How Can We Reduce Hyper-Polarization? Join BI's Discussion to Share Your Ideas and Learn Others!

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Newsletter #50 -- September 7, 2022


In This Issue


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

BI Newsletter Is Switching to Substack

This newsletter is the first that BI is sending out through its new Substack-based system.  As we explain on our updated Following BI page, Substack is now the best way to stay up-to-date on the latest postings to BI and, especially, our new online discussion on hyper-polarization (see below). While all subscribers to BI's previous, Mail Chimp-based system were sent a copy of the new Substack newsletter, it is possible that a number of common delivery problems may have prevented some subscribers receiving their copies. To help address this problem, we are using the old Mail Chimp system to send out information about how to overcome these problems (as well as a link to the latest newsletter). This information is also available on BI's Substack Help page. 


What Role Should the Conflict Field Play in Addressing Hyper-Polarization?

In July 2022, Guy and Heidi Burgess and Sanda Kaufman published a "feature article" in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly entitled  Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper-polarized, society-wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies. This article was accompanied by three simultaneously-published "Commentaries," by Carrie Menkel Meadow, Connie Ozawa, and Barney Jordaan.  This feature article/commentary set is the first of a new kind of publication for CRQ which, according to CRQ editor Helena Desivilya Syna, is "designed to spur discussion and ensuing action amidst academics, scholars, and practitioners on pertinent and contemporary queries in the broad domain of social conflict. Given the severity of the hyper-polarization problem and the many things that the conflict resolution field could do to help address it, CRQ / Wiley is allowing everyone to read the articles for free on the CRQ site."

The Burgesses have further elaborated on some of the core arguments presented in the CRQ Feature article in a second, newer article focused on the advantages of thinking of democracy as a dispute-handling system. For those who are short for time, we have also created a much shorter Executive Summary of the CRQ article which highlights the key ideas from that article, as does this newsletter. 

Invitation to Participate in the Hyper-Polarization Discussion

We encourage everyone who has thoughts about the article and/or the problem of hyper-polarization to share their ideas on the new Discussion/Blog which is being hosted on BI. In order to block spammers, bots, and other malicious content, we are asking people to send their thoughts to BI Co-Directors Guy and Heidi Burgess. (You can email them directly to us or use BI's contact form.) We will post all of the discussion submissions received (including those that disagree with us) on the discussion blog, and will send out highlights in the newsletter. The only submissions we will not post are ones that are clearly disruptive or malicious. If you are unsure about whether or not we would find your post acceptable, just send us a brief description of what you're thinking about and we will try to respond quickly.  Also, please, share our Invitation to Participate to anyone you think would be interested in the discussion and have something to add. 


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The Hyper-Polarization Crisis: A Conflict Resolution Challenge

Synopses highlighting some of the many posts to the hyper-polarization discussion.

Burgess, Burgess, and Kaufman — Executive Summary: Applying Conflict Resolution Insights to Today's Hyper-Polarized Societies

Our Executive Summary of the article that frames the hyper-polarization discussion starts by asserting that political hyper-polarization and the resulting political stalemate is the number one problem facing the United States and a great many other countries. We believe it is more important than climate change, inequality, health, race relations, immigration—or any of the other so-called “existential” problems, because none of those problems are going to be successfully addressed, unless we can fix the hyper-polarization that has driven effective problem analysis and problem solving into the ground.  This raises at least three questions:

  • Is political polarization as destructive as we believe it is? Is it worth prioritizing its reduction? If so,
  • What can and should the conflict resolution field be doing to reduce hyper-polarization?
  • Are some of our activities actually contributing to it, rather than helping to reduce it?  If so, what can and should we do about that?

In Part 2 we distinguish between “power-with” and “power-over” forms of social organization, and point out that traditional conflict resolution skills (such as de-escalation, active listening, dialogue, empowerment of low power groups, among others) are precisely what is needed to make democratic, power-with societies successful.  But, we ask, why are so many democracies ignoring these skills and moving away from, rather than toward collaborative approaches to solving problems? And what can be done to reverse those trends?

