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Mediation and the Evolution of Democracy: Inventing Interest-Based Responses to Lying, Demagoguery, and Fascism

“[I]t was impossible to have a proper grasp of humanitarianism, culture, and democracy if one endorsed [the Nazi] conception, or to be more precise misconception, of heroism.”  

Victor Klemperer

 “One kind of propaganda, demagogic speech, both exploits and spreads flawed ideologies.  Hence, demagogic speech threatens democratic deliberation.  A different kind of propaganda, civic rhetoric, can repair flawed ideologies, potentially restoring the possibility of self-knowledge and democratic deliberation.”  

Jason Stanley

 “[W]e were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved.  We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.  We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth…”  

Toni Morrison

Many political conflicts can be resolved by skillfully applying a combination of fairly straightforward informal problem solving, dialogue, consensus building, conflict coaching, collaborative negotiation, group facilitation, mediation, and similar interest-based conflict resolution methods and techniques.  

More difficult issues arise, however, when political conflicts deepen and fester, leading people to blatantly and consistently lie; to act demagogically and aggressively; or to behave fascistically, in the sense of being committed to hostile, win/lose contests against enemies who have been pre-defined as sub-human, unworthy of respect, and legitimate to brutalize or kill.  

As in all conflict resolution efforts, it is important to learn from the most difficult cases, which can lead to insights that improve our ability to resolve far less onerous problems.  To begin, we need to consider how and why lying, demagogic, adversarial, and fascistic behaviors arise in political conflicts, and what we can do to minimize them — if possible, without slipping into equally adversarial, win/lose behaviors that provide them with backwards justification.  

The Fragility of Electoral Democracies 

Nearly 2500 years ago, Plato warned that “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.”  Why should this be the case?  In mediation terms, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that an initial difficulty emerges out of the organization of electoral democracies as rights-based, competitive, adversarial, zero sum games in which vast amounts of status, wealth, and power are won or lost based on win/lose public contests for political office.  

It is routinely declared and publicly maintained, even by the most corrupt and autocratic regimes, that their electoral contests are governed by fair procedures according to universal rules that are legally binding and neutrally enforced.  Yet this declaration, even if true, leaves open the possibility that anyone sufficiently corrupt or ruthless will decide to “stack the deck” and pretend to follow the rules, while subverting their clear and obvious intent for personal or partisan gain.  As Plato viewed it,

Democracy, by permitting freedom of speech, opens the door for a demagogue to exploit the people’s need for a strongman; the strongman will use this freedom to prey on the people’s resentments and fears. Once the strongman seizes power, he will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny….

While we may disagree with Plato’s conflation of democracy with anarchy, and his belief that freedom of speech is to blame for tyranny, his critique reveals a deeper, far more subtle, yet fatal flaw that lies at the heart of every “rights-based” legal standard, judicial process, and constitutional guarantee.  Each of these depends ultimately, and from time to time entirely, on the willingness of elected and appointed officials — not only to create laws and rules that are fair and the same for everyone — but to follow them, neutrally enforce them, and risk their lives and careers by being willing to stand up for them.  And in times of crisis, they are required to do so against the wishes of people with far greater status, wealth, and power; people who are determined to resort to lying, bullying, bribery, coercion, contempt, and a variety of legal and illegal means, including violence, to retain them.  

The combination of open, fragile, rights-based electoral democracies with episodic crises caused by chronic, unresolved conflicts over social inequality, economic inequity, and political autocracy – or rather, the combination of deeply divided, unequal, and chronically conflicted societies with hierarchical, zero sum approaches to allocating resources and addressing problems – automatically generates, in the deepest crises, desperate attempts to circumvent the rules so as not to lose — both by those at the top and those at the bottom, as each recognizes that elections are always decided by majority rule, and will therefore naturally tend to favor the people and policies that occupy the middle.  

In extreme circumstances, these crises and conflicts give rise to a widespread willingness to sacrifice democracy itself; but more commonly, to skew the electoral system by design so as to routinely produce results that favor the dominant, wealthy, and powerful.  This is increasingly done not only by crass methods like ballot stuffing, but by more subtle techniques, like:

  • Restricting the franchise, i.e., to citizens, property owners, non-slaves, males, adults, those who are literate, etc.

