Obstacles to Implementing the Elements of Successful Democracy

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Newsletter #65 — Dec. 11, 2022

In This Issue

From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


Obstacles to Implementing the Elements of Successful Democracy 

In our last two newsletters (#63 and #64) we described the "seven essential elements of successful democracies," which we originally presented in our second framing paper for our online polarization discussion. To review, these seven elements are: 1) The Ability to Limit Destructive Escalation. 2) Communication Process That Promote Mutual Understanding, 3) Reliable Analyses of Problems and Potential Solutions Based on Verified Facts, 4) Fair and Equitable Power Sharing, 5) Underlying Common Vision, 6) Ability to Solve Problem, and 7) Systems Thinking. We ended our last newsletter by saying "Doing these seven things will be difficult, no doubt.  But all are possible.  Years ago, renowned economist and peace theorist Kenneth Boulding coined what he called "Boulding's First Law":  "If it exists, it must be possible." The same can be said of all of the elements listed above.  All of these are successfully done routinely by conflict resolution professionals as well as by civically-motivated citizens and organizations. But they don't work when they aren't used."

The conflict resolution field has long thought the reason that their services aren't widely used is that they aren't good enough at publicizing their work.  Not enough people know about conflict resolution options; if they did, many mediators and other conflict experts assume, their skills would be more widely used.  Unfortunately, our years of work with intractable conflicts has taught us that there is much more to it than that. As we see it, there are five obstacles that must be overcome before these elements can be successfully implemented in ways that will strengthen democracy. 

  1. Complacency: The first obstacle is complacency. We need to help people understand the severity of the hyper-polarization problem and the risks of continuing our current trends. Not only is democracy at stake in the U.S. and elsewhere, the well-being of all humanity is at stake. Our inability to deal with conflict is preventing us from solving other problems, such as pandemics, climate change, inequality, race, immigration, or anything else.

    So far, almost everyone is thinking about these issues, and every other social, economic, and environmental issue, in us-vs-them terms.  They still think the answer to inequality is to make sure that THEY are on top.  The answer to climate change is to make sure that THEIR side's policies prevail. Compromise is seen as totally unacceptable and almost treasonous; the only acceptable goal is to win and then, if at all possible, dominate (and, in many significant ways, oppress) the other side.

    We have talked elsewhere about where this is leading us: paralytic political dysfunction, domination and oppression, authoritarianism, large-scale civil unrest, even war.  Even as we watch these dystopias unfold, most people don't understand that it is their behavior that is contributing to those ends—it is not just "the other guys." It is all of us. So it is going to take all of us to change our attitudes and our behaviors, if we want to change the likely outcome of the social trends we now see.

  2. The Scale and Complexity of Societal-Level Conflict: The second obstacle is the immense scale and complexity of society. As a field that prides itself on managing conversations around a table, most conflict resolvers have not yet learned how to apply their insights and processes at the societal level. At best, they try to implement lots and lots of table-oriented processes.  But the numbers don't add up.  A typical table-oriented process involves 10-20 people.  Most societies involve one to 350 million (the United States) to over a billion people (India and China).  So it would take hundreds of millions of dialogues to reach a whole society.  And, even if this were possible, those dialogues would still constitute only a small fraction of the social interactions that determine individual conflict behavior./

    This is, no doubt, a large challenge.  But some conflict resolution organizations have been successfully applying small group insights at much larger scales. For instance, Search for Common Ground has for decades been using radio and TV soap operas to reframe conflicts away from win-lose confrontations and toward efforts to humanize and complexify "the other," and to teach fundamental conflict resolution skills such as de-escalatory communication, negotiation, and collaborative problem solving. 

    All of the elements of successful democracy can and must be scaled up to the societal level, while also being widely implemented locally, which is still where most peacebuilding work needs to be done.  In other words, we need to expand the "market share" of constructive conflict interactions, while limiting the percentage of interactions that are being handled in destructive, power-over/win-lose ways.

