Red, Blue, Gold Interactions, Destructive Polarization and the Peacebuilding Imperative


Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

September, 2018


This post explores the interrelationships between the cultural and the distributional divide and the conflict between the super wealthy, authoritarian plutocrats and pretty much everybody else. The argument is that any successful challenge to the slide toward authoritarianism and plutocracy will require peacebuilding efforts capable of producing an effective, "everybody else" coalition composed of liberal and conservatively-oriented groups on both distributional and cultural dimensions.

    Full Transcript:

    Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

    Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. In this post I want to talk about something that I call the red, blue, gold divide.

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    Slide 2. To start with, I want to be clear that my primary focus is on defending democracy and, as a result, I will wind up saying a lot of things that are critical of the way President Trump has been handling his presidency. If this makes you angry, please understand that our concern here is much broader than just President Trump. Rather, we are concerned with a whole series of dynamics that are increasing the risk that democratic societies fail and be replaced with some flavor of authoritarian rule.

    Slide 3. This is a continuation of a series of posts that have tried to map the complex of conflicts that we've been talking about under the rubric of "authoritarian populism."

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    Slide 4. This includes the Red / Blue Cultural Divide and the

    Slide 5. Purple / Gold Distributional Divide.

    Slide 6. To help visualize the interactions between the two dimensions,I want to explore the graphical technique that I used in the first overview slideshow and turn to the two dimensions into a two-dimensional space. So, horizontally we have the cultural divide and vertically we have the distributional divide. This creates a nice hierarchy. There are obviously a lot more people at the lower end of the social and economic hierarchy than at the top.

    Slide 7. On this diagram it's pretty easy to delineate the various steps in the distributional divide. Here I've highlighted the 1% of the 1%, the folks that are getting really, really rich. And then we have the 1% and the 19%, which we talked about in the earlier slideshow as the meritocracy or the establishment elite. Then there is the more Republican "left behind" and the more Democratic "protected classes."

    Slide 8. You can overlay on top of this, but going the other way, the cultural divide. I have drawn this line in a bit of a curvy fashion to reflect the fact that the folks at the bottom of the hierarchy, the so-called "protected classes," tend to skew toward the liberal end of the cultural divide. And, up a little higher up you are talking about the "left behind," who tend to skew towards the conservative end. As you get closer to the top, things tend to be a little more evenly divided though, maybe, if you look at the statistics, they tend to skew a bit more in a progressive direction.

    Slide 9. The other thing to be clear about is that this is a map of the classic social hierarchy with a very few people at the top and lots of people further down. There is also an iron law of specialization and authority that nobody has quite figured out how to break. The plain fact is that we can't all be at the top of the hierarchy. We can't have a society composed exclusively of lawyers and politicians and doctors, and college professors. So what we really need is a society that treats people at all levels of the social hierarchy with dignity and respect and provides them with a living wage. This, unfortunately is something that we do not now have.

    Slide 10. The other thing that you see with this is a way of mapping the conflict is that the authoritarians, plutocrats, and tyrant wannabes are at the very top of the hierarchy. These are the folks who want to be in control of as much of society as possible and dominate everybody else. And then, in the middle, there is the "deep state," the enabling professional class, which could decide to align itself with the larger population or the plutocrats. At this point, it's not quite clear where the sympathies of the deep state will lie.

    Slide 11. I've shown this book a couple of times to emphasize that the corruption problem (what we're calling "authoritarian plutocracy" here) is one of the principle threats to global security.

    Slide 12. Another thing to be clear about is the nature of the authoritarian wannabe's problem. Obviously, there are very, very few folks at the top of the hierarchy. 0.01% is not very many and, even if you include the deep state, you're only talking about 10 to 20%. This leaves everybody else, the 99.99% or the 80%. So, if all you care about is yourself and you want to be one of the few folks on top, you have to realize that you don't stand a prayer of winning elections, because the vast mass majority of the voters don't agree with your aspirations and can be expected to oppose your power grab.

    Slide 13. So you need a strategy. The most common approach is to use a trick that's been used for millennia that is most widely called the "divide-and-conquer strategy." The idea is that you exploit the tensions that exist in all societies. The first step is to do what you can to help to divide the society into ever-sharper us-versus-them factions. Then you want to align yourself with one of these factions and provide substantial support for that faction. You want to use your resources to make sure that that faction wins. This means that you need substantial resources if you want to play this game. You want everybody in your faction to, of course, be very, very grateful for your support. This will put you in a position where you can ask for things. If there are problems or if the inequities inherent in your power grab cause problems, you can always, with a little bit of careful propaganda, blame them on the losing, "scapegoat" faction. There are also lots of things you can do to hide your corruption, so people won't get so mad at you. Ultimately, you can hope to cement your power by convincing folks that they're the winner and if they want any chance of anything, they have got to align themselves with you. Obviously, if you align yourself with the loser, then you're pretty much out of luck.

