Essential Elements of Successful Democracies - Part 1

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Newsletter #63 —November 30, 2022


In This Issue

From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

We decided to take off Thanksgiving week, in part because we were enjoying time with our family, but also because we wanted to let our readers enjoy some time off too.  We are coming back now with the second section of our paper,  The Key to Revitalizing Liberal Democracy: Think of It As a Conflict Handling System. In this section, we suggest that there are seven essential elements of successful democracies. We tried to include all seven in this newsletter, but it ran too long.  So we will include the first four here, and will add the last three in the next newsletter

 (Four of the) Seven Essential Elements of Successful Democracies

  1. The Ability to Limit Destructive Escalation  — Democracies must provide citizens with ways to address grievances and resolve disputes that do not escalate conflicts to destructive levels where substantive debate is replaced with mutual hatred and a desire to hurt one another. They must also provide mechanisms to de-escalate conflicts when they do become overheated. Right now, in the United States, people on both sides of the Red-Blue (conservative-liberal) divide seem to believe that the only way they can protect their vital interests is by winning the next election. And the way to do that, many people believe, is to drive distrust and hatred of the other side higher and higher. Between traditional and social media, both sides are stoking anger, fear, and hatred, and disseminating false stories, in order to get people to believe their sides' view of "the truth." This distorts the images that people have of both their friends and their enemies. It progressively erodes critically-important social taboos against illegitimate and, sometimes, morally abhorrent confrontation strategies, including violence. This is not an environment in which democracy can flourish. It might not even survive.
    Healthy democracies are ones in which our leaders model and encourage respect for the other side by utilizing the many de-escalating and escalation-limiting strategies which are commonly used by the conflict resolution field. (See our article below from the BI essay on De-Escalation for several examples of these strategies.)
  2. Communication Process That Promote Mutual Understanding — Democracies must promote respectful and truthful communication, while condemning and, when possible, isolating disrespectful and false communication. (We do not call for blocking such communication, however, as we strongly support freedom of speech. Without such freedom, it becomes impossible to challenge ill-advised policies and actions.)  However, social norms should strongly discourage the kind of misleading and hateful political communication that is now so widespread. Rather than asserting that one side is right, and the other wrong, or one side is good and the other evil, we must practice and promote thoughtful speech and careful, respectful, active listening. This means we need to make the effort to genuinely understand what others believe and feel and why. That should then give us all a much better understanding about areas of common ground, the nature of remaining disagreements and how to move forward constructively on both. 
  3. Reliable Analyses of Problems and Potential Solutions Based on Verified Facts — Successful democracies must be able to reliably identify the problems they face, based on an understanding of verified facts, not the self-serving analyses and manufactured truths that are being promoted by both sides. (The Left tends to think this is only a problem of the right, but it is not. The Left does it too, but they do it differently. Problems cannot be solved without an accurate understanding of what the problem is and what is causing it.  Hyper-polarization causes people to oversimplify their understanding of problems by simply blaming the other side, without considering the way in which they may be contributing to the problem or the role of factors that are beyond anyone's ability to control. This, then, leads people to have ideas for solutions that are very unlikely to work.
    In order to be able to solve our mutual problems effectively, the "experts" that society employs to investigate issues must conduct themselves in ways that are genuinely worthy of the public's trust. In other words, the experts must be open about their methods, share and be willing to explain their data, findings, and conclusions both to other experts, and to the extent possible, to the general public. If the public doesn't understand or trust the science, they are very unlikely to follow its guidelines. So scientists need to be able to explain their work in accessible language without jargon, and without talking down to lay listeners or readers.  And, they need to focus on answering questions that make a difference in people's lives. 
  4. Fair and Equitable Power Sharing  Public trust in and willingness to support liberal democracy ultimately depends upon the belief that the government will be responsive to and responsible for protecting the rights and interests of all citizens, not just the powerful. or the people in their own political party. Ironically, now, both sides of the political divide seem to feel as if the government is not treating them fairly.  On the left, there are a wide range of "marginalized" groups that feel as if they have been unfairly treated as long as they have lived in the United States. On the right, there are many who are struggling, but are not "marginalized" according to the left. Nevertheless, they feel that they are being unfairly treated now. 
    The only way democracy is going to be seen as legitimate and be supported is if all sides feel as if the government treats them fairly.  This means they must have faith in electoral processes and outcomes, and they must feel as if the people in power do speak for and act for them. In order for this to happen, we have to revamp our electoral processes so they aren't a winner-take-all. This has our society careening from one set of policies to the polar opposite every 2, 4, or 8 years.  It is also leaves everyone feeling extremely insecure, since one of the things that majorities typically try to do is to solidify their electoral position and make it harder for the other side win in the future. For democracy to work, people need to feel okay with losing an election, knowing that their vital interests will still be protected and they'll have a reasonable chance of winning the next time around. 
    Few in the U.S. currently feel that way, which is one reason why there is widespread consensus that U.S. democracy is badly broken.  It won't be fixed until we start electing people who are willing to use fundamental conflict resolution approaches: listening to all sides to understand all parties' interests and needs, doing some form of joint fact-finding to determine what, actually, our problems are, and negotiating and compromising to make decisions that benefit the vast majority of the population, not just their "chosen" groups. This is the way "power-with" governance works, and this is what is needed if liberal democracy is going to earn the public support it needs to succeed. 

