If You Don't Know Where You Are Going, It Is Going to Be Hard to Get There

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

October 24, 2022

A Visioning Exercise

As we often tell our students before we ask them to do a future-visioning exercise,  "if you don't know where you are going, it is going to be hard to get there." In the absence of an attractive and broadly accepted image of what a just and peaceful society would look like, it is going to be very hard to build one. In Heidi's graduate reconciliation course, she uses a future-visioning exercise modeled after one developed years ago by Elise Boulding who asked people to "imagine a world without militaries." Heidi asked her students to imagine a country (the U.S. or other) without deep divisions, without hyper-polarization or actual or threatened political violence.

Since most peacebuilding graduate students tend to be politically left, they usually came up with an image of a country that exhibited all the progressive ideals: equality of wealth and income, excellent (often free) higher education and health care for all, good jobs and housing for all, controlled climate change, a comprehensive anti-racism program and full protections for the LGBTQIA2S+ community.

When asked how they'd "get there," the assumption was either that conservatives would come to understand that the progressive view was right, and would join the progressive side, or alternatively, the assumption sometimes was that the conservatives would just be outvoted and overpowered. "Do you think they will just slink away and be quiet?" Heidi would ask.  "Will they leave the country?" "Well, no," her students admitted, then coming to the understanding that their imagined future, if it were to come to pass, would not be one of peace, but rather one of continued struggle.  She would then send them back to the drawing boards, to come up with an image of the future in which everyone would want to live.  The resulting essays looked very different! 

Elicitive Approaches to Visioning

John Paul Lederach, who has, over the last several decades has been one of the world's most insightful and creative peacebuilders, developed an elicitive strategy for helping deeply divided (and  usually war-torn) communities surmount deep differences and develop a common vision for a better future. His approach focused on helping communities rediscover the long-standing wisdom that was already deeply embedded in their socio-cultural traditions – wisdom that, in the heat of ongoing conflict, had receded far into the background. He believed that building on existing insights is far more likely to be successful than trying to import alien ideas from other cultures or embracing brand-new ideas that, while often superficially attractive, have never really been tested against the harsh complexities of the real world. That said, he also recognized that communities may need to adapt their long-standing ideas in ways that enable them to better address the demands posed by rapidly changing social conditions or the now recognized failings and inequities associated with past approaches.

This seems, to us, like good advice as we try to build broad support for efforts to reverse the hyper-polarization spiral.  In the United States (and the many other countries whose cultural origins trace back to Western European civilization), we are heirs to a centuries-long effort to figure out how to structure societies composed of people with very different socio-cultural traditions in ways that allow everyone to live together in freedom, peace, and prosperity, while also limiting power concentrations that can lead to exploitation, oppression, and authoritarian rule.  For our society, these efforts have coalesced around a complex and continually evolving array of governing principles that we call liberal democracy.

In saying this, we want to be clear: liberal democracy is not the only way to organize a society. There are lots of other societies with other long-standing traditions that they could draw on to get them through contemporary crises. In the United States, however, liberal democracy is deeply ingrained in our society. Rediscovering its virtues and fixing its many shortcomings is likely to be much easier than finding and persuading the society as a whole to embrace something new and different.

In fact, it is efforts to promote something new and different that are a big part of what is driving our current hyper-polarization.  On the left, progressive disillusionment over many injustices that it sees as having been allowed to persist in the context of liberal democracy has led to the emergence of powerful new "successor ideology" and a "woke" challenge to liberal democracy. (These are names given to this movement by its critics. Oddly, a broadly-accepted and positively-framed name for this philosophy has yet to emerge from its proponents.) On the right, with its very different set of moral beliefs, we have seen the emergence of what its opponents call an "illiberal democracy" movement that advocates increasingly extreme measures to combat the progressive left — measures that often violate liberal democratic norms.

Unfortunately, there are "bad-faith actors" on both the right and the left who are actively working to inflame tensions in ways that enable them to accumulate power and exploit others. These efforts, when combined with the natural power of escalation dynamics, have taken us to the point where the left and the right really do constitute a major threat to each other's interests — a fact that only further intensifies the confrontation.

Reframing "Threats to Democracy" as Common Ground and "A Way Out"

Still, the fact that both the left and the right are mobilizing around what they see as threats to "our democracy" gives us hope that rediscovering and recommitting to democratic ideals might offer a way out of our current predicament.  After all, liberal democracy is a system designed specifically to allow diverse communities with competing and incompatible beliefs to live together in peace while equitably sharing the burdens and benefits that come from living in such close proximity.  Instead of discarding it, we need to figure out how to adapt it to the challenges of the 21st century. Those with conflict and peacebuilding expertise have much to contribute to such an effort.

Hopefully, we will demonstrate that Fukuyama is actually right history is converging on some new and better form of liberal democracy as the only viable alternative to chaos and authoritarianism.