    Slide 14. This basic scenario plays out and again. You may be able to win by supporting a winning, progressive coalition.

    Slide 15. Or, you can take the conservative route and try to get to the point where you become key to the victory of a conservative coalition.

    Slide 16. The idea is that, if you're the progressive that wins, then you get favorable treatment and a fair amount of money back from your coalition because they're grateful for your support and because, without it, they couldn't possibly have won. Still, what you really get to do is hammer the other side and use them as a major source of wealth.

    Slide 17. Since the game works from either the left or the right, you can obviously do this from a conservative perspective. It's also obviously a very competitive game and only one side is going to be victorious at any point in time. Over time, of course, the political pendulum tends to swing back and forth, favoring plutocrats on both sides. I

    t's a risky strategy. But, part of being an authoritarian wannabe is you're willing to take risks. If you win, great, if not, you can probably stay in the game and try again another day.

    Slide 18. This is a recent article from the New York Times. It is another one of Thomas Edsall's very well-documented essays that explains how President Trump with his very divisive politics has worked in concert with the Koch Brothers' efforts to put through a whole series of policies that are very beneficial to the very rich. This is as good a description of how this works in real life as I've seen. I recommend it. Obviously, there are other instances in which something close to this works from a progressive perspective.

    Slide 19. If you're trying to win the support of the population, there are two basic strategies you can use to do this. There's the "swing" voter strategy where you try to get folks in the center to support you. This requires you to make some concessions and compromises that maybe yield a marginally better set of social policies that also still tend to favor the very rich.

    Slide 20. The alternative strategy is what's called the mobilize-the-base strategy. In the United States, where lots of people don't vote, this is an extremely powerful political tactic. What you do is you get people on your side so mad that they'll actually bother to vote.  This requires spreading a lot of very inflammatory stories.

    Slide 21. You get a sense from this academic article that explains how base mobilization has become a dominant form of political combat, at least in the United States.

    Slide 22. So the idea is you inflame either the left or the right by, in a figurative sense, pouring gasoline on existing tensions and making people madder and madder. We see this in the rhetoric of both the left and the right.

    Slide 23. This is obviously a formula for a self-sustaining, explosive escalation process. Once you get this really going, you can stand back and you don't have to do anything.  People are so angry at each other that they will just tear each other apart.

    Slide 24. So you've got this circular dynamic going. First, you highlight and overstate the threat posed by the other side. That provokes an angry response by your supporters. The other side sees these angry responses as provocative and threatening. That, in turn, generates provocative and angry responses on their part. The cycle goes round and round and you eventually get to the point where the two sides hate each other so much that they couldn't possibly imagine working together to oppose the plutocratic wannabes.

    Slide 25. Another thing to keep in mind is that, at least in U.S. politics (I can't speak to other countries), there's an enormous amount of stability. These are election results by various demographic groups for one election that George W. Bush won, another that Obama won, and you can see that the distribution of which group got which votes doesn't change very much. So, again, you're not persuading folks in the middle, you're just firing folks up on one side or the other. It doesn't take much to decide elections.

    Slide 26. So the key to resisting authoritarian plutocracy is, somehow or another, building something closer to a 99% coalition. The "Occupy Wall Street" guys never really aspired ro anything quite like that. That will require bringing together the left and the right along both  the distributional and cultural dimensions. They obviously won't agree on everything. Still, with a spirit of tolerance and coexistence they should, at least, be able to recognize that they have a common interest in resisting the authoritarian and plutocratic impulses of society.

    Slide 27. So, basically, what you've got to do is come up with a strategy for damping down, rather than fanning the flames, of these base- mobilization strategies. That's something that's not happening very much at the moment.

    Slide 28. You also have to figure out how to do this at the same time that the plutocratic wannabes are trying to inflame tensions. That's obviously a tough challenge.

    Slide 29. The good news is that there are organizations out there that are trying to do this. And, there are lots of other potential opportunities for citizen groups to come together to try to contribute to the effort. The Bridge Alliance is an interesting organization of organizations that are trying to help bridge these divide. This is just a small set of snapshots of some of the members of The Bridge Alliance. What we need is a massive, broadly-based, and financially well supported effort to try to diffuse the tensions between the left and the right, at least enough so we can all work together to protect democracy from its authoritarian tendencies.

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