphasize that mapping in some form (many call it conflict assessment) is essential. If you don't know your way around, you are quickly going to find yourself in a lot of trouble. Take this forest fire, for example. If you don't know where the fire is, if you don't know where the roads are, if you don't know what the winds are doing, you can quickly find yourself in all sorts of trouble. What I am going to do is to outline some different ways of looking at the authoritarian populism problem that will give you the same kind of critical information that you would get from a good map of a forest fire.

Slide 5. I also want to borrow another idea from the forest fire-fighting community. They have this notion of a fire "complex," which is actually a series of fires that are close enough together to be part of the same firefighting problem. This is a map of the "Mendocino Complex," which has been in the news this summer and is one of the biggest fires in California history.

Slide 6. The Authoritarian Populism Problem can best be thought of as a "conflict complex" – that is a whole series of conflicts interacting in all sorts of complex ways.

Slide 7. To start with, you can get a certain amount of understanding from geosocial mapping techniques where you try to put conflict attributes on a conventional map. This is what they've done with the Fragile States Index and what lots of folks have done trying to analyze the 2016 election returns in the United States.

Slide 8. Conflict mapping is more than that. It's your worldview image. And right now, both the left and the right in the United States (and, I suspect, a lot of other countries) have a pretty simple worldview. People see themselves as the good guys, and they see the other guys as just evil. This kind of simplistic view doesn't give you enough of an understanding of the problem to be able to sensibly address it.

Slide 9. In past posts we've introduced a number of different ways of mapping different aspects of a complex conflict like authoritarian populism. This post (, for example, explain the advantages of thinking about things in terms of a conflict between the coexisters (or the compromisers who want to reach some sort of an accommodation), fighters (who want to fight on to victory), and "divide and conquer" tyrant wannabes who want to exploit the conflict for selfish gain. This way of thinking about a conflict is very different from the traditional "Left vs. Right," "Side A vs. Side B" approach and I think it has a lot of merit.

Slide 10. In a different, earlier post ( we developed the notion of mapping societies at different positions in a three-dimensional space. At one apex we had democracy, at another there was autocracy (or tyranny), and at the third there was anocracy (or anarchy). We argue that you could place societies at various times in various positions in this space. Our goal for the entire Moving Beyond Intractability project is to find ways to help push societies away from autocracy and anocracy and toward an ever more ideal democracy.

Slide 11. In the upcoming series of posts, I am going to present a number of other mapping ideas. The first one will explore this distinction between democracy and authoritarianism.

Slide 12. We will look at a continuum between the two extremes defined along a number of different dimensions. I will further argue that the United States has been slowly sliding down a slippery slope away from the democratic ideal and toward authoritarianism and plutocracy.

Slide 13. Another set of posts in this series will explore the critical problem of figuring out "who's fighting who over what." Obviously, if you don't understand this, then your efforts to address conflict are likely to run into trouble.

Slide 14. In a sense, this is a good version of the Human Terrain Mapping idea that was so controversial (for good reason) in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, the bottom line is that if you don't understand, from a sociological, anthropological, psychological, and economic perspective who's fighting and why, your efforts to make things better will almost certainly fail.

Slide 15. In this context, we are going to have a post on the "culture wars." We call it the Red/Blue Culture Divide and it's going to look at the conflict between conservative and liberal cultural beliefs. We will look at what the two sides believe in as well as the underlying social dynamics that lead to these differences. In later posts we will examine what kind of accommodations might be possible to mitigate or de-escalate this conflict.

Slide 16. Another slideshow will focus on what we call the Purple/Gold Distributional Divide which will look at the "who gets what" aspect of the big conflict between the left and the right.

Slide 17. In this context we will place four major social groups on a continuum from the rich to the poor.

Slide 18. Again, we imagine a continuum with one end consisting of folks with most all of the gold (and money). At the other end of the continuum you have the economically less advantaged (a group which includes folks on both sides of liberal / conservative (red / blue) cultural divide. This is why we refer to this as the purple end of the continuum.

Slide 19. Along this continuum we identify four principal groups. One group is the 1% of the 1% (the .01%). This is the group that has enjoyed the most spectacular increase in wealth over the last few decades. This is an increase that we will see, in a later post, has come at the expense of most everyone else.

Slide 20. The next group is a step down the economic ladder. You might call it the cosmopolitan elite, or it the meritocracy. Some folks call it the top 9.9% while others focus on the top quintile (20%). This is the group that's composed of the upper echelons of society, but not the super rich – the successful professionals. Their kids enjoy a lot of advantages like much better access to higher education, for example. And these folks are all also widely resented by people further down the distributional ladder.

Slide 21. This is includes a group that are sometimes called the "Protected Classes." These are the various groups that Democrats have championed in recent decades including racial minorities, the LBGTQ community, feminists, immigrants, and those with disabilities. These are people who need to be protected from discriminatory policies that are in large part responsible for their disadvantaged economic position.

Slide 22. Then you have another group that is currently being championed by Republicans and conservatives. Sometimes they're called the "Left Behind." I sometimes call them the "Protected-From" Class because they are the folks that progressives want to protect their constituents from. The group includes white, working-class men who, at least according to the accusations and the stereotypes, are more racist and more sexist. Also included are more traditional women, who tend not to be so supportive of feminist goals.