We will discuss the last three essential elements of successful democracies (having an underlying common vision, effective problem solving, and systems thinking) in the next newsletter, so we have space here to share other materials.


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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion


Andrew Harward: A Vision of Constructive Political Conflict in The United States 

Andrew is a Master's student in my Carter School Intractable Conflict course.  There I ask students to do a version of Elise Boulding's Future Visioning Exercise in which they are asked to imagine a future in which currently intractable conflicts have been "resolved."   I ask students to describe first, what such a situation would "look like," and then ask them to chart a 30-year course of events that might get from now to then. I thought Andrew's vision of how the U.S. might effectively battle US political polarization was well thought out and presented, and it related to several of the other posts in our polarization discussion, so I asked him to share it there.  He agreed.

His vision, which is described in more detail in his full post, includes the following:

  • Adults in the U.S. largely perceive those with opposing political views to have similar goals to themselves, and to be their allies in achieving those goals.
  • Federal and state legislative sessions have become open and transparent, easily accessible affairs which the public is strongly encouraged to engage in.
  • Social media algorithms prioritize creativity and originality, and deprioritize sensationalism and divisiveness
  • A strong emphasis on shared humanity and the need for national cohesion in order to achieve prosperity has entered the national narrative. Patriotism and humanism are prominent themes, with national pride tempered by an accounting of historic wrongs and a commitment to create a better future.

His approach to achieving such results rests heavily on conflict and peace studies education, themes echoed by others in this discussion (see Carrie Menkel-MeadowBarney Jordaan, and Jack Williams). Harward starts out in year one advocating that peace and conflict practitioners begin to develop a movement to increase awareness of the field and to create conflict resolution curriculum at all grade levels. He sees this as intersecting with citizens' continued conflict fatigue and a desire to find a way to move past toxic polarization. As time moves on, more and more people become aware of the alternatives to endless political battles, and begin engaging with others in a variety of contexts in more constructive ways. This gets increasingly ingrained in the culture with further dissemination in different venues as the years go on, until 30 years hence, our current toxic polarization will be seen as a distant and unfortunate past.  His scenario shows real promise if we'd just start at year one and start working on it!  Read it, and, if you agree, consider joining this discussion to suggest ways in which we might make such a social movement a reality. 

Frederick Golder on Common Ground instead of Polarization

Frederick Golder responded to our call for discussion comments with a description of the book he wrote, Reaching Common Ground: A Comprehensive Guide to Conflict Resolution which addresses the causes of polarization and what can be done to overcome it to reach common ground. Frederick shared a longer description of the book for our discussion board, along with some reviews which we posted in our book summary section. He argues that "we cannot change anyone’s opinions, values, ideas, attitudes, judgments, or viewpoints, but, we can understand each other better through "learning conversations."  Engaging in such "learning conversations" allows us to overcome toxic polarization, he asserts,through improved communication and problem solving, despite differences in "core values, gender, race, religion, culture, national origin, age, sexual orientation, economic status, and power imbalances. When you know how to turn confrontation into constructive dialogue, problems can be solved and conflicts can be resolved, while maintaining positive relationships."  All the more reason to work to implement Andrew's vision of a "way out" of hyper- and toxic polarization!


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From the BI Knowledge Base

Limiting Escalation/De-escalation

In 2004, Michelle Maiese wrote an essay on limiting escalation and de-escalation, which I (Heidi Burgess) updated in Sept 2020.  At that time I noted that everything Michelle had written in 2004 was still true, and her suggestions were even more needed now than they were then. We only have room to include a few of them here, but I encourage our readers to go to the full article where you will find a lot more ways in which escalation can be avoided in the first place, and reversed once it has occurred. Although we observe in that article that it is much easier to do the former than the latter, both are very much possible. And even in highly escalated conflicts, it is important to follow the advice for limiting escalation in order to prevent the situation from escalating even more.

Among Michelle's and my suggestions are:

The feasibility of all of these steps is dependent, however, on the conflict conditions and what Bill Zartman calls "ripeness."  As Michelle explained: "The processes of de-escalation occur within each adversary, in the relations between adversaries, and among parties in the social environment. To a large extent, all of these de-escalation processes occur as a result of various changes in conflict conditions. These changed conditions produce a new context in which de-escalation policies are more likely to succeed. But even if the conditions for de-escalation are not ripe, there are ways to promote ripeness, as Bill Zartman explained in his BI essay on "Ripeness-Promoting Strategies." While these suggestions were written with an eye on international negotiations, many of the ideas also relate to internal conflicts, such as the hyper-polarization exhibited in the U.S. and other democracies. 

Perhaps the most important of these is working to get all the parties to understand that they are in what Zartman calls a "hurting stalemate" — the condition in which neither side can win outright, and both are being substantially harmed by the ongoing struggle.  Certainly all Americans are in such a situation now, yet most still seem to think that if they just win the next election, all will be well.  If the U.S. 2020 presidential election didn't prove that notion wrong, I don't know what will!


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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.

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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.

About the MBI Newsletters

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