Meeting the Authoritarian Populism Challenge 1: Authoritarian and Partisan Conflict

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

December, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.

Referenced Resources and Photo Credits found at the end of the transcript.


This is the first in a series of posts that build on the earlier effort to use conflict mapping techniques to understand the complex nature of the Authoritarian Populism problem. The coming series of posts will apply our Massively Parallel Peacebuilding strategy for more constructively addressing the kind of very complex, large-scale, and intractable conflicts that are tearing apart the United States and so many other societies. This series offers specific suggestions of things that small groups of people could do to help us address important and often neglected parts of the larger problem. This first post focuses on the argument that we all need to put our partisan differences in perspective and undertake projects (jointly when possible) that are focused on protecting and democratic institutions.

Full Transcript

Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess with the first of a series of five posts that explore what we think are realistic strategies for addressing the difficult challenges posed by authoritarian populism.


This and all other posts in the Conflict Frontiers Seminar Series are offered as preliminary ideas for discussion. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Slide 2. As you may remember from the preceding series of posts on authoritarian populism, we tried to map out the basic dimensions of a whole series of interlocking conflicts and associated destructive conflict dynamics that were at play.

Slide 3. You may also remember that we were trying to focus on what I think is the essential dimension of the authoritarian populism problem, that is the tendency of aspiring authoritarians to try to gain power over the larger society through a series of divide-and-conquer political tactics. We talked a lot about how this idea, which goes way back to ancient Macedonia (but has been updated to the modern high-tech world), enables those who seek power over others to manipulate the population in ways that get everyone so busy fighting with one another that they do not oppose the kind of power grab that "authoritarian wannabes" are perpetrating.

This post is part of a series of posts on Authoritarian Populism Name & Logoand strategies for more constructively addressing the red/blue divide.

It is also part of the larger Massively Parallel Peacebuilding Name / Logo seminar series.

Slide 4. In order to do this, we want to apply the massively parallel peacebuilding strategy that we have outlined in a series of prior posts. This, we think, is the most promising strategy for dealing with the enormous complexity of the problem. There are a couple of key ideas that are worth remembering here.

First, there is a recognition that, while we can't do everything, we have a civic obligation to do what we can to address the problem. It's also worth looking, especially, at the things that need to be done that aren't being done. There is a tendency, with respect to a lot of conflicts, for everybody to focus on the same few aspects of the problem and neglect other, equally important things. Occasionally, something like "getting out the vote" might deserve that kind of attention. More generally, however, the problem is very multi-faceted – we need to get a lot of people working on different parts of it.

It's also important to find opportunities for "scaling up" efforts wherever possible because, somehow, we have to go from having very small numbers of people interested in the peacebuilding problem to having enough people active to change a society with millions of people.

This is obviously not something that can easily be done over the short term, so we need to think long term as well as short term. We want to try to limit conflict problems wherever we can over the short term, but a lot of these problems are going take a lot more time than that to fix.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, while eliminating all of the destructive problems that we've outlined in the previous posts is pretty much impossible, limiting them and limiting the damage that they cause is thoroughly realistic. I hope that you'll see, with a lot of the ideas that I'm presenting here, that this makes sense.

Slide 5. In the earlier set of posts, we laid out, in more detail, the whole notion of massively parallel peacebuilding and how it is organized around an extensive series of "action steps" which we group into ten major challenges.

Slide 6. We are now going try to build on that. And, there is a lot more detail in the Authoritarian Populism Action List that's on the website. In this post I am going to focus on some of the most important of these actions.

Slide 7. There is information about other steps you might take in our Things You Can Do To Help blog with its short explanations of simple but still important things most everyone can do.

Slide 8. We will also soon be posting a whole series of more detailed posts that follow up on the general ideas presented here. These include more detailed information on strategies for dealing with escalation, for example. Here is a list of some of the posts that you can look forward to seeing.

Slide 9. I also want to make a small pitch for donations. We obviously don't have all of this together yet, and the truth is that we need more money to add materials on the various action steps. While we are very efficient, small budget operation, we still need your help. So, If you can spare some money, there are easy donate options on the website. We would really appreciate any help you can provide.

Slide 10. I should mention one last thing before I start explaining some of the specific things that I think can be done. In trying to explain this, we inevitably encounter a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. It's not quite clear what comes first or what comes second because, really, we have to do it all at the same time. That's key to the whole massively parallel idea. Don't start thinking in terms of a sequential series of steps. The truth is that we have to do everything first. 