  • Raising the cost of running for office so that only the wealthy can afford to run

  • Cutting restrictions on campaign contributions by corporations and wealthy donors

  • Establishing “winner-take-all” elections that selectively reward large, coalition-based parties and middle-of-the-road candidates who compromise and take centrist positions, resulting in  “duopolopies” that rotate being in power

  • Sidelining small independent parties and candidates

  • Permitting those already in office to revise the rules and reshape them to favor their reelection

  • Gerrymandering districts to make sure there is a majority who favor the party in power and minorities are under-represented

  • Removing mail boxes and mail sorting machines, reducing staff, and defunding or shutting down parts of the postal service to block mail-in balloting

  • Interfering with the census count in order to shift representation to less populous and more conservative states

  • Closing polling places in neighborhoods likely to vote for the “wrong” candidate

  • Placing obstacles in the way of voting, like poll taxes, literacy tests, voter ID cards, restrictions on mail-in ballots, restricting voting hours, etc. in order to selectively discourage those who might vote for the other party 

More shrewdly, it is possible to swing the entire culture of politics in a simplistic direction by reducing it to contests over ego, personality, charisma, fame, seductiveness, slickness, and charm, while at the same time endeavoring to conceal, obscure, and publicly lament their inseparable dark side, consisting of personal attacks, egomania, bullying, gas-lighting, manipulation, pretense, duplicity, betrayal, and corruption.  

Together, these methods convert the state and the entire political process into a spectacle, a charade, a televised reality show, an attribute of personal power.  These lead to the creation of an apolitical, media-dominated culture that sidelines citizens, provokes controversy, and ignores, trivializes, or sensationalizes repeated incidents of phoniness, amorality, addictive behavior, pretense, deception, disgrace, cover-ups, lies, and scandals committed by its leaders. 

L’État, C’Est Moi 

An important element in the rise of lying, demagoguery, and fascism arises from what Harold Lasswell referred to as “the psychopathology of politics.”  Many observers have made the connection between egotistical, self-serving, demagogic, dictatorial, fascistic styles of leadership, and lying, narcissistic, sociopathic, aggressive, antagonistic, bullying behaviors, but few have recognized the ways these behaviors emerge naturally and inevitably as a consequence of zero sum political games.  

Once any process has been defined in win/lose terms, if the stakes are high enough, the rest happens somewhat automatically, in more or less the following way:  if there is a single truth, a single correct path forward, a single solution to any problem and it is exclusively mine, the only remaining question is: what am I willing to do to suppress those who favor an opposing truth, path, or solution, in order to dominate the process and control the outcome?  

Lying, narcissism, sociopathy, aggression, antagonism,, and bullying are then able to produce successful outcomes, in the form of victories over less ruthless and more honest or scrupulous opponents.  These behaviors therefore emerge naturally and effortlessly from zero sum assumptions, reaching their limit in the demagogic, dictatorial, and fascistic politics that always arise and receive mass support during periods of intractable conflicts, rapid changes, and systemic crises.  

These behaviors result in short-term “victories,” or successes when problems actually are simple, one-sided, frightening, or urgent; or when important resources are scarce and competition is rife; or when conflicts become violent, highly polarized, and seemingly intractable.  Yet each victory entails someone else’s defeat; each success spells another person’s failure — but at what cost, especially in the long term, even to the victors?  

The use of power over and against others is thus an inescapable consequence of zero sum assumptions, as the “arrow” of power always tends to favor selfishness and private accumulation over sharing and social distribution in times of conflict and crisis.  Yet in order to amass power, it first must be given, ceded, conned, or taken from others.  This makes lying, demagogic, and fascistic behaviors, with their aggressive, bullying attitudes toward enemies, competitors, and “outsiders,” essential elements in the “primitive accumulation” of power.  