We then lay out five challenges to the field:

  • Credibility — Many people doubt our approaches really protect their interests. How can we better demonstrate that they do? 
  • Inadequate Resources — We need additional funding to train and support enough people to make an impact. How can we raise more money and do more with what we now have? 
  • Role Confusion — While conflict skills can be used both for advocacy and third party intervention, we do not believe practitioners can do both at once. There needs to be a very clear distinction between those who are acting as advocates and those who are acting as intermediaries. (This is an area that has already generated considerable discussion, as evidenced in the exchange between the Burgesses and Jackie Font-Guzman and Bernie Mayer.)  What do you think? 
  • Scale and Complexity — Most of our processes are “table-oriented.” They take place among a relatively few people as they sit around a table. How can we massively scale up our processes so they work at the full scale of communities, if not whole societies?  And how do we deal with highly complex (some call them "wicked") problems—challenges where people don't even agree on whether there is a problem, or what it is, or what the causes are, let alone how to approach it?
  • Bad Faith Actors — The conflict resolution field has traditionally viewed people as good-faith actors who would embrace mutually-beneficial solutions to common problems as long as they fairly allocate costs and benefits and treat everyone with respect.  Today, unfortunately, we are being forced to deal with several different types of bad-faith actors — those who have figured out how to profit by amplifying (and sometimes provoking) social tensions and preventing collaborative efforts from succeeding. This raises several questions: what can our field do to disempower these bad-faith actors?  How can we re-establish trustworthy news and facts and get people on all sides of our political divides to consume (and indeed, trust) that news and those facts?  How can we get people to stop falling for the bad-faith actors' divide-and-conquer strategies, and instead, unite to conquer the bad-faith actors?

Parts 7 and 8 of the framing paper explore how the conflict field can develop in ways that allow it to better tackle these large-scale, complex problems.  We argue that we need to shift away from thinking in mechanical or engineering-like terms, and switch to ecosystem-based approaches that are more flexible and adaptive to complex and ever-changing conditions.  This will require us to reach out to people in allied fields who have expertise in areas we lack. We also suggest that we develop large-scale, self-organizing systems where we use a division-of-labor approach that encourages us to work in parallel directions toward similar goals—the most important one being the strengthening of power-with, liberal democracy.

Rather than orchestrating society-wide responses to society-wide problems, we advocate a "massively parallel" problem-solving process that harnesses the learning engine implicit in complex systems, and uses the opportunities that problems generate to reward anyone who can figure out how to solve them. These opportunities create competitive spaces in which markets reward those who offer the most cost-effective solutions. This is the “necessity is the mother of invention” driver that underlies the “invisible hand” and much of human progress.

Part 9 of the CRQ paper gives a few examples of types of projects that have been and could be undertaken to start to address these problems. Can you add to that list?  In the discussion, and on BI more generally, we want to highlight as many stories of successful approaches for dealing with all the challenges implied in the CRQ paper and laid out much more specifically in the subsequent framing paper which has a 5x7 matrix of "things that need doing."   Can you help us fill out those matrix squares with ideas of how to meet those challenges?

We conclude in Part 10 by saying that our current situation not only provides opportunities, it also constitutes an obligation for our field. We are the best positioned people to begin efforts such as these. If we don't, who will?  And if no one does, where does that lead us? Clearly, nowhere any of us want to go. We end by saying:

To pursue these opportunities, we need to set aside personal political preferences and, on behalf of all citizens, try to help bridge our many differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance, coexistence, constructive moral debate, and collective learning. To be successful, however, this effort will have to clearly distinguish itself from the highly partisan progressive advocacy which much of the conflict field has embraced.

While many are already doing much to pursue what we propose, we believe our field needs to do much more, and become more effective at what we are doing. Just as the COVID pandemic was a call to action for the public health field, the hyper-polarization crisis is a call for those of us with conflict-related expertise to get involved in developing and promoting engagement that builds a just, peaceful, and effective democracy.


Chris Honeyman — J. Michael Luttig's Statement to the House Select Committee on the January 6, 2021 Attack on the Capitol

When I (Heidi Burgess) wrote Chris Honeyman earlier this summer, inviting him to participate in this discussion, Chris explained that he couldn't do so at the time as he was preparing for a major conference that he (together with a few colleagues) were convening in just a few weeks.  However, Chris did take the time to read the framing article and noted that ...

