Neal Milner: Working Through Intractable Conflict Is The Nation's Only Way Forward - Honolulu Civil Beat

Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 634 donors, we've raised $96,000 so far!


Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 634 donors, we've raised $96,000 so far!


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeThe U.S. is in an intractable political conflict. And that’s good news.

It’s good news because, considering what’s happening, the two most possible and plausible alternatives to intractable conflicts are much worse.

One is delusional, the other is disastrous.

More importantly, it’s good news because intractable conflict is a term of art. It’s used by people who work on the very worst conflicts, ranging from individuals to communities to countries. For them, intractable conflict is an extraordinarily hard — but not impossible — challenge.

So, they have technologies, protocols, and strategies available to deal with these protracted, disruptive, and potentially violent disagreements.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that these strategies are long-term and difficult to make work. They require individuals involved to change the ways they behave.

The tactics are frequently counterintuitive. And of course, like anything else involving individual and social change, they may fail.

So why go down this path? It sounds daunting and — what was my students’ favorite put down word? “Idealistic.”

Yes, indeed. But compared to what? In the case of where the U.S. is right now, compared to nothing, because there is no better alternative and there are far worse ones.

So, before we look more closely at intractable conflict, let’s consider two other possible scenarios. One I’ll call “riffing on the status quo” where we continue to behave as if somehow we can deal with polarization through conventional politics.

The second, just to get you to sit up and focus, I’ll call secession. If you think secession is a dystopian fantasy, you aren’t following the opinion polls or, for that matter haven’t read a book about it that presciently came out a couple of years ago.

Then we’ll consider why seeing the conflict as intractable is the only realistic choice.

Riffs On The Status Quo

Riffing on the status quo means stumbling along with institutions and individuals behaving the ways they began to behave at least 30 years ago and continue to behave now.

And it’s about believing that the country can make progress despite the fact that each side sees the other as an evil, immoral, fundamental threat to democracy.

Riffing is based on the beliefs that institutions and individuals are behaving pretty much as they have been in the recent past — badly, but correctable.

For individuals, the status quo riff means relying on the same sources of information about politics that you did before — in short, information that supports your views and recycles your anger.

Here is a quick, blanket assessment of relying on this status quo refrain: It’s not working.

Every important social and political trend has gotten worse. The mask/vaccine polarization has played out just the same as the immigration issue, and the race issue — huge differences that reflect and accentuate political polarization.

Both parties express deep distrust of the other and say they don’t think the opposition will ever change. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Congress is operating the same way it did during the Trump and Obama administrations. Joe Biden faces the same entrenched obstacles and uses the same strategies that he would have used had he been president 10 or 15 years ago.

Sure, Congress’ latest challenges, the infrastructure bills and the debt ceiling are important, but in the bigger picture they are a distraction in the sense that they reflect the terrible state of American politics rather than run counter to it.

In fact, while this sort of conventional Beltway politics is the same as ever, other kinds of by now deeply-rooted and threatening stuff about voting rights, the false claims about the 2020 election and the reactions to the January 6 attack on the Capitol get stronger and stronger.

Democrats’ response to this is anemic and dated — holding hearings, strategizing to elect more Democrats in the 2022 midterms. There is nothing wrong with that aim. I’m all for it.

But in terms of the big-picture, that’s all just a superstructure of fluff because party politics and political institutions will continue to reflect rather than reduce the fundamental conflict.

This riff on the status quo is really a delusion because other things are happening that could signal a profound break from anything the country has seen since the Civil War.


Robert Kagan recently wrote an essay in the Washington Post that with good reason is getting a lot of play.

“The United States,” Kagan wrote, “is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

As for the illusions that accompany the optimism about tinkering with the status quo, “the warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial.”

You probably thought about secession before, maybe in your high school history Civil War class where you mentally filed the idea under ancient history.

Over the years, the idea has come up thanks to fringe groups, especially in Texas, Alaska and parts of California and Oregon that want to form their own states. Or among some supporters of Hawaiian sovereignty.

Today, though, secession has reached the mainstream.

According to a recent University of Virginia national poll, 40% of Biden voters and slightly more than a majority of Trump voters say that it is time to split the country in two: blue versus red.

Add to this toxic mix: About 80% of both Trump and Biden voters see the opposition party as unchangeable, immoral and a clear and present danger to the country.

Along with this, there has been a sizable number of people — more Republicans but also a lot of Democrats — who see the need for violence and support the idea that the president should be able to act on his or her own when there are deadlocks.

The stage is set for election chaos, Kagan wrote. “Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020.”

Seeing the Conflict As Intractable

Step back from these two scenarios and think about the conflict with a broader perspective. It’s been going on for a long time with sources that go back as far as 50 years.

Each side sees the other as strange, threatening, evil and fundamentally wrong. Political institutions, which have lost trust, are inadequate to deal with the issues. All these patterns are becoming more locked-in, as the potential for violence increases.

Doesn’t this feel more like Northern Ireland, Israel, the former Yugoslavia or even a divorcing couple locked in an implacable battle over child custody? More like a moral crisis than simply a political one?

Exactly. Well, at least exactly enough to use this as a guide to a more fruitful way of dealing with what’s going on in America.

Some experts believe that even more violence is possible over elections. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

The social psychologist Peter T. Coleman calls America’s situation “intractable conflict” in his new book “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.” Coleman and many others in this field are both practitioners who work on all kinds of intractable conflicts as well as researchers who look for evidence-based best practices.

