The Key to Saving Democracy: Reducing Polarization? Promoting Justice? It Takes More Than That!



Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter 130 - Wednesday July 5, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


Shamil Idriss and Rachel Kleinfeld on Hyper-Polarization vs. Justice Advocacy

In their Chronicle of Philanthropy article (summarized in BI Newsletter 127) Shamil Idriss and Rachel Kleinfeld distinguish between two groups of people. One is those who see intense political polarization as the biggest threat to democracy, and hence, try to get people to interact more civilly through dialogue and other similar interventions. The second group consists of those who think that the problem with democracy is injustice, and feel that polarization is necessary to bring attention to and drive support for the fight for social justice. 

When we began this online discussion on hyper-polarization in March 2023, we were obviously focused on the polarization side of the debate (though we saw the problem as much more than a lack of civility). To us, civility was an essential component of any democracy capable of effectively solving societal problems. In a series of August 2023 posts, we had a lively exchange of views with Bernie Mayer and Jackie Font-Guzman about which was more important, polarization or injustice.  Jackie and Bernie argued that we were undermining the pursuit of justice through our focus on hyper-polarization, while we argued that abandoning neutrality in favor progressive advocacy would increase polarization, which in turn would exacerbate injustice.

Nine months later, after doing much more reading and having many enlightening conversations here and elsewhere with experts such as Shamil and Rachel, we remain very concerned about the threat of hyper-polarization. But we are much more inclined to see it as one of a host of interacting challenges, including justice, all of which must be addressed simultaneously. As Shamil and Rachel made clear in their article, anti-polarization efforts cannot stand alone, nor can  justice advocacy.  They need each other, and they both need collaborative action as well, if the system of democratic governance is to be maintained and strengthened in the United States and elsewhere.

John Paul Lederach's "Meeting Place" of Reconciliation

As we read Rachel and Shamil's article calling for both peace and justice work, we immediately thought of John Paul Lederach's work on reconciliation, where he asserts that reconciliation is the "meeting place" of peace, justice, truth and mercy.  Democracy is, of course, not reconciliation. Indeed, it is a way to move forward when reconciliation has not, and perhaps, cannot, be reached. It is a way in which we try to live (and ideally thrive) together, despite holding deeply divergent views on a broad range of public policy issues, as well as cultural questions about what constitutes the "proper" way to live. Democracy is the tool we use to help us sort through those differences in ways that honor everyone's values and needs to the greatest extent possible.  (Autocracy, on the other hand, solves the problem by outlawing, shunning, discriminating against, or even killing those who have the "wrong" views.)

Since democracy does not require reconciliation, it does not require as complete a meeting of peace, justice, truth, and mercy as reconciliation does.  But considering truth and mercy together with peace and justice still is very useful.  For example, it is important to sort through differing versions of "truth." Much has been written on BI and elsewhere about how we, in the U.S., are so deeply divided that we seem to live on different planets.  We get our "news" from completely different sources, and believe in "truths" that are sometimes completely opposed to each other.  (For example in June of 2023, 30% of Americans still believe that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen or otherwise fraudulent, while 60% think President Biden won the election "fair and square.")  When 30% of the electorate think our democratic system is so deeply flawed to have allowed a "fraudulent president" to take office (regardless of whether that is true), that is extremely dangerous for the future of democracy in this country. We need to be able to come up with more "shared truths," even when some things will likely never be resolved. The dispute about the true results of the 2020 election is but one example. Similar questions arise about "facts" concerning the COVID pandemic, climate change, gender dysphoria, and the extent of police brutality, among many others.

Mercy is another important consideration.  Far too much of the current interaction between the Left and the Right is finger-pointing and blame, asserting that all our problems are the other side's fault and it is they who must change. But in reality, all of us in one way or another are contributing to the problem, or likely have contributed to it in the past.  A good dose of mercy—allowing people to admit mistakes graciously, forgiving past wrongs, accepting one's own role in the problem, and working together on how best to move forward, is most likely to yield a stronger democracy and a society in which everyone would want to live. Unfortunately, orthodoxy enforcers on the Left and the Right have developed into something close to the opposite of mercy. Now people who did something wrong, even historical figures, are ostracized or condemned, often with everything they ever did or, sometimes, were ever associated with, scorned. At the extreme, this is reflected in the Left's increasingly widespread tendency to discount anything that emerged from Western European civilization (including democracy) because of this racist past.  While condemning racist behavior is essential and often long-overdue, it is also important to also recognize and reinforce positive aspects of democracy's history (such as it's embrace of fundamental human rights and freedoms and its anti-authoritarian system of checks and balances).

