Where Does The Nightmare of Continuing Hyper-Polarization End?


Guy Burgess

This is the fourth in a series of posts that explore the danger that the United States' hyper-polarized political environment might suddenly erupt into large-scale political violence.  Links to the full series plus other escalation-related materials can be found on the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar/Blog page on Escalation.


This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog



There is always a reason to hope that today's hyper-polarized acrimony will correctly be interpreted as evidence that we have allowed things to go too far and that cooler heads ought to prevail. Unfortunately, we don't tend to respond to threats in such conciliatory ways. Rather, we tend to want to strike back. Even if we are not brave enough to actually do it, we tend to cheer on those who do. This, unfortunately, exposes us to a greater danger – a rapidly-escalating feedback loop in which actions that are seen as provocative lead to counter-provocation in a rapidly intensifying spiral that can harden animosities and hatreds across entire societies with astonishing speed.

This is also a process that is extraordinarily difficult to reverse. Acts of violence that may be seen as justified by perpetrators are usually seen as unforgivable atrocities by victims who, in turn, tend to increasingly see the other side as an implacable enemy—the embodiment of an evil which, at all costs and with any means necessary, must be decisively defeated. At that point, you can quickly find yourself in the midst of increasingly large-scale violent confrontation. 

This can lead to one of two possible outcomes. The first possibility is that the most powerful and ruthless faction might win a decisive victory that enables it to impose its views on the loser in a way that is almost certain to be seen as oppressive and justification for long-term hatred and continuing conflict. 

In cases where the relative power of contending factions is more evenly matched, there is a substantial risk that the conflict will escalate dramatically with both sides being forced to use virtually all of the instruments of power that they have available in order to avoid an utterly unacceptable defeat.  This is a process that progressively erases taboo lines that we count on to control our most inhumane tendencies and separate civilized society from a place in which the rule of law and basic human rights are replaced with raw physical force. This is the kind of world that ultimately tends to coalesce around warlords, authoritarian rulers, even genocide. 

While one side may ultimately emerge victorious (as the North did in the US Civil War), the associated loss of life, physical destruction, and enduring enmity cannot possibly be offset by the fruits of victory. It is also quite possible that war and the associated chaos will become a more protracted state of affairs.

If we allow things to deteriorate to this point, contemporary worries about police brutality will seem almost laughably mild in comparison with what's likely follow. Efforts to control the pandemic will totally collapse and we will achieve herd immunity the old-fashioned way, by letting staggering numbers of people simply die off.  It in also doubtful that, under such circumstances, we could come remotely close to maintaining the production and distribution network needed to supply the population with its most basic and essential material needs.   

Under such circumstances, it would be utterly foolhardy to count on assistance from the international community and perfectly reasonable to expect rivals try to encourage and profit from our calamity. In short, the dystopian futures that Venezuelans and Syrians have been living are the kind of thing that we should be worried about.