  3. Bad-Faith Actors: The third obstacle is what we call the bad-faith actor problem. Many powerful people have abandoned good-faith efforts to make democracy work and are, instead, actively working to drive citizens apart for their own profit or power.  This is nothing new: the notion of "divide and conquer" has been around for millennia.  But modern technology—particularly the Internet and social media—have given bad-faith actors incredibly powerful tools that we have yet to figure out how to block or control. 

    These bad-faith actors are systematically attacking all seven of the elements of successful democracies:  they are using traditional and social media to drive distrust, polarization, and escalation; they are drowning out effective communication and fact-finding with destructive communication and fake facts (often using what the Rand Corporation calls the "firehose of falsehood" technique).  They are trying to monopolize power and discredit any vision of the future that doesn't include them in charge. And, they are undermining all attempts at collaborative problem-solving while doing their best to get us to view every problem as an existential struggle for survival between "us-and-them," good-and-evil. But the only survival they care about is their own.

  4. Confusion, Inattention and Resignation of Good Faith Actors: A fourth obstacle is that many good faith actors don't know what to do about hyper-polarization, they don't feel as if it is "their problem," or they don't think there is anything they can do that will make a meaningful difference. Many people—both conflict resolution experts, but also people in many other roles—are distressed by the hyper-polarization and general societal dysfunction they see, but they don't see how their skills can play a role in addressing that.  We are not going to be able to implement the seven elements of successful democracy unless we help many, many more people understand how they can make a significant difference in at least one areas, and get them to start working toward those goals.  This will require a very large public information/training effort—through community groups, churches, schools, business—wherever people gather.  And this will require much more funding going into such programs.  Given the many ways in which hyper-polarization is undermining almost everyone's interests, it should be possible to recruit the needed people and raise the needed funds. And, to do this, we need to clearly distinguish this effort from the many ongoing efforts to advance a partisan agenda under the guise of "saving democracy." 

  5. Lack of Clear Examples of "Things that Need Doing:" The fifth and, perhaps, the most challenging obstacle is the fact that most people do not have a clear image of exactly how they could successfully contribute to the kind of very large-scale effort called for by the above analysis. Developing such an image requires a combination of big-picture and task-specific thinking. People need to learn how to identify, within the vast web of social problems that need attention, specific contributions that they can imagine themselves making—contributions that are consistent with their skills, personality, and areas of potential influence, which are truly needed (not unnecessarily duplicating effort or reinventing the wheel). Although we hope everyone will work on improving their own conflict skills and interactions on the individual level, such efforts can become much more powerful when people make the effort to integrate their efforts into the complex (and as yet inadequately developed) array of networks and organizations that are working in similar directions. Finally, they need to be willing and able to stand up to opposition that they are likely to receive from strongly-committed partisans on both the left and the right who tend to view anything that looks even a little like compromise as an unacceptable concession that must be vigorously opposed. 

In the next newsletter we will present a matrix that combines these obstacles with the seven essential elements of successful democracy to illustrate a large number of actions conflict resolvers, peacebuilders, bridge-builders, democracy reformers and others can take to reduce polarization and strengthen democracy.

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

Jean-Jacques Subrenat: Implementing Democracy

Jean-Jacques is a retired French ambassador and a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Global Negotiation in Zurich.  He has contributed a very useful piece for the blog that shares a European view of what is going wrong with U.S. democracy, and why this matters around the globe, not just in the United States.  We urge our readers to read his full article, but I'll summarize several of his key points here.

First, he observes that some of the structures set up by the U.S. Founders centuries ago are "no longer adequate to deal with contemporary trends."  He cites the method we use to choose the president as one example. Reviewing the problem of "hanging chads" that tainted the George Bush election, along with January 6, 2021 and its aftermath, the crazy mishmash of primaries and caucuses, and the electoral college, he points out that our presidential election process is no longer "a model of fairness and efficacy."