Slide 23. We have now defined the authoritarian populism conflict along two dimensions – a cultural dimension and a distributional dimension. In the next post in this series we will look at what we call "red, blue, gold interactions" in a two-dimensional space.

Slide 24. Horizontally, across the bottom you have the red/blue cultural divide, and then vertically you have the distributional hierarchy from purple to gold.

Slide 25. You can then slice up the resulting pyramid in a variety of ways. For the gold/purple divide you have the 1% of the 1% at the very top and then work your way down through the other three categories.

Slide 26. You can also slice it vertically to look at the cultural divide which wiggles a bit to reflect somewhat different cultures at different layers of the hierarchy.

Slide 27. There is another way of looking at this which is critical to understanding the authoritarian threat. To start with, the folks at the lower end of the social hierarchy, the Left Behind and the Protected Classes, are the folks who are now very distrustful of the elites (often for pretty good reasons). This distrust is responsible for the energy behind the populist revolts on both the left and the right. So part of what feeds into understanding authoritarian populism is understanding why the Left Behind and the Protected Classes (or whatever you want to call them) are so resentful of the elites, and why the elites have lost their trust. But that's only part of the problem. You also have to understand the motivations of the authoritarians, the plutocrats, and the tyrant wannabes. These are the folks who want to be at the very top and have power over everyone else. Sometimes they are violent political tyrants. In our society, in our time, they tend to be plutocrats – the very, very rich guys who are so rich that they can quietly exert enormous control over society while appropriating an increasingly large share of its resources.

Slide 28. If we want a society that addresses the legitimate complaints of the populists while resisting authoritarian and plutocratic rule, we need to understand how authoritarian plutocrats are gaining an ever stronger hold on society at the expense of everyone else. They are doing this by using "divide and conquer" political tactics which, while they go back to ancient times, are still a gigantic threat. The need to counter such tactics also explains why peacebuilding is key to successfully addressing authoritarian populism and all of its many related issues.

The way that the divide and conquer strategy works is that authoritarian and plutocratic wannabes use a variety of tactics to help further divide the society into "us versus them" factions. While deep divisions exist anyway, anything they can do to further inflame those divisions is to their advantage. The trick, for the aspiring authoritarians, is to support and align themselves with one side of this divide and then use their resources to make sure that their side wins. If they align themselves with the losing faction, they obviously won't do very well. It's a competitive game that they could easily lose. Still, tyrant wannabes are the kind of folks who are willing to take risks. Once your side of the conflict has won, then your grateful supporters generally don't mind if you wind up getting an outsized share of the spoils of that conflict (especially if you do so discreetly). Authoritarians typically blame any and all problems that might arise on the losing "scapegoat" faction. They also employ a variety of techniques to hide their corruption. Ultimately, they can solidify power by forcing the "swing" people (those who can't decide which side they're on) to side with them because they are the "winner" (obviously, anyone who sides with the loser is going to be in big trouble). The bottom line is that the deep divisions within society are being exploited by folks who want control over the larger society.

Slide 29. The key to resisting this (which is something that we have to find a way to find a way to do if we are going to avoid an authoritarian future) is to somehow make peace on both the cultural and distributional dimensions with the folks at the "everyone else" end of the hierarchy (this includes members of the establishment elite). This means that you have to find a way to get people with deep differences to understand that they also have a very important common interest in resisting authoritarianism and plutocracy.

Slide 30. Then the last slideshow in this series will look in more detail at the sophisticated nature of the authoritarian/plutocratic threat. It is important to recognize that this isn't just about Donald Trump. In fact, it's quite likely that Donald Trump, in the long march of history, will be seen as a relatively minor player. The stories of incompetence coming out of his administration don't reflect the behavior of the successful authoritarian.

Slide 31. The bigger issue is the longer-term threat of high-technology tyranny as outlined in this excellent article which I recommend. It explains why technology may be favoring tyranny. In the 20th century, authoritarian regimes lost out to democracies because they were much less efficient forms of social organization. In the 21st century, the use of high technology information systems could easily change that and place democracy very much at risk.

Slide 32. Obviously, if we don't get a handle on this, we are all going to be in real trouble. I will close with the picture of my son and my two grandkids. I'm sure you all have people, and especially young people, in your lives that you really care about. The truth is that there future depends on finding a solution to all of this. If we succeed, the future for them looks bright.  If we don't, it obviously doesn't. The bottom line is that we have to get to work addressing these very difficult problems.

Referenced Resources:

Photo Credits:

Slide 4: Forest Fire – Source: By: Jeff Schmaltz; Permission: Public Domain.

Slide 5:

Slide 6: Protest outside Trump Tower, Chicago on November 9, 2016. Source: By Albertoaldana; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

Slide 7:

Slide 8: Political Elephant Donkey – Source:; By DonkeyHotey; Permission: Creative Commons 2.0. Devil Icon – Source:; By: UnreifeKirsche; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Slide 13: NORAD War Room – Source:; By: U.S. Air Force; Permission: Public Domain.

Slide 15,16, 19, 20, 21, and 22: Political Elephant Donkey – Source:; By DonkeyHotey; Permission: Creative Commons 2.0

Slide 32. Photo taken by Guy Burgess.  This is our son, Evan, and grandchildren Ellie and Woody! :-)