Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy -- Power, Rights, and Interests

Citation: Kenneth Cloke. Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy.  GoodMedia Press. 2018, pp. 7-10.

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 the Introduction, Chapter 1, pages 7-10.  


From our earliest beginnings, we have resolved disputes in three fundamentally divergent ways. The first is based on power, relying principally on war, violence, force and duress. Power contests are ”zero-sum games” that inescapably produce winners and losers, destroy important relationships and generate a great deal of “collateral damage.” Power encourages corruption in those who use it and blind obedience, resistance and revolt in those it is used against. Resorting to power-based solutions therefore routinely leads to future disputes and makes it difficult to change, adapt or evolve without experiencing major upheavals and confrontations.

As a result of these difficulties, a second way of resolving conflicts has arisen based on rights, relying primarily on legislation, litigation, adversarial forms of negotiation, bureaucratic coercion, rules and regulations, contractual agreements and policies and procedures. Rights are limitations on the exercise of power, yet depend on power for their enforcement, yet are correctly perceived by those in power as reducing their exclusive and otherwise unlimited control and ability to dominate.

Rights-based processes are also zero-sum games that generate winners and losers, undermine relationships and result in collateral damage, but less so than power-based solutions. Since rights rely on legally interpreted and enforced rules, change is discouraged, individuals are seen as obstacles, conflicts are mostly settled rather than prevented or resolved, and nothing significant or systemic is transformed or transcended without careful vetting by those in positions of power or authority. Uniquely, right-based methods give rise to bureaucracies, which are needed to promulgate, interpret, define and selectively enforce competing, “one-size-fits-all” rights, and shield them to some extent against power-based incursions.

Because both power- and rights-based approaches are zero-sum games, they distribute social status, economic wealth and political power hierarchically, competitively and disproportionately, with most going to the least at the top, less going to more in the middle, and least going to most at the bottom. As a result, there is unending competition, chronic conflict and an unbridgeable schism between the few at the top, the more in the middle, and the most at the bottom.

The smallest group at the top, because they are fewest, will predictably favor the most violent and autocratic power-based methods in order to hold on to their disproportionate and precarious share of status, wealth and power. Those in the middle will predictably favor the use of more moderate, legal and bureaucratic rights-based methods in order to maintain their intermediate, but precarious position against competing forces at either end, hoping always to join those above, yet fearing those below.

This unstable, constantly shifting balance of power gives rise to temporary alliances and coalitions between these competing classes and the political factions that claim to represent them, producing an apparently endless cycle of chronic social, economic and political conflict. Wherever status, wealth and power are fixed by heredity, caste conflicts appear and become chronic and sometimes political; wherever they are defined by employment, class conflicts arise and also turn chronic and political; wherever they are determined by race, gender, religion, nationality, disability, etc., chauvinistic conflicts emerge, and so on, with different kinds of power and rights being used to support the domination of the few over the many.

While power-based processes rest on hierarchy, operate by command and result in obedience, rights-based processes rest on bureaucracy, operate by control and result in compliance. Power-based approaches encourage open attitudes of domination, resulting in personal arrogance, elitism and contempt. Rights-based approaches encourage covert attitudes of domination, resulting in social alienation, cynicism, apathy and uncaring. Neither seeks to prevent or transcend chronic conflicts, or to evolve by dismantling them at their systemic source.

As a result of these dynamics, power- and right-based systems have gradually begun giving way to a third approach to resolving conflicts, which is based on interests. Interests reflect not merely what people want, but the reasons why they want it. Interest-based processes are “win/win,” and do not require a winner or a loser. Consequently, they are better able to encourage informal problem-solving, facilitation, dialogue, collaborative negotiation, consensus building and mediation and to prevent, resolve, transform and transcend chronic conflicts by dismantling them at their systemic source. This allows them to support more collaborative, democratic relationships and encourage continuous adaptation, peaceful evolution, and personal and systemic change.

Interests are unique and diverse, yet compatible and synergistic. They invite people to communicate at a deeper level, learn from each other, and work jointly and collaboratively to solve problems. They encourage conflicted parties to redesign the dysfunctional power- and rights-based systems and structures that have caused, aggravated and sustained their disputes.

Interest-based processes rest on direct democracy, operate by consensus and result in ownership. For these reasons, they are able to invite deeper levels of resolution, more complex, collaborative interactions and democratic relationships, and invite people into more poignant and profound levels of caring, intimacy, connection and community.

Chronic social, economic and political conflicts commonly result from win/lose, competitive, hierarchical allocations of status, wealth and power — as well as from the ways status is measured and assigned, wealth is created and distributed, and power is apportioned and exercised. Because power- and rights-based approaches are win/lose, they are inescapably competitive, creating hierarchical divisions between privileged and downtrodden, haves and have-nots, rulers and ruled, few and many, routinely favoring the former over the latter.

Rights-based approaches, because they flow from and are ultimately grounded in power, adopt a formally neutral stance and impartial attitude toward these chronically conflicted groups, yet replicate them simply by paying no attention to their underlying assumptions and inequities. In any system or environment where prejudice and bias operate, being colorblind and gender-neutral will always mean that equality is professed publicly and in principle, while discrimination is permitted privately and in practice.

Interest-based approaches, on the other hand, because they require collaboration and consensus, are inherently democratic and egalitarian, and seek to unify socially, economically and politically divided groups, while at the same time appreciating their diversity and individuality, in order to take advantage of their unique perspectives in a search for synergistic solutions to complex problems.