The foreseeable side effects of these behaviors and attitudes include ego inflation, loss of perspective, addictive behaviors, grandiosity, megalomania, corruption, sexual harassment, contempt, conspiratorial fantasies, and paranoia.  Indeed, in 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote an influential article on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which he described how paranoia begins by describing a conspiracy to undermine and destroy our very way of life, then proceeds to emulate it:  

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.

The basis for paranoia and conspiracy theories, Hofstadter argued, can be found in political polarization, perceived isolation, and loss of power: 

Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency [in politics] is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses….

In these ways, powerful tri-partite alliances are occasionally formed between small coteries of wealthy elites who believe they will lose status, wealth, and power through the ordinary operations of democracy; large groups of angry, frightened voters who feel excluded, shut-out, or bypassed by rights-based majority rule electoral outcomes; and “natural” demagogues and tyrants who use imagined conspiracies, bullying, lies, threats, and appeals to violence to unite them, turning those at the bottom of society into private armies.   

In Germany in the 1920s, for example, the first Nazi recruits were those who felt they had been left behind, cast aside, mistreated, and marginalized; those who had fought in World War I and been shamed by defeat; those whose skills were no longer needed or valued; those who were unable to adapt or belong; those who felt lost and powerless, ashamed and enraged, and readily joined the Brown Shirts and SS.  

What Makes Lying, Demagoguery, and Fascism Appealing?

Hannah Arendt described fascism as a temporary alliance between an elite and a mob, yet it is one that crucially relies on demagogues to transform the fear of loss by both into a battle against inclusion, truth, and democracy.  

In an interesting study of the “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue,” several researchers, including Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, found that demagogues who clearly and deliberately lie are nonetheless seen as positive and regarded as “authentically appealing” by a large number of voters, especially when “one side of a social divide regards the political system as flawed or illegitimate,” and the demagogue is seen as an open and flagrant violator of established norms” who is willing to attack the present system, even in violation of “accepted norms of truth-telling” and political decency.

The difficulty with most non- and anti-demagogic responses is that they simply assert or argue in favor of the truth, or science, and miss the vital role lying plays in facilitating the rise of demagogues and fascists.  Lying is partly intended to encourage irrationality, in preparation for the suppression of empathy and inclusion, and the instigation of violence against enemies both within and without.  More importantly, it serves also as an unambiguous test of personal loyalty and blind obedience, as only those who are unquestioningly loyal and obedient will assert a falsehood simply because the Leader said it.  

In a fascinating study of “The Mechanisms of Cult Production,” Xavier Márquez at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, examined demagogic, cult—like behaviors in multiple times and countries, and found a number of common features, including “semantic inflation,” ego flattery, loyalty signaling, emotional amplification, and similar mechanisms that he saw as a consequence of intense, relatively unstructured competition for the favor of a powerful patron.   

Márquez described how these features then combine and interact to transform ordinary flattery into full-blown ruler worship, and how patronage relationships provide fertile ground for the emergence of personality cults.  He also revealed how these cults are “directly produced” by using the power of the state and private organizations to grant favors to those who magnify the leader’s charismatic qualities and exalted status; or who publicly profess blind loyalty, without question or concern for the facts or circumstances, and thereby increase the legitimacy of dictatorial rule.  

One easy way for people to signal their loyalty is by also lying, bullying, attacking, demeaning, and using humiliating personal insults, stereotypes, and slurs against political opponents (subconsciously mirroring their own personal humiliation as flatterers and sycophants), brutalizing relationships, and reducing language to the level of childish taunts. The accepted use of political insults, stereotypes, and slurs then creates a cascade of additional unwelcome consequences, including:

  • Compression and over-simplification of complex truths

  • Use of stereotyping and biases that exaggerate and miss what is true or useful in others views, diminishing the capacity for cooperation

  • Granting permission to stop listening and empathizing, and start demonizing and ostracizing minorities and dissenters

  • Legitimization and normalization of dishonest, cruel, bullying, patriarchal, power-based forms of political discourse

  • Suppression of dialogue and reasoned debate and acceptance of personal attacks, slander, and innuendo, if they serve the cause 

