Executive Summary: Applying Conflict Resolution Insights to Today's Hyper-Polarized Societies

By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


In the fall of 2021 CRQ Editor Helena Desivilya Syna invited Guy Burgess, Heidi Burgess, and Sanda Kaufman  to write the first of in a new category of CRQ publications—a “feature article” designed to spur discussion and action among scholars and practitioners regarding major issues currently confronting the conflict field. At the same time, Helena asked us to recruit several “commentators,” who were then asked to write substantial commentaries on the article that would be published simultaneously by CRQ. The goal was to promote widespread discussion within the field, as well as a public exploration of the issues on a new, joint Beyond Intractability/CRQ online Discussion page.

In our article we ask, what more the conflict resolution and peacebuilding fields can do to better address the hyper-polarization that is threatening democracy in the U.S. and abroad.  This is a topic that we have been thinking about and writing about for a long time, so we had a lot to say.

While we hope that many of you will be sufficiently interested in the topic to read the full article (which is currently free to read online, and will be available in print in the summer CRQ issue), we want to give you a shorter summary of the key points which we are hoping people will address in the discussion.

Part 1: The Hyper Polarization Problem.

We argue that political hyper-polarization and the resulting political stalemate is the number one problem facing the United States and a great many other countries. It is more important than climate change, inequality, health, race relations, immigration—or any of the other so-called “existential” problems, because none of those problems are going to be addressed, let alone “solved,” unless we can fix the hyper-polarization that has driven effective problem analysis and problem solving into the ground. On page three of the online version, we state:

"A necessary first step toward addressing the hyper-polarization problem is the development of a clear image of the many ways in which it threatens society and why we should prioritize efforts to reverse these dynamics. We need clarity about how the Manichaean, us-vs-them framing at the core of today's politics undermine, rather than advance, both shared and individual interests. We also need to understand that the continuing pursuit of a decisive and lasting victory is more likely to result in an endless series of mutually destructive confrontations.”

This paragraph suggests a number of questions that are worthy of conversation:

  1. Does the preference of some in our field to champion left-leaning causes just further escalation and polarization? 
  2. Should our field be “mediating for justice” when “justice” is seen as the victory of one side over the other, or should we be sticking with our historical “neutral” role and trying to help people from all sides understand the dangers of escalation and instead try to work out their differences and collaborate on solutions to mutual problems?
  3. If you agree with the latter, then how can we get more people to abandon “us-vs-them” thinking when “compromise” is so widely seen as traitorous?

Part 2: The Promise of Collaborative Democracy

Here we distinguish between “power-with” and “power-over” forms of social organization, and point out that traditional conflict resolution skills (such as de-escalation, active listening, dialogue, empowerment of low power groups, among others) are precisely what is needed to make democratic, power-with societies successful.  But, we ask, why are so many democracies ignoring these skills and moving away from, rather than toward collaborative approaches to solving problems?

Part 3: Recognizing and Addressing the Conflict Field’s Limitations.

If we are going to be able to help the United States and other polarized societies to successfully make a democratic, power-with governance model work, we need to overcome five challenges: 

  • Credibility—Many people doubt our approaches really protect their interests We need to show that they do.
  • Inadequate resources—We need additional funding to train enough people to make an impact.
  • Role confusion—While conflict skills can be used both for advocacy and third party intervention, we do not believe practitioners can do both at once. There needs to be a very clear distinction between those who are acting as advocates and those who are acting as intermediaries. 
  • Scale— Most of our processes are “table-oriented.” They take place among a relatively few people as they sit around a table.  We need to invent ways to massively scale up our processes so they work at the full scale and complexity of communities, if not whole societies.
  • Bad Faith Actors—We need to figure out how to effectively block bad-faith actors who are doing all that they can to prevent conflict resolution and power-with decision making from succeeding.

Parts 4 and 5: Dealing with Scale and Complexity

In these two sections we explain how “complex systems” are different from simple or even “complicated systems” and why linear, cause-and-effect approaches to solving complex problems seldom work.  But since most of us have been trained in and are used to “table-oriented” processes, we are not good at dealing with large scale, complex problems.  Among the complexity-related challenges we discuss are cultural lag, in-group/out-group tension, cognitive dissonance, and confirmation bias, and the distortions of mass communication. While we don’t ask a question in these sections, two obvious ones are (1) what other challenges of scale and complexity did we fail to mention and (2) what can the conflict field do to better address these challenges.

Part 6: Bad-Faith Actors

The conflict resolution field has traditionally viewed people as good-faith actors who would embrace mutually-beneficial solutions to common problems as long as they fairly allocate costs and benefits and treat everyone with respect.  Today, unfortunately, we are being forced to deal with several this different types of bad-faith actors —those who have figured out how to profit by amplifying (and sometimes provoking) social tensions. The conflict resolution field is not used to dealing with such actors, and are particularly stymied when those actors co-opt our language and pretend they are doing our work, when they are actually doing the very opposite.  The key question here is how can we robustly defend ourselves and our processes against bad-faith actors, and what can we do to take away their power?

Part 7: Complexity-Oriented Problem Solving and Part 8: Massively-Parallel Problem-Solving

In these two sections we explore how the conflict field can develop in ways that allow it to better tackle these large-scale, complex problems.  We need to shift away from thinking in mechanical or engineering-like terms, and switch to ecosystem-based solutions that are more flexible and adaptive in changing conditions.  This will require us to reach out to people in allied fields who have expertise in areas we lack. We also suggest that we develop large-scale, self-organizing systems where we use a division-of-labor approach that encourages us to work in parallel directions toward similar goals—the most important one being the strengthening of power-with, liberal democracy.

Rather than orchestrating society-wide responses to society-wide problems, we advocate a "massively parallel" problem-solving assess process that harnesses the learning engine implicit in complex systems, and uses the opportunities that problems generate to reward anyone who can figure out how to solve them. These opportunities create competitive spaces in which markets reward those who offer the most cost-effective solutions. This is the “necessity is the mother of invention” driver that underlies the “invisible hand” and much of human progress.

Part 9: Complexity-Oriented Ideas for Countering Hyper-polarization and Part 10: For the Conflict Fields: both an Opportunity and An Obligation

Here we list twelve examples of projects that could be undertaken by conflict resolvers and/or peacebuilders wishing to help in some of these areas. These include, for example, revitalized, dialogue-based civics curricula; constructive talk radio, interview programs and podcast speaker programs; constructive conflict courses and learning materials that can be used at the K-12 level, and with adults; collective visioning programs; and others. All of these can be designed in myriad ways for different situations and constituencies. Plus, they are just a small example of what is a huge field of opportunity waiting for those willing to make the effort.

The last section points out again that our current situation not only provides opportunities, it also constitutes an obligation for our field. We are the best positioned people to begin efforts such as these. If we don't, who will? And if no one does, where does that lead us? Clearly, nowhere any of us want to go. We end by saying:

To pursue these opportunities, we need to set aside personal political preferences and, on behalf of all citizens, try to help bridge our many differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect, tolerance, coexistence, constructive moral debate, and collective learning. To be successful, however, this effort will have to clearly distinguish itself from the highly partisan progressive advocacy which much of the conflict field has embraced.

While many are already doing much to pursue what we propose, we believe our field needs to do much more, and become more effective at what we are doing. Just as the COVID pandemic was a call to action for the public health field, the hyper-polarization crisis is a call for those of us with conflict-related expertise to get involved in developing and promoting engagement that builds a just, peaceful, and effective democracy.