Our Most Important Conflict: Coexisters vs. Fighters vs. Divide & Conquerors

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

June, 2017 Revised October 2019

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This post makes a distinction between three different groups of people:  the "constructive coexisters," the "fighters," and the "power-over, divide-and-conquerers." If democracy and "power-with" societies are to succeed (or even continue to exist), the constructive coexisters need to win their conflict with the fighers and the divide-and-conquers.  Unfortunately, the constructive coexisters tend to be at a considerable disadvantage in this conflict, for a variety of reasons.  There are strategies that this group can use, however, to be more effective—and these are described in this post. The post ends with the observation that one big reason why we seem to be unable to resolve any of our big conflicts is that many peopole are acting in ways that are intentionally making these conflicts worse.  We cannot let them succeed if we want to maintain (or achieve) a democratic, power-with society. 

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Hi. This is Guy Burgess.  For this post, I want to make an argument that the most important conflict in the world today is not a conflict between the left and the right, but, rather, a conflict between three groups. I call them the "coexisters," the "fighters," and the "divide-and-conquerers." 

In the last post, I was arguing that we stand at some sort of evolutionary divide, where we could go down one of three paths: the "power-with" world, the "powerless' world, or the "power-over" world. Obviously, the "power-with" world is preferable. 

You can look at this choice as a conflict (and I think that it makes a lot of sense to do so). On one side we have advocates of a power-with society that uses democratic processes to produce an "invisible hand" (to borrow a term from Adam Smith) that guides society toward advancing the common good. In opposition, you have advocates of a power-over future in which they would like to be the autocrats who can use the invisible fist (or more accurately, the iron fist) to advance their interests at the expense of everyone else. Then there is a powerless future of anocracy and anarchy that might well result if we can't agree on anything and we just wind up fighting with each other indefinitely. 

Coexister Fighter Power-Over Conqueror Graphic

Last time, I also talked about this idea using a three dimensional triangular continuum. In that figure, you have, at each corner of the triangle, autocracy, anocracy, and democracy.  What we want to do is all resolve conflicts in a way that moves society closer to the democratic ideal.

Here it is important to remember that the democratic reality—what we see in the world today, especially in the United States—is a long, long way from the democratic ideal that we would really like to see. What we are fighting for is just the chance to try to make democracy work.

In doing this we are not pursuing some sort of rainbow vision in which the left and the right magically agree to a consensus solution to all that divides them. That's not a realistic option. 

What we think does make sense, however, is to have a world in which the left and the right continue to confront one another through a process of constructive conflict.  The goal is to, over time, actually learn things from one another.

I put together the above, maybe a bit overdone, graphic, that will, hopefully, make it easier to explain what I mean by the conflict between coexisters, fighters, and divide-and-conquerors.

To start with, imagine that you line everybody in a community up according to their beliefs on the preferred outcome of the big political conflict between Side A and Side B or the left and the right. 

Then you will find that folks near the center of the line tend to wish for a similar outcome. I used to call this group the "compromisers." Still thinking about it, though,I decided that wasn't quite the right label, since it implied that they were willing to compromise their basic values. I think that a better label is something that we are now calling "constructive coexisters." Coexisters are people who want to live in their own way and according to their own beliefs and values. Still, they are willing to coexist with and tolerate people who want to live in a very different way. The phrase constructive implies that they are also willing to cooperate in areas where they can mutually benefit by working together on common issues--like climate change, for example. 

At the left and right ends of of the line, you have another group that we are calling the "fighters." These are people whose goal is to fight and win. They are absolutely convinced that there side is right and that the other side is so wrong, and usually evil, that it simply must be defeated. 

There are a couple of different groups of fighters. The first is what I call frustrated coexisters. These are folks who would really like to to pursue a compromise or coexistence-oriented future, but are convinced (perhaps rightly) that the other side is dominated by fighters who are trying to push them into the sea. Given this, they feel that they really don't have much of a choice but to fight back in hopes of victory or a "hurting stalemate" that might make compromise and coexistence more attractive. 

Then there are the total victory fighters. These are the folks who think that the other side is evil and that it ought to be pushed into the sea or otherwise decisively defeated.

This leaves a much larger, additional group in between the fighters and the coexisters. These are the folks we call the "swing" people. 

These are the people who are ultimately being asked to decide whether they are going to throw their support behind a constructive coexistence, power-with society or whether they want to align themselves with fighters and try to be the group that has power-over everyone else. 

There is yet another group. These are folks that I'm calling the power-over, divide-and-conquerors, which is a cumbersome though informative name. They don't really much care about the central conflict between the left and the right (or side a and side b). They would just like to get as much as they can possibly get for themselves. They know that they are small group and that their selfish aspirations are not seen as morally justifiable by much of the larger society. In a democratic societies (and to some extent in other kinds of political regimes), this means that they know that they can only assemble enough power to advance their interests if they can get a large fraction of the population on their side. So, their approach is a divide-and-conquer strategy that tries to manipulate the conflict between side a and side b (or the left and the right) in ways that strengthen their position.  The key to being able to pursue this strategy is, of course, a substantial amount of wealth and power.  

So their basic play is to first form a patron-based alliance with the fighters on one side or the other. This is generally pretty easy to arrange, since the fighters are always in a precarious position and always critically in need of additional resources. The next step is to attack the coexisters and the very idea of coexistence and compromise. Then they try to escalate the conflict to the point where swing people realize that their group is in a fight for their lives, and they had better align themselves with fighters because the coexisters are never going to make it. If successful, this forces the swing people to the fighter side.  