  • Release from responsibility for whatever they may have done or failed to do that made the problem worse

  • Increased apathy, cynicism, and distrust of everything collaborative or mediative that might be proposed to resolve differences

  • Increased willingness to accept violence against targeted groups

  • Loss of relationships, intimacy and the capacity for empathy, caring and collaborative problem solving

  • Exhaustion from the energy needed to remain in conflict, keep the truth at bay, and live divided lives

  • Inability to evolve and adapt in response to changing conditions

  • Loss of hope that anything will ever change

From Lying to Demagoguery to Fascism

While demagogues may manipulate the truth, they still pay lip service to it.  For fascists, on the other hand, as described by Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism, there is a “radical instrumentalization of the truth,” in which the sole criteria becomes the usefulness of the statement in achieving one’s goal.  It then becomes possible to convert even widely accepted truths into their exact opposites.  Moreover, as Hannah Arendt explained,

It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying but deliberately proposed to transform its lies into reality.  Thus, … [the lie that Jews were homeless beggars and parasites would appear true once German Jews were] driven across the border like a pack of beggars.  For such a fabrication of a lying reality no one was prepared.  The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere and of every time.  The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old Occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that ‘true” which until then could only be stated as a lie.  

Thus, a core element in Nazi propaganda promoted the idea that there was a “Jewish-Christian-Bolshevik conspiracy” based on a “destructive belief in the unity of humanity,” and a “false idea of the equality of everyone,” which sought to prove itself by dividing people into unequal camps and systematically degrading them.  In a more recent example, it was widely asserted that the 2020 Presidential election in the U.S. was stolen, precisely in order to justify trying to steal it; or that ballots were tampered with, in order to then be able to tamper with them.   

The transition from lying to demagoguery to fascism can be found in miniature in the conversion of simple personal lies into instruments of power, and the conversion of constitutional government into means for its destruction.  It can be seen in the appointment of sycophants to positions of influence and power, and implacable opponents to heads of the agencies they fundamentally oppose, i.e., of foxes to guard the chicken coops.  It can especially be observed in the loss of independence and professed neutrality of government agencies charged with legal enforcement, which are sometimes the last defense against the overthrow of democracy.  

We may ask, for example, regarding the attempted insurrection in the U.S. on January 6, 2021: What would have happened if senior Trump-installed officials at the Justice Department, especially Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, had been willing to elevate loyalty to Trump over the rule of law and announce that the 2020 election results were invalid?  What if Trump had ousted Rosen and replaced him with Jeffrey Clark, acting head of the Civil Division, who was more willing to make provably false assertions of fraud?  What if Trump had not been deterred from doing so when faced with threats of mass resignation from other government officials, including military leaders?  What would have happened if Proud Boys and others had gained entrance to Congress, arrested Democratic leaders, confiscated Electoral College ballots; or seized the building and called on Trump to take control?  What if the majority Republican Supreme Court had refused to intervene?  What if Trump had declared martial law?  All these were possible, and each would have “justified” those bent on remaining in power in using illegal and unconstitutional means to do so.  

It is important, however, to distinguish the transition from rights-based electoral democracies, with their “customary” forms of political dishonesty; in the first place from demagoguery, with its hostility to the truth and “legal” means of constricting democracy; and in the second place from fascism, with its openly illegal, violent, and dictatorial practices, and elimination of democracy. Jason Stanley described the first step in this process, in How Propaganda Works

One kind of propaganda, demagogic speech, both exploits and spreads flawed ideologies.  Hence, demagogic speech threatens democratic deliberation.  A different kind of propaganda, civic rhetoric, can repair flawed ideologies, potentially restoring the possibility of self-knowledge and democratic deliberation.

By “flawed ideologies,” Stanley means untrue beliefs that are designed to justify conditions of inequality by actively preventing people from learning the truth about them.  These give rise to “undermining propaganda,” which embodies abstract democratic ideals while systematically eroding them.  Dialogue and “civic rhetoric,” on the other hand, reinforce equality, elicit truthful communications, and strengthen democracy.