John Paul's meeting place also highlights the difficulty and importance of pursuing "justice for all," and the "equal protection of the laws." This is especially difficult at a time when each political party in the U.S. defines "justice" in highly partisan ways. Finally, John Paul's emphasis on "peace" requires the abandonment of violent mechanisms for resolving disputes and a corresponding commitment to a rule of law-based processes.  By extension, it also requires adhering to democratic norms and forsaking extreme, "hardball" political tactics including the kind of deceptive, dirty tricks that are now in such widespread use.

So bottom line, we argue that one key to a successful democracy is to work toward John Paul's four goals simultaneously: peace, justice, truth, and mercy, and do so, as much as possible, collaboratively, as Rachel and Shamil suggest.

Other Aspects of Democracy Action

One of the benefits of this newsletter/blog is that it has brought us in contact with many inspiring people and organizations who are all doing different things to address what we all agree are threatened democracies in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world.  While our notion of "massively parallel peacebuilding" seemed far-fetched to many when we introduced it about five years ago, it is clear now that it is actually happening in the U.S. and elsewhere when we look at the many disparate efforts to strengthen democracy.  We are sure this is not through our efforts — it emerged quite organically as part of society's natural learning process, as many people and organizations became concerned about the state of democracy wherever they lived, and started taking steps to help address the problem. Their concerns led them to define "the problem" in many different ways, and then begin acting according to those definitions and their abilities. Together, they are all working to strengthen the system we call "democracy." And that's what Guy and I call "massively parallel peacebuilding" or, perhaps in this context, "massively parallel democracy building," 

For example, there are the two groups Rachel and Shamil talked about:

Rachel and Shamil also called for collaborative work between these groups and others.  While there is less of this going on than we would wish, there are still quite a few examples.  The Consensus Building Institute has for years been bringing groups together across deep divides to develop consensus solutions to shared problems. So, too, does Common Ground USA, a branch of Search for Common Ground which is the largest peacebuilding organization in the world and The Meridian Institute which also uses a consensus building to bring divergent groups together to forge shared solutions to joint problems.

But many other people and organizations are focused on other aspects of democratic governance and democratic breakdown.

For example, some are concerned with the lack of understanding of how government works, and the lack of agreement on basic facts (such as whether or not the 2020 U,S. Presidential election was valid, as we discussed above.) The Bridge Alliance has 18 members who are working on better "informing the discussion." One example is AllSides which provides balanced news from all sides of the political spectrum, and media bias ratings to help people see how the information that they rely on can, when viewed from a larger perspective, be quite biased. Allsides also provides links to counterbalancing information required to make more objective assessments. Other organizations in this domain include Ballotpedia, which seeks to "inform people about politics by providing accurate and objective information about politics at all levels of government," and The Fulcrum, "a  platform where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk, and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives."

Another group of "democracy workers" are trying to address money and corruption in politics.  These include RepresentUs, which is a non-partisan movement working to pass tough anti-corruptions laws in cities and states across the US. and Fix Democracy First which is working on campaign finance reform, public funding of elections, and nonpartisan primaries. 

Other groups are working to facilitate citizen-government interaction, some are working on strengthening election procedures, campaign rules, and voting integrity. Others are working on electoral reform though mechanisms such as ranked-choice voting, or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. These reforms are, however, often quite controversial because their net effect winds up favoring one political party at the expense of another. This makes the task of crafting broadly supported, outcome-neutral, reforms much more difficult.

One approach to this problem is cross-partisan think tanks, which research society's issues and propose innovative, non-partisan or cross-partisan solutions.  Others are focused on one particular problem: climate change, policing, immigration, education, and are trying to develop non-partisan or cross-partisan solutions to those issues locally, regionally, or nationally. 

Clearly, none of these efforts, alone, is the answer to how to "fix" democracy, just as reducing polarization, seeking justice, or even collaboration, alone, won't be enough.  We need to craft a great many thoughtful and broadly supported reforms and we need to apply those reforms in a great many more places. We also need to pursue each in ways that support (or at least don't hinder) the others.  This is "massively parallel democracy-building" as it is developing in the United States. Those in other countries with differing democratic institutions, cultural norms, and social problems are doubtless going through their own version of this massively parallel democracy building process. How this comes out remains uncertain. But all these efforts give us reason for hope, and linked to that, reason to double down on our efforts to do what we can to help democracy succeed. We hope many of our readers will join this effort!

Please Contribute Your Ideas To This Discussion! 

In order to prevent bots, spammers, and other malicious content, we are asking contributors to send their contributions to us directly. If your idea is short, with simple formatting, you can put it directly in the contact box. However, the contact form does not allow attachments.  So if you are contributing a longer article, with formatting beyond simple paragraphs, just send us a note using the contact box, and we'll respond via an email to which you can reply with your attachment.  This is a bit of a hassle, we know, but it has kept our site (and our inbox) clean. And if you are wondering, we do publish essays that disagree with or are critical of us. We want a robust exchange of views.

Contact Us

About the MBI Newsletters

Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017. NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us

If you like what you read here, please ....

Subscribe to the Newsletter