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


Guy Burgess

March, 2021

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the second of two videos focusing on what the conflict and peacebuilding fields might be able to do to contribute to President Biden's quest to reunify the United States and, more generally, what could be done to strengthen democratic institutions as the only viable alternative to authoritarianism, chaos, and civil strife. The video sees democracy primarily as a system for wisely, equitably, and nonviolently managing conflicts between people with deep cultural differences who are also in continuing competition for scarce resources. It focuses on what might be done to replace today's winner-takes-all / loser-loses-all approach to politics with coexistence, tolerance, and mutual respect.


Full Transcript:

Slide 1:  Hi this is Guy Burgess, with the second part of our slideshow series on saving democratic institutions and the challenge that poses for the conflict and peacebuilding fields.

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Slide 2:   As you may remember from the first slideshow in this series, we were focusing on how to bend the arc of history back toward democracy and away from autocracy, anocracy, the kind of chaos of not being able to effectively govern at all, or the risk of civil unrest and war.

Slide 3: Or put another way, we were looking at how to make President Biden's quest for national unity, a reality now.

Slide 4: This time I want to look at the problem in a somewhat different way.  I think that a good place to start is with the poem that Carl Sandberg wrote many, many years ago. The poem imagines two guys, one a landowner and somebody else who is trespassing. It goes like this:

[Landowner:] Hey get off this estate! 
[Trespasser:]  What for?
[Landowner:]  Cause it's mine!
[Trespasser:] Where did you get it?
[Landowner:] From my Father.
[Trespasser:] Where did he get it?
[Landowner:] From his father
[Trespasser:] And where did he get it?
[Landowner:] He fought for it.
[Trespasser:] Well, I'll fight you for it!

This kind of interaction, I think, is characteristic of an awful lot of the interactions in human history that govern the way in which people decide who gets wealth and power. I call them "I'll-fight-you-for-it rules." 

Slide 5: Now to some extent "I'll-fight-you-for-it rules are constructive.  They serve Adam Smith's notion of an invisible hand where competition forces people to strive to be ever better and more productive. But the founding fathers knew that there was a dark side to it, which is why they crafted so many checks and balances into the Constitution.

Slide 6: There certainly a sense in which this kind of competition can, instead of being an invisible hand, it can be what Kenneth Bolding used to call "the invisible fist," which winds up hurting, rather than helping, everyone. Boulding was fond of quoting "Matthews Law" from the biblical book of book of Matthew: "for whomsoever hath, to him shall be given." Basically, the notion that as you accumulate wealth and power, you can use that to accumulate even more wealth and power, driving the level of inequality upward in society.

Lord Acton took that a step further with his famous line "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Then you can add to this, Charles Darwin and his survival-of -he fittest idea, which in this context, is the survival of the most ruthless. So folks who are most ruthless, in these I'll-fight-you-for-it rules tend to come out on top.

Slide 7: That's why conflicts throughout history have been so destructive.  What you've set up with these I'll-fight-you-for-it rules is a kind of "winner-take-all" and, of equal importance, the notion of "loser lose all" conflicts that force the parties to fully use all available types of power, no matter how abhorrent. And this is responsible for an awful lot of histories worse atrocities and great tragedies. 

Slide 8: This is what led us to eras of conquest.  This map of the European empire shows how Europe pretty much occupied the entire planet! The map in the lower right is a map of the Native American reservations in the United States. One can certainly see that they were pushed into tiny areas as an act of conquest. And certainly Nazi Germany was yet another effort to conquer the world.

Slide 9.: The other thing that accompanied this drive for conquest is the dehumanization of one's opponents. One can't really be ruthless, if you see "the other" in decidedly human terms. So these are just two zillions of the examples that are out there--the years of segregation where "colored" people (as they were called then) of the United States were even forced to have different drinking fountains. And, you'll notice that their their drinking fountain isn't cooled. And then, of course, this is Auschwitz. The Holocaust was as extreme a form of dehumanization as one is likely to find. 

Slide 10: This kind of conflict continues into the 21st century, where we have new kinds of conquest and domination, exemplified by what is now being called "hybrid warfare." This is the whole range of tactics which include very sophisticated propaganda and manipulation that lies just below the level of outright violence--what think-tanks sometimes call "kinetic warfare" or physical violence. You see this in Russia's hybrid warfare. China's surveillance state is downright scary.