From a historical perspective, the great social, economic, and political revolutions of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries gave rise to a wide range of flawed ideologies and anti-democratic responses, from “no-nothings” and the Ku Klux Klan to eugenics, lynching, race terrorism, social Darwinism, and a wide range of conservative and reactionary political groups and parties. 

The primary objectives of these responses were to maximize economic growth, oppose labor unions, promote business deregulation, divide opponents, roll back environmental restrictions, secure tax cuts for the wealthy, create a business friendly Supreme Court, and shape the electoral process in ways that favored conservatives.  All of this was done in order to promote capitalism and oppose socialism, which was seen as a consequence of democracy and the steadily increasing electoral power of labor unions and small farmers.  James Madison, in an earlier period, described the underlying reasoning behind placing restrictions on electoral democracy: 

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. … unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

This is an ancient pattern, which in the U.S. included turning Whites against Blacks, Latinos, and Asians to undermine the power of labor unions; uniting men to oppose women’s right to vote, work, and make independent decisions; and stoking the biases and prejudices of various groups in order to turn them against others, thereby dividing the potential majority their unity might create into separate, inimical, competing minorities. 

Over decades, the Supreme Court contributed to the systematic undermining of electoral democracy, by deciding, for example, that campaign contributions by wealthy donors can not be regulated because they are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment; or allowing states to adopt gross forms of Gerrymandering to marginalize minority representation; or effectively nullifying the Voting Rights Act and permitting the disenfranchisement of likely Democratic voters, and similar decisions.

In spite of these efforts, rights-based forms of electoral democracy have continued to expand and evolve, yet are facing very real threats that could quite easily come to pass in the near future – the threat, for example, of a shift from “mere” lying and demagoguery to fascism, the overthrow of democracy, and sabotage of the rule of law.  How, exactly, does this shift happen?  Here, based on historical experience, are some of the initial steps:

  • Reduce complex issues to simplistic, adversarial solutions

  • Engage in provocative, sensational acts that focus attention on the leader, who will then be feared and unquestioningly obeyed

  • Use language that horrifies, shocks, fascinates, distorts, obscures, and draws public attention from the sleight of hand, bait-and-switch, shell game that accrues power through theatre 

  • Make openly false statements that make it easy to tell who is loyal and who is not

  • Instead of responding to accusations of falsehood, move on to fresh lies in a never-ending cycle

  • Transform shame into pride, patriotism into nationalism, religion into dogma, race into superiority, and gender into rigid roles and regimentation 

  • Insult, shame, and humiliate women who are leaders of the opposition 

  • Encourage acts of violence, directed first against the left, then against liberals, and punish those who do not remain silent or are not complicit in their response

  • Manipulate efforts to bring about peace or mediate differences, reject dialogue, and lie about intentions in order to gain advantage over and defeat the other side 

In Jason Stanley’s subsequent book, How Fascism Works, the core elements that make up a generic version of fascism are described in detail (see summary and discussion in Chapter 11.)  Ultimately, it is clear that fascism, regardless of its distinct national features and varied definitions, can also be distinguished by its hyper-aggressive, dictatorial, zero sum approach to differences and conflicts: 

The most telling symptom of fascist politics is division.  It aims to separate a population into ‘us’ and ‘them’…, appealing to ethnic, religious and racial distinctions, and using this division to shape ideology, and, ultimately, … [create] a hierarchy of human worth.   

Consequently, the goal of fascism is to destroy—not only equality, collaboration, and democracy, but honesty, authenticity, and interest-based processes like dialogue and mediation as well—and not only in society, economics, politics and the environment—but in family and personal life as well.  It does so partly by brutalizing, degrading, and polarizing language in ways that silence complex ideas and experiences. As the linguist Victor Klemperer pointed out, after living under house arrest as a Jew in Germany during most of World War II, and chronicling the ways the Nazi’s distorted language, 

… Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. . . language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.  And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons?  Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all. … [Nazism] changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence, it makes common property out of what was previously the preserve of an individual or a tiny group, it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures with its poison.

