Saving Democracy and Biden’s Challenge to the Conflict and Peacebuilding Fields – Part I


Guy Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the first of a series of videos examining what the conflict and peacebuilding fields might be able to do to contribute to efforts to start reversing the United States' hyper-polarized politics and, more generally, start bending the arc of history back toward peace and democracy and away from autocracy, problem-solving paralysis, and civil strife.  The video goes on to argue that one key to saving democracy is assuring political adversaries that, even in defeat, their interests will be protected.


Full Transcript:

Slide 1: This is Guy Burgess. I want to talk about ongoing efforts to save democratic institutions and the implicit challenge that that poses to the conflict and peacebuilding field.

Slide 2: I am going to be approaching the problem from the perspective of the United States, which pretty clearly has some very, very serious problems with its democratic institutions. However, the problem is much broader than that. This really is a humanity-wide problem and we very much look forward to getting reactions and additional information from people are working on the democracy problem from other perspectives in other countries and other cultures.

Slide 3: As a good starting point, President Biden campaigned for office as the president for all Americans. He's issued on numerous occasions, calls for national unity.

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Slide 4: And this is in stark contrast with his predecessor, President Trump, who I think it's fair to say, based his whole presidency on a kind of us versus them politics.

Slide 5: President Biden comes into office having won a convincing victory and even a pretty strong victory for a country like the United States that typically has lots of close elections.

Slide 6: But it was a long ways from the kind of decisive victory that would have changed the course of politics. The blue wave that was supposed to bring Democrats into offices at all levels failed to materialize and the truth is, only about 90,000 votes, if you'd switch them in just the right places, could have dramatically changed the outcome of the election, giving Republicans full control of the government, rather than Democrats. In other words, this was an election that was very, very different from the post-Watergate elections, which really did set the country down a whole new tract for quite a while.

Slide 7: This statistic, I think, gives you a sense of still have deeply divided we are as a country. In the first opinion poll, that asked folks to rate President Biden's job as president, they found that 98% of Democrats thought he was doing a good or excellent job, but only 11% of Republicans. That's a gap of 87%! By comparison, when Trump came into office, the gap was 76%. And when George W. Bush came into office, after that very, very close election that was decided against Al Gore by the US Supreme Court, the gap was only 56%! So the truth is, were even more divided than we been before.

Slide 8: On the one hand, President Biden is pushing hard for a kind of national unity platform, and a set of policies. But he is also getting pulled pretty hard by the partisan left for a set of progressive policies. And it is not quite clear what the final mix is going to be.

Slide 9: So the bottom line is that President Biden's call for national unity is what you might call an "easier-said-than-done" kind of problem.

Slide 10: The truth is that over the long term, The United States is becoming increasingly polarized. These statistics from the Pew Research Center trace this all the way back to 1994 and it's been getting worse ever since. So this isn't just about Trump. It's something deeper that's wrong with our politics.

Slide 11: One way to think about this is the notion that both sides in the election that we just had, and increasingly over the last few election cycles, was that folks on both sides felt that this was an election that they absolutely, positively couldn't afford to lose. We had a whole series of essays on Beyond Intractability that explored this last fall and I think did a fair job of predicting some of the problems that we have been having. The other part of this is that both sides recognize that they could easily have lost the election. So when you have democratic institutions in which elections come up, and you could easily lose, and that loss would have been unacceptable, people start to ask questions about whether democracy makes sense.

Slide 12: This is reflected in country after country, with declining support for democratic institutions, especially among the young, who, the truth is, have less experience with the democracy that works.

Slide 13: So we're at a bit of a dividing point, where we could continue down the path of democratic institutions that try to build what folks in the conflict field sometimes call the "power-with" society, as opposed to a "power-over" society where some group or some strongman has power over everybody else. This is called "autocracy." That can get pretty attractive, if you think the strongman's going be on your side. But the truth is, while autocracy might have a bit of an increasing allure.

Slide 14: But in practice, what you are likely to get is competition from two sides, or more than two sides, that want control. And you're going to get a lot of conflict or potential civil unrest and war. You're likely to be left with the kind of stalemate that the United States now has, in which people are pretty much powerless. So we have what I call an "anocracy," another word for anarchy in which we can't solve any problems at all.

Slide 15: So what the challenge is, and since were talking about conflict here, I think this is a conflict and peacebuilding challenge, is to somehow find a way to bend the arc of history back toward peace and democracy.

Slide 16: I think the key to doing this. is we need to figure out how elections can be the sort of thing that people can afford to lose. If you don't have faith that democracy will provide you with a livable future after an election, your support for democracy is likely to be pretty weak. So one of the strengths of the US democratic system is that it does have these fundamental rights that are built into the Bill of Rights. They have been amended over the years to include a wide range of civil rights and women's rights, and a whole set of individual freedoms where people can have confidence that, no matter how the election comes out, they have a core set of rights and freedoms that are going be there. And that's a big key to building the kind of support that you need.

Slide 17: Another thing that I think you need is a common positive image of the future where you can look forward and say "I can see how I'm going to personally get to a better place." This is something that we had in the United States after World War II, where our parents, the so-called "greatest generation" (I'm a baby boomer), but the "Greatest Generation" suffered through the Great Depression and World War II. And after that they just wanted to settle down, get together, work together, and build a better future. They built towns like Levittown, Pennsylvania, where you can talk about whether or not you like that kind of track housing, but there's a hopeful future. We built interstate highway systems. We built all sorts of things. It was a time when the government enjoyed enormous trust from the American people. and that has changed.

Slide 18: Now what we're doing, is, in a sense, we're barreling down some highway and we don't know where we are going. But there are lots of things that could go wrong. We have a pandemic that starting to look like maybe it's better if the vaccines can get out, but there are new variants and the vaccines have problems. And it's not clear how the economy's going come back after the pandemic. We seem to hate each other more and more. The disintegration of the society is widespread. Lots of people are now really starting to suffer through the consequences of climate change. As I am speaking, the State of Texas is suffering from a failure of its electrical and energy grid in a huge cold wave. We suffered through enormous fires last fall. Others have suffered through hurricanes. Clearly, the climate is changing in ways that could wind up hurting a lot! We don't have faith in democratic institutions anymore. The risk of violence, as we saw with the attack on the US Capitol, is getting to be very real. So what we need to do is to get this fog of fear and uncertainty to go away. . .

Slide 19: and to figure out how we can transform that into a clear vision that everybody has, so they can see where they're going. They are going to see how it produces a future in which they would want to live. And this is, I think, the challenge for the peacebuilding and conflict field It is also a challenge that we are going to address again and again in the series of short videos that we're putting together as part of this program.


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Photo Credits:

Slide 2:  US Map – Source: By: Lokal_Profil; Permission: CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.  World map – Source:; By: OpenClipart-Vectors ; Permission: Pixabay License

Slide 3: Biden Portrait -- Source:; February 12, 2021; Permission: Public Domain. Biden Campaign Homepage -- Source:

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Slide 8: Tug-Of-War Icon – Source:; By: Olympic Glyph Icons Collection; Permission: Creative Commons – CCBY.  Biden Portrait – Source:; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 9: Portland Protests – Source: By: Tedder; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

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Slide 17: Levittown -- Source: – Public Domain

Slides 18 and 19: Highway --; By: Alex Proimos; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic