America must step out of this self-destructive zombie dance

General View – USA Flag
Action Images / Richard Heathcote

For all the chaos of political violence, one thing is predictable. In highly polarized countries, it spikes right before and after an election, no matter the continent.

So, here we are. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband has been viciously assaulted in the dead of night, and reported threats against members of Congress are up more than tenfold since 2016, coming in last year at the rate of 26 per day.

But if it is a frightening time, it’s not a surprising one. There’s nothing to see here that hasn’t been seen in other countries for years. High conflict – the kind that is self-destructive and stubbornly resistant to resolution – is not mysterious. And we have much more wisdom about how to respond to it than we think.

I find it hopeful to remember this: We have not even begun to do the most basic things you would do if you wanted to interrupt this conflict.

The usual intuition right now is to blame, quite understandably. Blame the dehumanizing rhetoric of certain GOP politicians, blame the lack of security at the Pelosis’ home, blame mental health. That is all fair game. But if you think it will be enough to change this diabolical cycle we’re in, you are going to be disappointed.

“It’s not that these questions are irrelevant, not at all,” says Nealin Parker, who has worked in conflict zones worldwide and now heads Common Ground USA, part of the world’s largest peacebuilding organization. “But if you want the future to look different than the past, you have to focus on what to do differently. You have to reject the whole set of actions that got you to this point.”

What would “different” look like? The only good option is to do counterintuitive things. We must step out of the zombie dance we are in.

One lesson I’ve learned in covering dysfunctional conflict for the past five years is that most people, even very violent people, want to live. And they want their families to be safe. That is one thing we all have in common. Horrific incidents such as the one at Pelosi’s home offer an unusual (and fleeting) opportunity to invite people to do something differently.

First, sign the contract. All over the world, the U.S. government has pushed politicians to sign codes of conduct in times of conflict. Gang-violence interrupters do this every day in Chicago and other cities – urging combatants and their supporters to join a nonaggression pact. It’s time to invite American politicians and pundits to do what we’ve long asked other people, in far more harrowing circumstances, to do.

In gangs, nonaggression pacts might include rules about social media (the place where most gang violence gets triggered today). Each side promises not to disrespect those who have been killed in the conflict, for example.

In politics, this might mean pledging not to dehumanize one’s opponent on social media or elsewhere (by saying they are evil or hate the United States, for example). The codes could include vows to accept the results of the election after reasonable due process and, of course, to condemn all acts of violence, especially when they are perpetrated against a member of the opposition. This is the lowest possible bar for a democracy to function, something our own government has asked people emerging from civil war and genocide to do.

Why haven’t we asked the same of our own leaders?

Now, just so you know, it’s also true that almost every such pact gets violated. There’s invariably some rogue partisan or gangbanger who tries to blow up the deal. That is what conflict entrepreneurs do, and we’ve got a lot of them in powerful places right now. But the agreement creates a nonviolent mechanism to put the deal back together again – to seek redress from the leaders of the group, when violations happen. That might mean taking down a dehumanizing post on Twitter or it could mean a party withdraws support from a candidate for a period of time. This is what civilized societies do: They create a process that is imperfect but knowable and reliable. Without a trustworthy process, humans take vengeance into their own hands.

Walk the walk. Part of how we got into this mess is by watching politicians and pundits gleefully attack each other on TV. Part of how we get out of it is by doing the opposite: having credible messengers from each side demonstrate human decency.

In 2020, the two candidates running for governor of Utah, Republican Spencer Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson, jointly filmed an ad in which they committed to respect and uphold democratic norms and a peaceful transition of power. Right in front of our eyes, they treated each other like humans – albeit humans who profoundly disagree about many things. That ad went viral, giving both of their campaigns an unexpected boost – and suggesting that voters were hungry for more.

Recently, researchers at Stanford University, MIT and a handful of other universities tested this ad to see whether it had a measurable effect on some 32,000 people who watched it. It turned out to be one of the most effective “treatments” studied, significantly reducing support for partisan violence and for antidemocratic practices (such as overthrowing an election and preventing people from voting).

One thing Americans still do exceptionally well is to produce original, creative content. We tell stories that move people to imagine a better world. Now is the time to tell a different story, one of courage and decency alongside honest debate.

Right-size the fear. One predictable cause of collective violence is collective fear. When threat levels are high and fear is mixed with contempt, disgust and humiliation, humans will feel they have no choice but to annihilate one another. (Note: This is an ancient and human algorithm, the kind you can count on.) Politicians, journalists, podcast hosts, pundits and other influencers have jacked up the threat level beyond what the evidence for our troubles supports. Fear of the end of democracy (I’m talking to you, my journalist friends), fear of one another (I’m talking to you, Tucker Carlson), fear of the other party (I’m talking to you, dear reader, who is right now chastising me for this false equivalency).

All of this behavior is un-American. Yes, some people are more to blame than others. What now? It’s time to get out of the conflict trap we’re in, to cease obsessing over the same questions and storylines and expand our imagination.

We, the public, are being manipulated by conflict mongers. We are being turned against each other and we are all suffering, to different degrees. It is time to question these storylines, to question our fears as often as we have learned to question truth. And then demand something radically different, something that will enable us to coexist. We know how to do this.