In order to strengthen dialogue, mediation, and democracy in the midst of highly polarized political conflicts that produce openings in the direction of lying, demagoguery, and fascism, it is important to recognize that democracy, in both its personal and political forms, is a prerequisite for positive, meaningful change, for dialogue and joint problem solving, and for mediation itself.  We therefore want to consider how we might redesign the way we approach and respond to political conflicts, starting with the relationship between democracy and conflicts regarding race and caste, gender and patriarchy, wealth and class. (See longer discussion in Chapter 18.)  

Conflicts over Race and Caste, Gender and Patriarchy, Wealth and Class

One of the core functions of the state throughout history has been to reinforce existing social, economic, political, and ecological hierarchies in order to preserve privileges, superiority, and domination, and “keep people in their place.”  In doing so, governments have not only prevented racial minorities, women, and lower classes from voting, but used violence and coercion to stifle and punish efforts to influence political decisions that seek to bring about a more fair or favorable ranking system.  

In these ways, governments have helped harden internal divides, turning racial diversity into castes, gender differences into patriarchies, wealth inequities into classes, etc.. A fundamental element in the distinction between various forms of government lies in the degree of openness they offer to alter, adjust, or transform the ways social status, economic wealth, political power, and advantageous ecological conditions are earned and distributed.  

The essential purpose of dictatorship is therefore to crush as thoroughly as possible even the idea that the current ranking system can change, whereas democracies open the door, not only to gradual, reformist, superficial, and evolutionary changes; but to rapid, radical, systemic, and revolutionary ones.  Fascist dictatorships go one step further, and use violence to eliminate the threat of change, impose strict hierarchies to enforce domination and unquestioning obedience, and silence or eliminate anyone who disagrees.  

Violence, of course, is a tool, and a natural product of power-based methods of dispute resolution; just as legal coercion is a tool, and a natural product of rights-based methods of dispute resolution.  Similarly, democracy, dialogue, consensus building, collaborative negotiation, mediation, restorative justice, and similar techniques, are the principal tools and natural products of interest-based methods of dispute resolution.  

We can then see that inequality and domination are essential features of power- and rights-based forms of dispute resolution.  Thus, in any society or economy that is based on slavery, or other forms of domination, the state is both designed and compelled to use its primary control over the means of violence and coercion to play one of three possible roles, each representing a phase in its evolution and ability to prevent and resolve chronic conflicts:

  1. It can enforce slavery or domination, represent only slave owners or dominators, become a power-base instrument of support for those who seek to enslave or dominate others, and use autocratic, adversarial, and violent methods to suppress those who seek change and an end to minority rule.

  2. It can seek some form of evolving compromise that allows slavery or domination to continue while recognizing limited rights among slaves or the dominated, claim to be a “neutral” arbitrator between the two sides, and use coercive, bureaucratic, procedurally democratic, legalistic methods to defuse conflicts.

  3. It can work to abolish slavery and domination, elevate slaves and those who were dominated to full equality, become an instrument of support for those opposed to slavery and domination, and use interest-based substantively democratic, collaborative methods to encourage diversity, dissent, and dialogue, and assist the state in evolving to higher forms of democracy that only become possible once slavery and domination have disappeared.  

It is obvious that slavery cannot continue where slaves are given the right to vote, The same is true in the long run for caste, patriarchy, class, and all forms of privilege and domination.  As a result, it is essential for minority elites to limit the ability of the majorities they dominate to use the electoral process to abolish domination; or improve their relative status, wealth, and power; or transform elected government in ways that prevent it from being used as a weapon against them.  

Thus, democracy itself, when taken seriously and enforced, becomes an implicit and increasing obstacle to the “freedom” to own slaves, suppress women, discriminate against other races, dominate others, and maintain grossly unequal status, inequitable wealth, autocratic power, and ecological advantage over others – especially in periods of conflict and crisis, when the state has to choose whose lives to save, and how taxes will be imposed and spent.  