Slide 11: If you look at the state of political conflict in the United States, you see a lot of the same elements, though thankfully not yet as severe. But it certainly could get that way.

Slide 12:   In this context, you can think of liberal democracy as an effort to get beyond these I'll-fight-you-for-it rules. This excellent article by Francis Fukuyama which just recently came out. It traces this all the way back to the end of the great religious wars in Europe. He shows how there has been this back-and-forth slow struggle to establish liberal ideals and democracy, in first Western European society and then around the world as an alternative to I'll-fight-you-for-it rules.

Slide 13:  So in this sense, liberal democracy can be seen as a system for wisely, equitably and nonviolently managing a world composed of people who have deeply-held and often incompatible cultural beliefs who are in competition, inevitably, for scarce resources.

Slide 14: The goal of democracy is, in this context, (and I think this is an interesting and productive way to look at it) is to restrain the invisible fist and provide a wise and equitable alternative to these I'll-fight-you-for-it rules.. That's what we're trying to do with the Constitution and at Biden's inauguration, they made a lot out of the line from the  Preamble to the Constitution. where it talks about "a more perfect union." That is something that you continue to work on over time. They certainly didn't think they had a "perfect union" way back then, and we don't yet have it now. But it is a way to try to maximize individual freedom, protect the commons, prevent violence by preserving the rule of law, and in general, prevent autocracy, autocracy and war

Slide 15: Now the peacebuilding field is sort of in the same business. Peacebuilding started out as a kind of "wacky peacenik thing," but it's grown increasingly respectable, as evidenced by the United States Institute of Peace's building, which is really quite an impressive edifice that tells you how much more of a role it has in US political thought, as it is situated just across from the Lincoln Memorial.

Slide 16: Another way to think about this is Kenneth Boulding's book Stable Peace .He argued that peace is "stable" when the possibility that disputes will be resolved through violent means (or I will add through these newfangled hybrid political warfare tactics that didn't exist when Boulding wrote this book) is so small that it doesn't enter into anybody's calculations. The sad fact is that we're a long way from now. We have a lot of peacebuilding to do!

Slide 17: Now that in order to make this kind of peacebuilding work, you need some sort of peaceful, democratic, underlying culture. Right now we're spending a lot of effort celebrating diversity. But what we need underlying that (and this is something which I think we need to work a lot harder to develop) is a commonality that binds this diversity together.

Slide 18: Now it needs to have a number of key elements that are all relatively obvious but very, very important. The notion we need to tolerate people who are different. We need to agree to coexist with them without trying to change them. We need mutual respect. Everybody needs the freedom to live how they want and the security to not have people always trying to change the way they want to live. Another way to think about this is Abraham Maslow's and John Burton's human needs theory that says what we need (and this I think we ought to be able to agree on) is a set of underlying cultural principles that allows everybody's basic human needs to be satisfied. Not necessarily that the state satisfies them. But there is some mechanism through which this can be done.

Slide 19: Now this is running into conflict a bit between the social justice advocates and the peace advocates. They're not the same thing and we really need both. Now Marianne Glendon in this book (which is now 30 years old, but it still raises a really important point) says that what we started to do and have been doing over the last many decades, is to phrase our aspirations and grievances in terms of fundamental rights.  We say that "my side is entitled to..." or "my side has a right to this, that and the other thing," and if the other side doesn't give it to us, then they are just evil. Rights are not negotiable. So that tends to frame this effort to produce a more perfect union into a black-and-white contest between those whose rights have been honored and those whose rights have been denied.

Slide 20: This has become a focal point for the big political conflicts that we're facing in the United States today, and I'm sure in many, many countries around the world. Here we have the notion of "protected classes." On the political left, over the last many decades, there has been an increasing recognition that there are a large number of groups who have historically marginalized. In this new expanded language of rights, their fundamental rights are being denied, either on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age, sex on so on. It is also written into the law with agencies like the US Equal Opportunity Commission. The Democratic constituencies on the left are constantly pushing for more and more protections for these groups.