"... one thing you might think about is that just yesterday [meaning June 16, 2022] , a very prominent conservative, Michael Luttig, issued a 12 page statement in conjunction with his testimony to the Jan 6 committee, and much of it reads as if you and Sanda had written it. I doubt if you can get anywhere near Luttig right now, because his testimony will have put him front and center in lots of other discussions, but you should at least get hold of his paper and might think about who might agree with him from a right wing perspective. You can find it here:"

Luttig is a former judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He was appointed by President George H. W. Bush, and notably, is one of the prominent Republican lawyers to advise Vice President Pence as he was considering his response to President Trump's demand that Pense refuse to certify the electoral votes on January 6, 2021. After reading Luttig's statement I (Heidi Burgess) agree with Chris: it does correspond to our paper to a surprising degree.  For example Luttig starts out by saying: 

A stake was driven through the heart of American democracy on January 6, 2021, and our democracy today is on a knife’s edge. America was at war on that fateful day, but not against a foreign power. She was at war against herself. We Americans were at war with each other -- over our democracy. January 6 was but the next, foreseeable battle in a war that had been raging in America for years, though that day was the most consequential battle of that war even to date. In fact, January 6 was a separate war unto itself, a war for America’s democracy, a war irresponsibly instigated and prosecuted by the former president, his political party allies, and his supporters. Both wars are raging to this day.

A peaceful end to these wars is desperately needed.


Solon Simmons — Applying Root Narrative Theory to the Republican Party and American Politics

When we wrote Solon Simmons about the hyper-polarization discussion, he sent us links to an article he wrote that was published in two parts in 2019:

This article applies an approach to understanding narratives and their impact on events that Solon developed called "Root Narrative Theory." This approach argues that deep-rooted conflicts which lead to distrust, hate, polarization, and violence are driven by rival root narratives about the abuse of power. Most everyone, he suggests, holds such root narratives.  They tend to focus on some combination of four sources of power: military, political, economic, and cultural. All people, he says, identify some people or organizations as protagonists (we would say "good guys") and others as antagonists (we would say "bad guys" or "the other"). They then tend to see the antagonists as abusing one or more of those sources of power, resulting in injustice suffered by the protagonists. This results in very different descriptions of problems -- depending on who you define as the protagonist and the antagonist.  It also results in very different notions of how to remedy the problem.

This is evidenced clearly in a discussion that we (Guy and Heidi Burgess) have been having with Bernie Mayer and Jackie Font-Guzman about whether the existential problem facing the United States and many other countries is hyper-polarization (as Guy and Heidi together with Sanda Kaufman assert) or oppression (as Bernie and Jackie assert). The promise of Root Narrative Theory, Solon explains,

... is not just to promote better analysis of political worldviews, but also to provide practitioners with better points of entry for intellectual transformation. The idea is that if you can meet people in their own political reality, you have a better chance of negotiating with them and finding paths to more productive cooperation.


Louis Kriesberg — Asymmetric Polarization

Lou responded to our request for comments with a number of suggestions:

I think the new article by Guy Burgess, Heidi Burgess, and Sanda Kaufman about possible conflict resolution applications to transform the society-wide conflicts that threaten liberal democracies is very important. It offers many insights about the complexity of society-wide conflicts in the U.S. and ways for conflict resolution ideas to transform destructive conflicts by applying constructive conflicts. Their formulation of a massively parallel approach to saving American democracy is especially significant. I have several comments that I think would enhance the authors’ analyses and prescriptions. First, I think the use of the term polarization, although widely used, is misleading. It suggests an equivalence of opposing polar parties. The authors’ discussion of bad actors exposes a lack of equivalence. We are beset by terribly destructively waged conflicts that have already badly damaged American civil life and its democratic institutions. Many more Republicans than Democrats have for several years conducted conflicts destructively. They sometimes suppressed and ignored important matters of contention and raised distracting issues to advance self-serving gains. That asymmetry does pose problems for constructive conflict resolvers, but those problems can be and have been overcome. For example, by passing some bi-partisan bills.

Lou goes on to give examples, references, and comments on a variety of topics and notes that his book, Constructive Conflicts co-authored by Bruce Dayton, provides many core ideas about ways to wage conflict constructively. (Indeed, we sought Bruce's and Lou's blessing before we adopted the term "Constructive Conflict" for the initiative that spawned this paper and discussion. The 6th edition of Constructive Conflicts was just released this month!


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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.


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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

Once or twice a week, we will compile BI news, along with new posts from our Hyper-polarization Blog and elsewhere on BI into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Beyond Intractability or the Conflict Information Consortium.

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Copyright © 2016-22 Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
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Beyond Intractability Sunrise Photographs. By Guy and Heidi Burgess.
Arrow Constructive Conflict Initiative Graphic: By Guy and Heidi Burgess.
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Daytime Protest -- Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash -- Free to use under the Unsplash License