Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy -- Meditative, Interest-Based Approaches to Political Conflicts

Citation: Kenneth Cloke. Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy.  GoodMedia Press. 2018. Pages 26-28.

Ken Cloke wrote Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy, which was published by GoodMedia Press in 2018.  It is a fabulous book, stock full of ideas about better ways of engaging in politics that will help save our democracy--and that of others.  While we obviously cannot post the whole book on Beyond Intractability, Ken generously gave us permission to post several sections, one of which follows below.  The other excerpts, and a link to the book's page on GoodMedia Press (where you can buy the whole book for just $24.95!) are immediately below. 

Buy the Book | Table of Contents 

ExceprtsIntroduction | Power, Rights, and Interests | Truth and Falsity | Meditative, Interest-Based Approaches to Political Conflicts | Power, Rights, & Interests in Political Discussions | 20 Ways to Talk about Political Differences, | Algorithm for Political Dialogue | Global Pandemics, National Borders and Political Problem Solving

This excerpt is from Chapter 1, pages 26-28.


If we ponder the nature of political conflicts over long stretches of time, without regard to their specific content, we can see that they can be greatly simplified, revealing their constituent parts and enabling us to develop more effective approaches to resolving the important issues that lie beneath their surface. Doing so suggests methods we can use to shift political communications in more constructive directions and highlight their deeper significance.

What makes an issue political is therefore, in the first place, the presence of a disagreement over choices, or future direction or values, ethics and morality, any of which can, in a variety of ways, mutate into conflict. Politics can therefore be defined as a process for making social choices, and a way of responding to chronic conflicts that arise as a consequence of the choices we make and the ways we make them.

If we say that politics consist of choices about the direction in which we need to be moving based on a set of shared values, ethics or morality, several questions rapidly arise: Whose choices? Which direction? Why that one? What values, ethics and morality? Who says? Politics is conflicted by definition, because even consensus or unanimity on an issue means that some choice has been made, some specific direction has been charted and some group’s values, ethics or morality is being implemented.

The problem is not merely that we disagree with each other about political choices, directions or values, ethics and morality, but that the ways we disagree also produce conflicts. Political disagreement is an essential aspect of diversity and citizenship, and an important element in successful social problem-solving. But a belief that ours is the only truth routinely triggers personal hostilities, hatreds and enmities, and moves us beyond mere disagreement, transforming our differences into conflicts, which produce emotional responses that diminish our ability to accurately evaluate complex choices, decide which is the best direction, and live together with differing values, ethics and morals.

What, then, turns productive disagreements into unproductive conflicts? It is possible to simplify and abstract political conflicts by breaking them down into sub-components or elementary parts, and seeing them as a recipe or set of instructions that tell us how to create political conflicts wherever and whenever we wish, but that equally tell us how to dismantle them. Thus, if we ask: what are the minimal requirements for any political conflict, I believe there are three:

  1. Diversity: In the first place, there must be two or more distinct individuals or groups of people, each with diverse beliefs, ideas, opinions, needs, values and interests. Without this, there cannot be conflict.
  2. Inequality: In the second place, there must be an inequality in power between these individuals or groups, reflecting their differing abilities to implement their diverse beliefs, ideas, opinions, values, etc. Without this, the conflict will not take a political form.
  3. Adversarial, win/lose process: In the third place, there must be an adversarial, win/lose process for political problem-solving or decision-making that pits diverse individuals and groups against each other, allowing only one to prevail. Without this, the conflict will not become polarizing or chronic.

While conservatives and those on the right commonly seek to reduce the level of political conflict by decreasing diversity, boosting respect for accepted or conventional ideas and buttressing established authority; liberals and those on the left seek to do so by increasing equality, drawing attention to new and diverse ideas and championing the freedom to dissent, articulate, argue for and implement them. Neither group, however, focuses on the adversarial win/lose nature of the political process, without which diversity and inequality do not regularly and predictably result in political polarization.

The question then arises: is politics necessarily an adversarial, win/lose process that cannot help but result in polarization? To some extent, the answer is yes, because politics is a social problem-solving, group decision-making process that requires diverse constituencies to make choices between what are often mutually exclusive alternatives, and there is sometimes a fixed sum that needs to be divided and is not enough to support all the options.

But this answer is overly simplistic, as it focuses only on outputs and does not adequately take into account the ways that inclusive, consensus building, collaborative, mediative and interest-based processes are able to “expand the pie,” or produce a “positive no,” or generate new options by listening, assessing criteria, brainstorming creative alternatives, building consensus, soothing injured feelings, resolving underlying disputes and maximizing constructive outcomes.

Effective political problem-solving and decision-making consists partly in using processes that avoid pointless personal insults and unnecessary demonizations, and redirect conflicts toward genuine differences in direction. These require us to recognize that there are three distinct sets of concerns that form the basis for political analyses, problem-solving, conflict resolution and decision-making:

  1. Content: The substance or content of the problem must be successfully identified, discussed, addressed and resolved.
  2. Process: The process of solving problems and making decisions must be inclusive, transparent, effective and fair.
  3. Relationship: The relationship between the people who are impacted by the problem, or trying to solve it, or make decisions about it, must be respectful, constructive, trusting and collaborative.

If the content of the problem is successfully addressed and the relationship is constructive, but the process is ineffective and unfair; or if the content and process are successful and effective, but the relationship is competitive, adversarial and untrusting, chronic conflicts will arise that can prevent even the best solutions from being implemented. Yet nearly all of our focus in solving political problems and making decisions is on the content, and comparatively little is devoted to improving either the processes or the relationships.

While these three are intricately interconnected, it is important to periodically set aside disagreements over content in order to focus our attention exclusively on improving processes and relationships. Doing so makes it possible to achieve content goals far more effectively in the long run by learning to act fairly, repair trust and work constructively, even when there are disagreements over content.

This is especially important in political conflicts, where nearly everyone is focused on substance, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice processes and relationships entirely, thereby allowing deeply desired ends to justify the use of undesirable means, without realizing that by using hostile, adversarial means we routinely produce hostile, adversarial ends. And it is precisely our willingness to achieve results at the expense of fairness in processes and trust in relationships that fuels most of our political conflicts and makes them intractable.