Category Archives: storylines

Elizabeth Warren and Whig Populism

Over the last several days, the US Congress has considered a continuing resolution to fund the US government for the next nine months.  This sounds pretty boring, but it has been anything but. During the process, Senator Elizabeth Warren stood up on the Senate floor and said that the bill was a sell out to Wall Street.

Boom! Suddenly, all bets about the passage of the bill were off. Senator Warren had pulled away the curtain to reveal an alleged corruption of government that was easy to understand and easy to hate. Even the Washington Press took note.

A few days later, the bill was passed  in the House and Senate anyway. But the damage was done. Now Congress has to take into account a new agenda. It is populist (anti-Wall Street) and whiggish (what is the right thing to do).  And I think this combo sells very well to US voters.

Let’s see if this creates a movement.

Lessons from Ferguson

In just a few days, the town of Ferguson, Missouri went from relatively quiet to exploding with violence back to relatively quiet. It is an amazing demonstration of how not to manage conflict and then how to save the day.

Let’s start at the beginning. A police officer shot an unarmed young man. This should never have happened, of course. More striking, however, is that the police officer may have been influenced by the fact that the young man was black. More striking still is that the black community believes that this is just the latest evidence of a long standing bias against them. We are now at stage one of exploding conflict – us versus them. In stage one, dialogue is frozen. Nicht gut.

It is a bit peculiar that the police seemed to be oblivious to the precise nature of the threat that being in stage one poses. But as far as we can tell, they were. They might argue that they were aware of the problem and this is why they bought heavy equipment and weaponry to deal with violent crowds. Which of course, they had done. But they did not get it that the equipment will not solve the underlying reason for being in stage one. Ooops

We then go to stage two. After the shooting the community wanted to protest. They wanted to express their outrage. This is a normal human reaction. The police, however, saw this as a threat and they pulled out their heavy equipment to throttle the protest. Ooops. Stage two is direct conflict of the face to face type. It is a crisis situation that is either defused or not. depending on the skills and attitudes of those involved. Failure to resolve a stage two conflict is a sure recipe for moving the conflict to stage three.

What is stage three? Stage three is kill or be killed. In a stage three setting, dialogue is no longer possible. Trust has been destroyed. And this is what we saw in Ferguson. An explosion of violence directed at the police.It was in part directed at the police because of the shooting. But the crowds were equally incensed by the fact that the police seemed not to understand the dynamic at work.

The truly amazing end of the story is that the authorities pulled back. The governor replaced the police leadership. And the new police leadership said to the protesters “We are with you – not against you.” And on the very next day, protesters and police marched together.The problem is not solved, but we are at last back to stage one where dialogue is possible again.

It was a close call. This conflict could have gone viral with confrontations between communities and police across the nation. At that moment, many probably would have complained that the protestors were not being logical. This ignores, however, that conflict introduces a special kind of logic. And to manage conflict, we need to respect the logic of conflict.

FOLLOW  — I spoke too soon. While the initial signs that the conflict could be managed were positive, the underlying story was in fact far from over. New information came out about how the young man was killed that confirmed beliefs of extreme over reaction on the part of police. This sparked a new wave of protests and violence. Now we have a more severe test for authorities.

Some Truths are More Important than Others

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is a terrible thing for those affected. It is also instructive in various aspects of conflict management. One of those aspects relates to what is “true” and what is “not true”.

We know, for example, that a Malaysian airliner crashed unexpectedly over the battle area. This is odd because airliners generally don’t crash like this. We believe that it was shot down with missile. If so, that missile must have been sophisticated to be effective against such a high altitude target.

Based on the above, the media is a buzz with stories about Russian separatists using a Russian Buc missile system to shoot down the airliner. If so, where did they get it? Likely from Russia. And the separatists were not likely able to operate this system on their own. Where did they get the needed assistance? Probably from Russia. And the media is equally abuzz with statements from Russia saying that whatever happened, Russian forces were not involved.

Notice that we do not need to be certain that Russian forces were involved to act on the probabilities involved. And we do act without certainty. Russian denials are largely discounted because they are unlikely. Indeed, at least some would be impatient to achieve certainty before acting.

In other words, in conflict, we construct full story lines that piece together what we know and what we believe. We act on those story lines — not the truth. So if you want to manage conflict, you need to become expert at identifying what the underlying stories are and work in concert with them, instead of against them.