By Mark Bauer
Last summer I was running late for a house party and still needed to pick up refreshments assigned to me to bring. Parking is notoriously painful in our nation’s capital, so I was going to do what I’ve done countless times before and park by the curb while I darted inside for what I needed.
I got to the intersection by the store about the same time someone stopped at the 4-way stop to my right. Because I was in a rush, as soon the other driver started into the intersection, I began my turn in the direction he had just come from. The only problem is I didn’t realize he was making a U-turn and he nearly broadsided me as he came back around.
Once I was parked at the curb, the other driver approached my window and let me know his thoughts on the matter. In addition to words I can’t repeat here, he was angry that I ran the stop sign and blamed me for the near collision. While I didn’t run the stop sign, I should have yielded right of way while he was completing his U-turn.
“My bad, man,” I said, not even really understanding what on earth was going on.
“Yeah! That’s right! Ok …” he replied, as his voice trailed off, unsure of what to say next.
In that moment I’d inadvertently diffused a volatile situation just by taking ownership of my role in that particular conflict. On the contrary, I could’ve escalated the situation if I’d responded with my own anger.
I thought of that conflict as I read through Amanda Ripley’s book, “High Conflict,” in which she investigates the roots of conflict and how we find our way out of it. From couples on the brink of divorce, to the courtroom, to politics, why do we seem so gripped by conflict?
For starters, Ripley distinguishes between high conflict and good conflict. And contrary to what you might believe, the difference isn’t a matter of yelling or intensity–it’s about the destination behind the conflict.
“In healthy conflict, there is movement. Questions get asked. Curiosity exists. There can be yelling, too. But healthy conflict leads somewhere. It feels more interesting to get to the other side than to stay in it.” she writes. “In high conflict, the conflict is the destination. There’s nowhere else to go.”
Going back to the squabble at the intersection, I knew that I didn’t want to get into a verbal altercation with this stranger, and he probably had better things to do than yell in my face too. When I apologized it gave us an opportunity to take the off-ramp to a destination we both wanted.
While it’s easy to take responsibility in our interpersonal conflicts, it’s not as easy to do when the conflict is more ingrained across people groups, such as the case in our national politics.
“Institutions can be designed to incite either version of human nature, to provoke adversarialism or unity. But in modern times, we’ve erred on the side of adversarialism. We see everything, from politics to business to the law, as a contest between winners and losers,” she writes.
This is where we actually can make a difference, though. Not only should we monitor our individual speech to make sure we aren’t taking an adversarial posture, but we should also be vigilant against institutions that incite conflict and disunity.
The existing political system in America is designed to do just that, by promoting adversarialism with a winner-take-all electoral process. But our elections should be about identifying our commonalities and selecting who is best suited to lead us to that destination.
Electoral reforms like ranked choice voting have been offered as solutions to this political turmoil. Ranked choice voting helps expand democracy by making our elections more competitive, making them more about ideas rather than defeating a political opponent. That’s a destination I’d wager most people want to get to. Now we just need to build the offramp.
Mark Bauer is a producer, entrepreneur, day trader and former Independent candidate for Congress in Texas. Previously he spent 10 years as a legal journalist covering the legal market in Texas and regulatory issues in Washington DC.
Mark’s primary interests involve using content and storytelling to help different groups of people better understand one another.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.