Slide 11. Conflict Is Not a Spectator Sport -- The rest of this post (and the remaining four posts in this series) is organized around a series of ideas that could help people help address the various aspects of the problem. To start with, we hope to help people understand that they need to "get into the game," society-wide conflict is not a spectator sport. This is true even though political coverage is set up, presented, and merchandised by the media as a spectator sport in which you "tune in" and root for the home team just like you would for a a football game. We all really need to get involved. We have to take responsibility for how the game is played, and not just for helping determine who wins and who loses.

Slide 12. The other thing that's important is to help people realize that, at least with respect to aspiring authoritarians and populism, the battleground is our hearts and minds. There are a lot of very sophisticated games being played that are trying to convince each and every one of us to think about the conflict in a way that advances their interests with our interests being a minor consideration. We have to realize that people are trying to play with our brains in ways that determine what we think. Given this, we need to make sure that the good folk, and not the bad guys, win. Our future depends on it.

Slide 13. The other thing we need to help people realize is the importance of stepping out of the crowd. Right now, most everybody's caught up in this gigantic "us versus them" conflict, which, truth be told, is just digging our hole deeper and deeper. We need some folks to stand up and say, "No, there's a better way." That's going take some courage.

Slide 14. It's also the sort of thing that will be much easier to do if you can find other people who are interested in doing the same sort of thing. Such small groups can work together, provide one another with emotional support, share the workload, and start to build a bigger support base and reputation.

Slide 15. Here, we've been impressed with the list of organizations that a meta-organization, the Bridge Alliance, has put together. I should be clear, we are not a member. (There was confusion about this in the past, which is why I mention that.)  If you go to their website you will find a gigantic list of organizations that, in one way or another, are trying to find ways of bridging the "us versus them" divide.

Slide 16. Going back to to our effort to apply massively parallel peacebuilding to the authoritarian populism problem, remember, that we organize things around a series of challenges. At this point I would like to focus on the second challenge, "Defending and Promoting Democracy. Again, I'm going to skip around a bit because of the chicken and egg problem.

Slide 17Separating Partisanship from the Protection of Democracy --If you are going to protect democracy from assaults from authoritarian wannabes, there are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind. First, it's very important to separate the interests of grassroot citizens (who are either members of political parties on the left and the right or independents in the center) and the interests of their "leaders." Sometimes, these leaders act in truly altruistic ways that try to do the best they can to serve the interests of their constituents. Sometimes, however, leaders have authoritarian aspirations and they are basically trying to play the political "divide-and -conquer" game in ways that will give them more power. In one way or another, we've got to oppose that. However, just because you oppose the power grab of the leaders of the other political party, that doesn't mean that you need to be so opposed to the grassroots members of that group. These folks are likely to have been taken in by the same tricks (in efforts to promote intergroup hostility) that are affecting pretty much everybody on each side.

Slide 18. The other thing to keep in mind is that there are two conflicts at play here. There's the conflict of all of us against these forces of dystopia that could be an authoritarian war (an updated version of 1984), or just the failure of government to deal with common problems such as climate change or infectious diseases. Efforts to oppose all of those dystopian futures are not the same as the efforts to oppose the Republican or Democratic partisan agenda, which is different (though this difference is often deliberately obfuscated).

Slide 19. What we need to do is to find some way of putting a boundary around partisan conflicts between the left and the right. Here, I'm focused primarily at the grassroots level. We need to find ways to cooperate enough to defend our common interests against the dystopian threats (authoritarianism, anocractic governments that fail to function, or civil strife and war).

Slide 20. This requires finding areas (again, at the level of left-right grassroots conflicts), in which we can coexist and tolerate our differences, cooperate on matters of mutual concern, while also recognizing that, sometimes, on some issues, the differences are so deep that simple toleration or coexistence won't work. For these cases, we need constructive confrontation skills. We need to learn how to debate, argue, and fight about these things in ways that lead to decisions which advance society as a whole, not just continue to tear us apart.

Slide 21. Earlier, I used a sports metaphor to argue that we shouldn't think about our conflict problems as a spectator sport and that we should realize that we need to get in the game ourselves and that, in fact, we really don't have too much choice in the matter. But I also want to make clear that there are limits to this metaphor. We should not think of the game that we are playing as just a "winning game" in which the whole point is to score points on the other side, and get closer to an outright victory. Instead, we need to think in terms of win-win opportunities and cooperative efforts to avoid lose-lose threats, rather than thinking about everything as either a gain or a loss for our side. Now, obviously, there's a bit of a limit to this because, at some level, the struggle against authoritarian rule and all of these dystopias that I've been talking about is a winning game. We all need to work together to advance a common good.

Slide 22. As I mentioned at the start of this post, this is one of five posts looking at strategies for dealing with authoritarian populism. In the next post, I am going to look at the issues of hate and escalation, as well as the importance of framing conflict in more constructive ways.

Referenced Resources

Photo Credits