Similarly, he calls the Second Amendment  "antiquated legislation" that leaves Americans more at risk of gun violence than citizens of most other countries. The independence of our judicial branch has broken down as well, he observes, as the original system of checks and balances no longer operates as intended. Both the executive and the legislative branches have much more control over the judiciary than was originally intended, and in comparison to contemporary European democracies. Further, he observes,"the way U.S. ambassadors and other high public servants are appointed, shows some similarity with practices in authoritarian regimes."

What is now at stake, he says: 

 is more than just the future of the United States of America: it is the preservation and improvement of democracy on a global scale. For leaders, institutions, civil society and ordinary citizens who uphold the Rule of Law, there is now an urgent need for reform, a call for carrying out democracy in a more effective and thorough manner.

. . .

Seen from across the Atlantic, attacks on the Rule of Law in the U.S.A. are having an impact on the political mores of other democracies. And that is why, more than ever, there is a need for heightened public awareness, not only in order to preserve the safety and prosperity of nations, but to jointly set the parameters of a more thorough implementation of democracy.

Read Jean-Jacques's Full Post


AfP Seminar--Toxic Polarization: What's the Left Got to Do with It? 

We recently became aware of a webinar held by the Alliance for Peacebuilding on the Left's Role in Toxic Polarization which we had missed when it had originally aired in September of 2021.  Despite its age, it is still very relevant to our current discussion, so we wanted to first, share a link to the recording, and second, summarize some of the most important ideas briefly here, and in more detail on the hyper-polarization blog. 

The lead speaker was Erica Etelson who wrote the book  Beyond Contempt. She started her talk by showing examples of ways in which the left humiliates the right. She asked viewers to try to put themselves in the shoes of the people on the receiving end of these insults.  Just two examples:  "A social media post that said 'You know why Trump loves holding his hate rallies? It's the only place where Trump isn't the stupidest person in the room.'" (from Occupy Democrats); "The Times finally gets to the bottom of Trump supporters: It turns out they're garbage human beings." (Daily Kos). She and the webinar participants agreed: 1) they knew people who posted comments like these and 2) they certainly would shudder if they saw that happening in other countries. The unstated implication:  we should shudder here too. 

Erica ended her talk by saying

with all of this vitriol and ridicule, I see us shooting ourselves in the foot. If we on the left want to have our ideas heard, and if we want to have our candidates elected, and if we want to grow the ranks of our movements, then we shouldn't alienate people who don't already agree with us by being condescending, snarky, and abrasive.  And we also shouldn't be trying to one-up each other with the intensity of our disdain for the other side, because all that does is create a performative outrage arms race that eventually everyone is on the losing side of. 

Erica was followed by Debilyn Molineaux, President and CEO of the Bridge Alliance, who observed that we barely have the capacity to speak to somebody different from ourselves right now.  This, she sees as both a "capacity issue", but also a "maturity issue." Steve House of Braver Angels added that people across political divides no longer know each other personally, so we don't know why people believe what they believe.  We assume the worst and tear each other apart on social media.  All three agreed that the key is helping people to get to know, listen to, and understand people on the other side through facilitated dialogues and other "controlled" means.  They agreed that this has to happen at the grassroots level; top-down solutions aren't going to work. 

Heidi and Guy added at the end of the post that this isn't just a problem of insulting the other side.  It is also the problem of caring about the concerns of the other side.  Many people (both grassroots and leaders) on the left do not seem particularly concerned about the right's issues: fear of losing jobs, fear of being forbidden from practicing their religions or passing their religious beliefs on to their children, chafing when their children are taught that American institutions (which the right reveres) are worthless and ought to be abandoned.

Our problems are going to continue until both the left and the right recognize and honor the other side's fundamental human needs, particularly identity and security. 

Read the Full Post


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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.

Note: In our last newsletter, we failed to update the colleague listings, instead repeating the old ones. The corrected listings are now available here.

More Colleague Activities

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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.

Note: In our last newsletter, we failed to update the context listings, instead repeating the old ones. The corrected listings are now available here.

More Beyond Intractability in Context


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 through Substack 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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