Within-Party Differences

Heidi Burgess

January 2004

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Lack of understanding about--and acting upon--what we call here "within-party differences" is one of the major contributors to the political polarization we see in the U.S. currently.  In a (in)famous speech made during the fall presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to some (albeit many) of Donald Trump supporters as "deplorables."More...

No more critical challenge faces each of us, and all of us together, than how to live together in a world of differences. So much depends on our ability to handle our conflicts peacefully -- our happiness at home, our performance at work, the livability of our communities, and, in this age of mass destruction, the survival of our species.

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Constructive Conflict
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exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


The Third Side offers a promising new way to look at the conflicts around us. The Third Side is the community -- us -- in action protecting our most precious interests in safety and well-being. It suggests 10 practical roles any of us can play on a daily basis to stop destructive fighting in our families, at work, in our schools, and in the world. Each of our individual actions is like a single spider web, fragile perhaps but, when united with others, capable of halting the lion of war. Although the Third Side is in its infancy in our modern-day societies, it has been used effectively by simpler cultures for millennia to reduce violence and promote dialogue.

Disputants and outside observers often assume that one or both sides are basically homogeneous. If a few vocal people on the opposition are outrageous, threatening, or seemingly dangerous, there is a tendency to believe that all members of the opposition are like that. Enemy images are developed that assume the worst of everyone on the other side, and strategies for dealing with the opponents are based on these worst-case assumptions. [1] [2]

In most cases, however, when the opposition is a group, organization, or nation-state, there is considerably divergence in views among the members of the opposing groups. While some might be characterized as "hardliners," and might deserve at least some of the negative stereotypes often attributed to them, many others are likely to be less extreme. Such "moderates" form what Louis Kriesberg calls "constituencies for de-escalation."[3] These people can often be better reached with conciliatory gestures or confidence building measures, rather than confrontational or escalatory moves.

Another way to differentiate among opponents and by-standers is to divide them into four groups:

  • persuadables,
  • reluctant persuadables,
  • traders, and
  • hardliners.

Louis Kriesberg describes the complexity of conflicts, explaining that many people are interacting in many different ways and every individual CAN make a difference.

Persuadables are people who can fairly easily be persuaded that you are right. With a little bit of reason or a moral or emotional appeal, they are likely to join your side or support you in the conflict.

Reluctant persuadables are people who also might be persuaded that you are right, but it will take more effort. You will have to work harder to convince them of your views, describing those views, as much as possible, in a way that is consistent with their belief systems, which may well be different from yours.

Traders are people who may not be persuaded that you are right, but they are willing to negotiate with you anyway. If you can give them something they want, they are likely to give you what you want, even if they do not necessarily believe in your reasons for wanting it.

Hardliners are people who are not going to change their beliefs or behavior, no matter what. Persuasion won't work, nor will negotiation, as they refuse to negotiate regardless of what you offer. Some hardliners might be "conflict profiteers," people who are benefiting or profiting from the continuation of the conflict. These may be the leaders, who gain their reputation and power from being "tough" and standing up to the other side, military leaders whose reputation has been (or is being) earned by battle victories, or even low-level military personnel who have no other way of making a living. Other conflict profiteers are arms dealers who make money by selling weapons, sometimes to both sides at once.

Other hardliners are the extremists who hold extreme religious, nationalistic, or prejudicial beliefs that say they are superior, and the opponent inferior, even non-human and deserving extinction. Such beliefs lead to what Guy Burgess has called "into-the-sea" framing, in which the goal is to figuratively -- or almost literally -- drive the opponents into the sea.[4] (The term originally referred to the Palestinian's stated desire to destroy the state of Israel, leaving the Israelis nowhere to go, but into the sea. But the term is equally relevant to any genocidal situation, where people are not drowned, but killed in any other way.)

Since the extremists and other hardliners usually gain the most press coverage, it is easy to come to the conclusion that everyone on the other side feels that way. This leads to extremely hostile tactics, as extremists are not worth trying to persuade or negotiate with. But if one has a more accurate image of the differences on the other side, sometimes persuasion or negotiation is possible. Eventually the extremists will still have to be dealt with, but if one has developed a large number of allies on the other side, that job will be considerably easier to do.

Current Implications

Lack of understanding about--and acting upon--what we call here "within-party differences" is one of the major contributors to the political polarization we see in the U.S. currently.  In a famous speech made during the fall presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton refered to some (albeit many) of Donald Trump supporters as "deplorables." This comment was taken to mean that she thought all Trump supporters were deplorable, which many observers think alienated so many undecided voters that they voted for Trump in November. 

Even months after the election, many liberals denounce all Trump supporters as "haters" and "stupid" (among other things), while Trump supporters have equally negative things to say about liberals.  

Few people recognize that there are good people and bad people on all sides; that some can be worked with, and others cannot. I wrote in May, 2017 that "fortunately, the US Congress seems to be figuring this out.  While the "Freedom Caucus" -- the far right of the conservative Republican Parry is still refusing to compromise on their goals and hence corresponds to what we call in the essay "hardliners," the more moderate Republicans and Democrats seem to be beginning to work together.  Just a few days ago they successfully passed a budget bill--one of the most consequential bi-partisan bills to be passed in quite some time, even though it still only funds the government for 6 months. However, 6 months later, Congress and the President reached an impasse over funding of Trump's border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and the government shut down for over 30 days--the longest government shutdown ever.  Although there have been a few bipartisan efforts made since that time--including the vote to re-open the government in January of 2018 (when Trump declared a State of Emergency as an alternative way to fund the wall), little cooperation has been evident since.  

However, differentiating between hard line, even extreme conservatives and liberals, and more moderate ones who might be able to reach some common ground is going to be essential if the U.S. is to become a democratically governable country--which for the last several years, it has essentially ceased to be.

--Heidi Burgess   May 2, 2017.


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[1] Paul Wehr, "Misperceptions" in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict, Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess, Eds., Available online at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/wehr7486.htm.

[2] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflict, Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefiled. 2012. p. 127-131 <http://www.amazon.com/Constructive-Conflicts-Escalation-Louis-Kriesberg/dp/1442206845#reader_1442206845>. Original citation to pages 142-143 of 2003 version.

[3] Kriesberg. Original citation to pages 294 of 2003 version.

[4] Guy Burgess "Into the Sea Framing" Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, available online at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/intosea.htm.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Within-Party Differences." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/within-party-differences>.

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