Slide 21: On one level that makes lots of sense. But on another level, it is produce a backlash from what you might call the "protected -rom classes" when you're protecting one class of people but not another. The assumption is that these other folks are "the bad guys" that are trying to do terrible things to "the good guys" and they need to be stopped from doing those terrible things.  But the "protected-from class" tends to think of themselves as being unfairly accused and penalized. That's a big part of the energy that Donald Trump was able to harness.  It is also part of why our conflicts are in this country are getting ever more intense.

Slide 22: So this raises the question of whether we are reverting to some new version of I'll-fight-you-for-it rules in which the left and the right are increasingly using all available instruments of power—in many ways no matter how abhorrent or illegitimate—to try to force the other side to relent.

Slide 23: Dehumanization is making a comeback. If you look in this article which is a good retrospective of the Trump years, it shows the way in which he dehumanized his political opponents. And to a considerable degree, the same thing as happened on the political Left with the "Cancel Culture." Anybody who dares question any of these fundamental rights that are being pushed can quickly find themselves ostracized, blackballed from employment and it's the same kind of hardball politics.

Slide 24: This is taking us back again to us-versus-them politics, which is very much a zero-sum, somebody's going to win and somebody's going to lose situation. That, I think, tends to not take us toward justice, but something that's much less sustainable. You have a pendulum goes back and forth, where a new president, like Biden, is coming into power and he's trying, as fast as he can ,to undo everything that Trump did. Similarly, when Trump came to power, he tried, as fast as he could, to undo everything that Obama did. And in the midst of all the chaos, the commons is being neglected --take climate change, for example.

Slide 25:   So an alternative is a more inclusive way of phrasing justice, so it's not taking things from one group and giving it to the other, but satisfying everyone's human needs. We wrote an essay on this for Beyond Intractability on what I call the "Disproportionality Trap" and there's also a counter trap associated with it. Here's a new book that tries to raise the same set of issues --The Sum of Us.

Slide 26:   So I think what we really need to do before we are going to bend the arc of history back again towards democracy is to find a way of phrasing these justice issues in positive sum, win-win terms —so that everybody has an interest in making sure that everybody has an ability to meet their basic human needs. If we can do that,then we can start to transform things


Slide 4: Source: Note: our thanks to Jenna Dewey who figured out that this quote was from Carl Sandburg.  We had been erroneously attributing it for many years, and she did some digging and figured out the true source. See also I'll Fight You For It Rules".

Slide 6: King James Bible: Matthew 13:12.

Slide 10: Robert Legvold. Review of Russian:"Hybrid Warfare": Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman. Foreign Affairs. Jan./Feb. 2019. and Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond " China's Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone" The Atlantic. Feb. 2, 2018.

Slide 12:  Francis Fukuyama "Liberalism and Its Discontents:  the challenges from the left and the right. The American Purpose. 3 Oct. 2020.

Slide 16:  Stable Peace Article: . Stable Peace Book:

Slide 17: and :

Slide 19: Source:

Slide 20: Source: and Source:

Slide 23: and

Slide 25: and

Photo Credits:

Slide 3 and 22: Biden Portrait -- Source:; February 12, 2021; Permission: Public Domain; Biden Campaign Homepage -- Source:

Slide 4: and 22 Carl Sandberg Bust – Source: By: Eugenefbanks; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Head Icon – Source:; By: Creative Stall from the Noun Project; Permission: Creative Commons 

Slide 5: Adam Smith – Source:; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 6: Lord Acton – Source:,_1st_Baron_Acton#/media... Permission:Public Domain-Merket 1.0 and Charles Darwin: Source: By Herbert Rose Barraud; License: Public Domain

Slide 7: Battle of Antietam – Source: Permission: Public Domain (via Library of Congress and Public Domain Archive 

Slide 8: 

Slide 9: Segregated Drinking Fountains – Source:; By: Jhayne; Permission: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). and Auschwitz – Source:; By: xiquinhosilva; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Slide 11: Portland Protests – Source: By: Tedder; Permission: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Slide 14: US Constitution – Source: Permission: Public Domain

Slide 15: USIP Building – Source: By: Something Original; Permission:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Slide 18: Human Needs Graphic: Source:'s_Hierarchy_of_Needs2.svg; By: Androidmarsexpress; Permission: CC BY-SA 4.0 (!

Slide 21: Trump  Rally – Source:; By: The Epoch Times; Permission: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Slide 22: See slides 3 and 4 above.

Slide 24 and 26: Pendulum – Source:; By: Hitchster; Permission: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)