To put it somewhat differently: genuine, interest-based, substantive, participatory, direct, and collaborative forms of democracy are by their nature levelers; forces for equality, equity, democracy, and fairness; and they are places of potential transition to non-adversarial, non-zero sum social, economic, political, and ecological relationships and processes.  From being a protector of elites and a defender of domination, the state may then increasingly become a mediator, facilitator, and systems designer, whose role is to prevent chronic conflicts and crises, and to resolve them through consensus, collaboration, dialogue, and interest-based dispute resolution methods when they do occur.  

The State as Mediator

One of the core functions of the state throughout history has been to maintain civic order; stabilize social, economic, political, and ecological relationships; and resolve conflicts; and thereby insulate the status quo against transformational systemic change.  It has done so largely by means of power, which is ultimately based on violence; but also by means of rights, which is based on legal coercion and bureaucratic control; and more recently, on the basis of interests, which is based on dialogue, collaborative negotiation, and consensus.  

Once we regard the state as a mediator, we can begin to consider how effective it is in settling, resolving, transforming, and preventing chronic social, economic, political, and ecological conflicts; and how it might do so more successfully in the future.  We can also recognize that the state may have significant conflicts of interest, and while describing itself as “neutral,” may in reality rely heavily on wealthy power brokers in deciding which issues and individuals to support and which to oppose, thereby undermining its ability to resolve conflicts.  

Yet were the state to play a significant, genuinely unbiased, mediative role in resolving social, economic, political, and ecological conflicts; were it to adopt an inclusive, collaborative, consensus building, win/win approach to addressing them, it would be able to significantly reduce polarization, discourage violence, hatred, demagoguery, and lying; strengthen substantive democracy; and help dissipate the underlying antagonisms that lead to lying, demagoguery, and fascism.   

A key component in its ability to do so will be its adoption and implementation of a number of core values and principles that form the basis for dialogue, collaborative negotiation, consensus building, mediation, and other forms of dispute resolution, and apply them to social, economic, political, and ecological conflicts.  In my view, these values and principles include the following:

  1. All interested parties are included and invited to participate fully in discussing, designing, and implementing content, processes and relationships

  2. Decisions are made by consensus wherever possible, and nothing is considered final until everyone is in agreement 

  3. Diversity and honest differences are viewed as sources of dialogue, leading to better ideas, healthier relationships, and greater unity

  4. Biases, stereotypes, prejudices, assumptions of innate superiority, and ideas of intrinsic correctness are considered divisive and discounted as one-sided descriptions of more complex, multi-sided, paradoxical realities

  5. Openness, authenticity, appreciation, and empathy are regarded as better foundations for communication and decision-making than secrecy, rhetoric, insult, and demonization 

  6. Dialogue and open-ended questions are deemed more useful than debate and cross-examination

  7. Force, violence, coercion, aggression, humiliation, and domination are rejected, both as methods and as outcomes

  8. Cooperation and collaboration are ranked as primary, while competition and aggression are considered secondary

  9. Everyone’s interests are accepted as legitimate, acknowledged, and satisfied wherever possible, consistent with others’ interests 

  10. Processes and relationships are considered at least as important as content, if not more so

  11. Attention is paid to emotions, subjectivity, and feelings, as well as to logic, objectivity, and facts 

  12. Everyone is regarded as responsible for participating in improving content, processes, and relationships, and searching for synergies and transformations

  13. People are invited into heartfelt communications and deeper awareness, and encouraged to reach resolution, forgiveness, and reconciliation

  14. Chronic conflicts are traced to their systemic sources, where they can be prevented and redesigned to discourage repetition 

  15. Victory is regarded as obtainable by everyone, and redirected toward collaborating to solve common problems, leaving no one feeling defeated 

Simply seeking agreement and starting to implement these values and principles will already begin to shift relationships and processes in a more democratic direction, and reduce the likelihood that lying, demagoguery, and fascism will succeed.  Unfortunately, fully ending resort to these tactics will not prove so simple, and more will be needed to prevent some future fascist movement from undermining and destroying democracy than simple opposition.  