The next step is to make sure that you don't catastrophically lose. Preferably, you find a way to win at least something of significance (like effective control of key government jurisdictions).  The big payoff comes when you are able to exact some sort of tribute by asking the now-victorious fighters for seemingly minor but potentially quite lucrative policy actions. You can make a pretty good, though certainly not ironclad, case that a lot of the transfer of wealth to the very, very rich over the last few decades is attributable to this dynamic. 

There are lots of motivations behind such power-over efforts. Some are clearly tyrants and tyrant wannabes motivated by a desire to dominate others. Others believe that society is and should be organized around Ayn Randian principles of unfettered competition. As they see it, if this is the way the world works, and if they are in an all-out competitive environment, they might as well go all out and see how much they can get.  There's also a Darwinian selection process that comes into play. If you don't use all of the ethical and unethical power options available to you in our highly-competitive political environment, then you are doomed to defeat and nobody will know about you. Thus the only people who survive in this environment enough to have the power to influence events are willing to play, as they say, "hardball."

There are a lot of ways in which power-over fighters can and do attack coexisters and undermine their ability to influence events and actually to move society toward the kind of power-with world to which we have been aspiring. They can certainly go ahead and physically attack the coexisters. There is a long and tragic history of assassinations of peace makers including, for example, King, Gandhi, Sadat, and Rabin. They can attack the very idea of compromise by asserting that it is always wrong to compromise one's values. (This in spite of the fact that the coexistence-based approach largely eliminates the need to do this.) You can attack the character and courage of anybody who wants to coexist by stating that they are just not strong enough to fight for what's right. You can subtly drive the escalation spiral through provocateurs and do so in a way that nobody quite knows who started it. Once things get going, there is plenty of acrimony and violence on both sides, effectively insulating either side from blame.  Once things are escalated enough, very idea of compromise is off the table. Another strategy is to cultivate the illusion of invincibility and the certainty of victory—it's a lot harder to get people to join the fight if they think they might lose. Also useful is hiding or discrediting estimates of the likely cost of confrontation and war or the benefits of coexistence.  The new era of social network-based propaganda and narrowcast news channels that tell people what they want to hear makes this all easier.

The big problem is that coexisters don't have much of a defense against these strategies.  They are likely to have woefully inadequate defenses against physical assault and violent intimidation.  This is the a advantage that rule-of-law-based societies societies have—with police and military forces willing to defend the citizenry against violent intimidation.  This is something that we absolutely cannot stand to lose, even though other democratic institutions may be in more trouble. Another part of the problem is the reluctance of coexisters to call out the fighters because they rightly figure that, at some point, they will need their support. It is also really hard to unequivocally expose the provocateurs that are driving the escalation spiral. And, it can be very difficult to defend the morality of doing anything that seems like you are willing to compromise the group's core, deeply-held values. We still haven't quite resolved the moral question of how can one coexist with and tolerate those who believe something fundamentally different – something that many regard as intolerably evil. And, there are also taboos against questioning the heroism and sacrifice exhibited by the fighters. Finally, there is always the risk of being doublecrossed. 
There are lots of stories about how, historically, these dynamics have played out. And, I think, that this dynamic tells us a lot about our current political difficulties.

So, the big thing that we need is better defense strategies for the coexisters. They need to be able to expose the hate-mongering, divide-and-conquer strategies which, once they are exposed, are much easier to defeat, since they are morally indefensible. Also key is to expose the false promise of total victory. The truth is that the fighters will never be able to deliver total victory. We really need to find some way of coming to terms with and living with the other side. Part of the key is promoting commonality to balance the diverse beliefs that divide communities. We can and should can celebrate diversity and the many different communities with which we might be able to interact. But we also need to identify and celebrate some sort of commonality--the things that tie us all together. We need at least mutual respect, if not agreement. We need to strengthen democratic, civic education while also promoting the need to understand, defend, and improve democratic institutions. In short, we need people to embrace this notion of constructive coexistence. 

So the bottom line is that we have gotten ourselves into a trap where we keep focusing on the conflict between the left and the right. Every little event is assessed to see whether it tips things toward toward our side or the other. 

We need to start focusing on efforts to oppose the divide-and-conqueror's strategy and everyone else who are, for selfish reasons, trying to intensify the divisions within our society. 

To the extent that we can do this, we will find that it will be a lot easier to make a power-with, democratic society work. We will also discover that an awful lot of conflicts aren't so intractable after all. A big part of the reason why we can't constructively deal with our conflicts is that people are actively trying to prevent us from doing so. We just can't let them succeed.

Referenced Resources:

  • Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations (1776).
  • Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. Random House (1957)
  • Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species. Originally published 1858; available full text at: http://literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-origin-of-species/ 
  • Naomi Klein. "Now let's fight back agasint the politics of fear." The Guardian.  10 June, 2017.

Photo Credits:

Slide 6:Political Elephant Donkey – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6262122778; By DonkeyHotey; Permission: Creative Commons 2.0.  Rainbow – Source: https://pixabay.com/en/rainbow-faded-colorful-spectrum-764189/; By: Modman; Permission: CC0 Public Domain

Slide 7: Political Elephant Donkey – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6262122778; By DonkeyHotey; Permission: Creative Commons 2.0

Slide 19: Charles Darwin: Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Darwin_photograph_by_Her... Herbert Rose Barraud; License: Public Domain.  Ayn Rand – Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48331433@N05/7453053322; By: David Seaton; Permission:  Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Slide 22:  Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/10/naomi-klein-now-fight-back...