For more about the book’s nuts and bolts check this video. Here are some fundamentals that you need to understand to reorient yourself to this approach.

First, intractable conflicts like ours are what Coleman calls “cloud conflicts.” They are opaque and complex. You cannot think about them in linear ways because intractable conflicts meander. There is no way to fix them simply by working on one part at a time.

There is no easy formula for how to proceed. The people involved need to, as Coleman puts it, be ready to fail smart and keep their eyes on the shining star.

Second, when working on these conflicts, much of the focus is on the context, those long-term and short-term factors that created the conflict. Therefore …

Third, it takes an enormous amount of time and effort — months and possibly years — to get to the point where people can discuss the conflict’s most obvious expressions.

Fourth, this is far from simply putting people with different views in a room together to debate their positions. This leads people in intractable conflicts to be more convinced that their side is totally right and makes it less likely that each side will even listen to one another.

As Adam Grant — another psychologist working in the field — says, dialogue is the opposite of debate.

Fifth, just getting to the talking stage takes an enormous amount of time, as shown by Coleman’s description of his work bringing a few pro- and anti-abortion activists together in Boston.  (They met in secret in a windowless location for months before they went public.)

Sixth, overall, there are some important signs that people are ready to work on the conflict. One is that they are fed up and want to try something else. Another is the presence of a shock so dramatic that it transcends the sides’ differences — a natural disaster or some extremely violent act, for instance. (Note, though, that the pandemic seems to have had the opposite effect.)

Seventh, there are all kinds of variations of success, like preventing violence or gaining mutual respect, even if views remain different.

How Do We Ordinary Folks Work on Impenetrable Conflict?

Making things better definitely requires a bottom-up approach. No way can you find a group of national leaders who can sit down in a room to fix this.

The change must come at the local level, which of course means many local levels each doing their own work. Not one answer, one formula, but many answers, a whole lot of formulas.

Coleman’s work points us in this direction. One of the most effective techniques is to look for what he calls “positive deviance,” people who behave in ways that might be helpful models for dealing with the conflict.

Watertown, for instance, a town of about 25,000 in upstate New York that is, according to a national survey, one of the most politically tolerant places in the U.S.

Watertown is Trump country. In 2020, its county went for Trump by 30 points, up from 20 in 2016.

Yet Democrats and Republicans work together very well on the City Council, and there is a relatively large number of inter-political party marriages. (One key measure of tolerance is how willing you would be to have your child marry someone from a different political party.)

What makes this work in Watertown? There is a very active bipartisan civic culture. Many groups, like the Rotary Club, contain both Democrats and Republicans. There is much joint community work, and a real effort to keep national politics out of town politics.

As I’ve written before, localism is a complicated model but it’s the most likely foundation for getting away from our culture of contempt.

I admit it: This is not an easy route. But I have to remind myself, as I am reminding you, that it is the best alternative out there. Hard and uncertain as the impenetrable conflict strategy is, there is nothing else better.

I still fundamentally disagree with most of what Republicans now believe, but as a columnist I owe it to myself to make sure that I look for nuance and understanding and to complicate the narrative by making it more complex.

It’s important to critique and easy to shame, but in today’s circumstances, that only persuades the people who are already persuaded.

Where do you begin? Remember, it’s not about giving up what you believe in but rather creating an opportunity for moving forward. You can get started by, as Coleman suggests, “waking up in the morning and deciding to join or create your own microculture that will help reduce the toxicity and hate in your life.”

“Begin to repair broken relationships,” he says. “Start your own path.”

While you are on this path, develop more curiosity, humility, and introspection about what you know. In his book “Think Again,” psychologist Adam Grant writes, “It’s a sign of wisdom to avoid believing every thought that enters your mind.”

It’s also “a mark of emotional intelligence to avoid internalizing every feeling that enters your heart.”

Sounds nonpolitical?  Well, I guess it is.  And  then again, it isn’t.

Read this next:

Lee Cataluna: Goodbye Forever To Salad Bars, Sweaty Gyms And Office Popcorn

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

This column was simply naive. Big political disagreements are settled at the ballot box or in the graveyard. You don't persuade people to change their minds, you either turnout your side (see 2020) or the older generation dies. Remember when it was scandalous to live together before marriage? Well, few people changed their minds, but rather the older folks who were so worked up about old mores died out. The ardent Trumpsters will lose either lose their vigor and die off, or they will reproduce others of their ilk, but there will be no reaching them, no common ground.  

TannedTom · 2 years ago

Another suggestion I would add, Mr M., is to stop allowing our public schools to indoctrinate, and just teach.I remember overhearing ( I didn't mean to, or want to...the kid had the volume up loud) what a 3rd grader was given as an example for the the vocabulary word "effective".  No lie, for real...this is what the teacher told the student:"Joe Biden is an effective President."  The election was 2 months away.  I'm pretty sure, Joe Biden wasn't even chosen as the party nominee twice before, so he never was "President".  Let's go Brandon.

Ranger_MC · 2 years ago

One of your better articles I must admit. I saw very little bias.  A good thing. If I may.  One cannot think that open borders is a good thing, over spending and printing $ (new monetary theory) is a good thing, forced vaccinations or lose your job (especially if you already had Covid or making congress and the White House exempt) is a good things, not allowing proven Covid therapy is a good thing, and  picking  winners or loosers to what businesses stay open and which ones are to close is a good thing. You are correct when you say it should be a bottom up approach.  We can agree on that as a starter.  A good thing. 

Stopthemadness · 2 years ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.