How can American democracy survive its latest conflict?

The world is watching one of the most divisive periods in American history. Right against left, democratic vs republican, rural vs urban. Each side certain that they are acting in good faith, noble and correct. Each side is equally certain that their adversary is acting in bad faith and focused on their destruction. How did this happen in America? Especially given that respect for individualism is a deeply held belief since America was an idea.

People tend to attribute the negative behaviors of others as a quality of their character and positive behaviors as situational. The implication of this phenomenon is it makes it more likely to misjudge the intentions of others. This state can lead to seemingly intractable conflict where the scope of participation increases, drawing in more citizens that dehumanize the other side while a misplaced wish for revenge escalates.

The more polarized the atmosphere, the more dangerous the environment. Extreme polarization leads people to feel increasingly unsafe. The more unsafe you feel the less likely you are concerned with the wellness and safety of others, especially your adversary. If you experienced the other side as aggressive, you are more likely to be aggressive.

As rhetoric in the American media and politic becomes more toxic the world anxiously waits for what comes next. Will the more extreme factions from the left and the right battle in the streets? Will the military need to be involved against its own citizens? Is America headed for civil war?

What is the way out? How can America move from destructive to constructive?

In 2017, I was fortunate to attend a lecture from American peace activist PK Chappel. Chappal argues that most conflict comes from misunderstanding that is complex and nuanced. He suggests giving people the benefit of the doubt, listen to understand and think of others as having worth.

Could it be that simple? When conflict escalates gestures and facts that subvert a certain narrative bounce off a protective force field that people have built around them. A threat to one’s world view is often treated as a threat to the self. Facts and even sincere and honest invitations are deflected, failing to permeate the forcefield.

Robert Bush and Joseph Folger suggests that any conflict is a crisis of relationship. Restore the relationship and the conflict disappears as a by-product.

If you foster cooperation, attend to the adversary’s basic needs, and address communicative distortions you have the secret sauce move a conflictual relationship to a cooperative one.

Basic needs, in my opinion, is paramount. Think of you adversary as having needs just like you. Not just the ones noted by Maslow, the need for justice, autonomy, and respect in addition to food and shelter. Consider those needs and how you can help your adversary meet those needs.

Communicative distortions logically follow. How to communicate in a way that avoids judging, demonizing, and triggering while promoting messages that can be received as intended. The effectiveness of a communicative act can only be judged by the receiver, so any communication requires follow-up by reading the body language of the receiver or affirming that the message was received as intended. This requires a certain amount of vulnerability so easily and commonly avoided.

Finally, relationship building is essential. Relationship has been used since the time of memorial as an effective means to mitigate conflict. Relationship building creates clarity of meaning and makes individuals and groups better equipped to avoid escalating a conflict through faulty perception.

The good news, when we are on the precipice of war, we also on the precipice of peace. When we are on the precipice of conflict, we are on the precipice of collaboration. Conflict is situational and inherently dissipates; collaboration can be expedited as a choice.  Even better news, we, as a species, cooperate as our default.  

Americans do not need a perceived adversary to agree to get started. Anyone can start with thinking and talking well about your adversary, providing something the other side wants and creating space that includes the other. America knows how to do this, they have done it before and can do it again, that is one of the qualities that makes America great.