At the center of this problem is a fundamental shift in understanding how conflict resolution works from an emphasis on the mediator as a “neutral,” to the mediator as unbiased–or as I prefer, “omni-partial,” and thus on both sides at the same time.  This does not mean agreeing with everyone factually, but focusing on surfacing the underlying non-zero sum interests that make the facts seem compelling.   

Rights-based electoral processes and political conflicts encourage people to reduce complex difficulties that may have multiple correct answers to simplistic, digital, either/or, yes or no propositions.  Indeed, one of the reasons interest-based methods like mediation and dialogue are not more prevalent, in spite of their obvious benefits, is because they re-introduce complexity, subtlety, and nuance into otherwise simplistic adversarial exchanges, and seek to tell the truth about what is happening without slipping into hostile biases and judgments.  

As mediators, we need to check our biases, and subject our beliefs and language to the same level of scrutiny we apply to the beliefs and languages of others.  We need to support rational, scientific, and at the same time emotionally intelligent responses to irrational, mythic, and conspiratorial world-views, and promote open dialogues between people with dramatically opposing views.

In political conflicts particularly, we need to avoid being judgmental and exclusionary, while not concealing or cancelling our own views, or giving in on issues that matter.  As mediators, we can either help to clarify the reality of inequality, inequity, autocracy, and domination, or we can obscure them and miss opportunities — not simply to settle, but to resolve, transform, transcend, and prevent conflicts from reoccurring.  In order to do so, we need to treat the political statements of both sides as mediators often treat ordinary conflict stories – i.e., as less concerned with factual than with emotional accuracy, and as confessions or requests that have been disguised as accusations and insults. 

The same can be done with other divisive political issues.  We need not allow our desire to connect and be empathetic with both sides to lead us into condoning what we know to be harmful and false.  It is possible to demonstrate that we care about people, not by agreeing with the “facts” they assert, but by defining the problem as an “it,” rather than a “you;” asking questions that deepen their appreciation of the issues that lie hidden beneath the problem, and similar methods.  Guy Burgess of the Beyond Intractability project, for example, proposes the following:

  • Reframe zero-sum, us-vs-them interactions in positive-sum, we-are-all-in-this-together ways,

  • Show people how to identify and pursue mutually-beneficial ways of resolving us-vs-them conflicts,

  • Use truth and reconciliation-type processes to move beyond the “unrightable wrongs” of the past,

  • Reverse the escalation spiral's amplification of relatively minor disputes in ways that can cross the threshold into mutual hate and violence,

  • Correct communication problems that lead people to develop inaccurate and overly threatening images of the "other,"

  • Limit factual disagreements through joint data collection and analysis, providing facts that are trustworthy, trusted, and correctly understood,

  • Use these trustworthy facts as a basis for collaborative problem-solving efforts that develop mutually-beneficial solutions to joint problems.

Laura Nader has criticized mediation as "trading justice for harmony."  In my view, that is not, never has been, and never should be the right exchange.  Instead, we need to acknowledge the interdependence of justice and peace or harmony, and recognize that, in any relationship, the absence of one will soon result in the absence of the other.  

One of the enduring, heartrending sources of human tragedy arises from the assumption that history will continue evolving in the direction it is currently heading. Yet history has multiple sources, with innumerable, complex, contradictory inputs that make it, like the weather, highly sensitive to initial conditions.  How many people accurately predicted the 1930’s depression while living in the roaring 20’s, or the ‘40s from the 30’s, the 50’s from the 40’s, the 60’s from the 50’s, etc.?  And were not those who did, like the legendary Cassandra in Troy and Mycenae, deadly accurate, but disbelieved by all?  

How, then, do we discern an accurate future direction in the midst of our own conflicts and crises?  Which of the contradictory undercurrents is likely to become ascendant, for how long, and why?  The answer, I believe, depends largely on us, and on our determination to discover and develop successful, interest-based ways of resolving our most pressing social, economic, political, and ecological conflicts.  We are one species, one life, one planet, and we urgently need to evolve beyond the adversarial, violent, domineering ways we have treated one another.  


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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