Consensus Building in the Age of Trump

This is a guest post by Professor Lawrence Susskind, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA and General Editor, Anthem Press Environment and Sustainability Programme

What’s special about the Age of Trump? I would point to two things. First, our political leaders (not just the President) no longer feel an obligation to represent all the people in the district or state that elected them. Now, they only feel accountable to their “base.” This is a relatively new occurrence (not just in the United States, but in other democracies as well). It used to be that after politicians were elected they felt some obligation to represent the interests of all the people in their district or state. As a result, we now have districts or states (or countries!) where 49.9% of the electorate has no representation. This makes them feel angry, anxious and defense. It also makes them feel combative.

The second thing that has changed, and it is related to the first, is that many elected and appointed officials don’t care what evidence or arguments anyone on “the other side” presents. They won’t allow themselves to be convinced by what anyone outside their base has to say. This means that those in control of the levers of power can pursue whatever agenda they choose, without having to explain or justify their actions in a manner that “an independent observer” would agree is reasonable. This adds to the outrage, and even desperation, of those who feel shut out and unrepresented. They are especially angry that scientific evidence can be ignored entirely.

So, in the Age of Trump, many people who have not felt powerless before feel powerless now. They are befuddled by the changes that have occurred in the rules of the game. In the past, they assumed (maybe somewhat naively) that their elected leaders would choose the common good over narrow partisan interests; and, they counted on being able to advocate for what they believe by presenting credible evidence. Now they assume these things won’t happen.

Special challenges for Consensus Builders and other ADR professionals

ADR professionals operate in ways that are intended to ensure fairness – to ensure that all voices are heard and all interests are taken into account when disagreements arise. In a decision-making or governance system that rejects the idea that the interests of all groups matter, ADR professionals are not quite sure what part they are supposed to play. The reason those of us in the ADR field have worked hard to add facilitation, mediation and arbitration to public and private efforts to deal with differences, is to enhance the fairness, efficiency, stability and wisdom of decisions that must be made. In the judicial, executive and legislative branches, at every level of government, we have spent decades demonstrating that adding a professional neutral can, in fact, save time, save money and produce better outcomes (and give stakeholders greater control over what happens to them). In the Age of Trump, ADR professionals now wonder how they can do their job if some of the parties don’t care what the interests of the other parties are; or, some parties feel no obligation to listen to or present credible evidence to support their claims. Many ADR professionals are extremely upset about these changes. Some are so upset they feel compelled to invest their personal time in political efforts to put things back the way they were. When this involves advocacy, though – even when the professionals involved are operating as private citizens — it threatens our most important professional asset – our neutrality.

Neutrality is central to the value we add as ADR professionals. Our neutrality allows us to earn the trust of all sides in any dispute. It also means we can operate in the interstices between the parties and, in so doing, carry messages and provide cover for parties to come together without appearing to be weak. My contention is that many ADR professionals are so upset by what is happening in the Age of Trump that they are ready to risk their perceived neutrality. While I understand their motives, I am convinced this would be a disaster for the profession.

Increasing demand for ADR assistance in periods of heightened conflict

The Age of Trump has certainly generated new conflicts of various kinds. When everyone is escalating their efforts on behalf of their own point-of-view, and more people feel entitled to act in the own interests regardless of the interests of “the other side,” there ought to be increasing demand for our services. So, in these times, we ought to be able to make a greater contribution (in part because no one else is offering to reconcile those in conflict or pursue problem-solving strategies in spite of the conflicts that exist). To succeed in the current context, however, will require several things:

First, we have to remind our potential clients that our goal is not to stamp out conflict. Rather, if they find themselves stalemated and unable to take unilateral action, we can help them find agreeable ways forward in which no one has to give in.

Second, if well managed, conflict can lead to produce change. Conflict is not a bad thing. As others have noted, it is the engine of change. We can help manage conflict in a constructive way.

Third, the fact that parties are inclined to express their interests and concerns with more passion in the Age of Trump, is not a problem for us. In some ways, it should make our work easier. We need to know what the interests and priorities of each party are so we can help them formulate mutually beneficial agreements. We do this by supporting the parties in their search for trades (across issues they value differently) that produce outcomes better for all sides than their BATNAs.

Finally, we need to be sure that our clients understand that our job is not to get anyone to change their beliefs or change their mind. We try to help parties reach mutually advantageous agreements in spite of their differences. We do not allow our own point of view or our own preferences to introduce.

Harmonizing interests through dialogue vs. assisted problem-solving

A segment of the ADR profession has been moving in the direction of facilitating dialogue. Indeed, there are many who think we should devote a substantial portion of our time to helping Red and Blue (and others who have conflicting values) learn to talk with and understand each other more effectively. I’m personally not convinced that dialogue for its own sake should be a high priority for the ADR profession. I don’t think greater understanding is going to lead to harmonization of conflicting values and interests. Perhaps we can help people with diametrically opposed views hear each other, but I’m not sure that’s as important as working out agreements in specific contexts. I think we should emphasize problem-solving — generating “a workable peace” when some action needs to be taken — rather than devoting time to generating a deeper understanding of the sources of disagreement. I don’t think Red and Blue need to believe the same things to find ways of taking action.

The key is to convince as many stakeholders as possible that there is a way to meet their interests in a manner that will get them more than what no agreement (stalemate) guarantees, and more than they are likely to get if they continue to battle.

Coming back to neutrality

As I have already said, we must be absolutely diligent about maintaining our neutrality – no matter how strongly we feel personally – if we want to make a case for the value we add. I’m convinced that the way we act in our personal lives may shape how we are perceived in our professional roles. While each of us has opportunities to take direct political action in our personal lives, remember that if you sign a petition, march peacefully, write op eds, or lobby for your point of view, there is no way anyone on the other side will accept you as a dispute resolution professional they can trust. We need to think very carefully about how we carry ourselves in public. I promise you that whatever actions we take in our personal lives will be noted. Being perceived as neutrals in the Age of Trump is, in my view, the key to contributing to conflict resolution in these difficult times.

Professor Lawrence Susskind is Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and Head of the Environmental Policy and Planning Group at MIT. One of the founders of the field of environmental dispute resolution, he has been teaching at MIT and Harvard for 45 years.

[Based on Lawrence Susskind’s keynote presentation made to the Biennial Conference of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution (NEACR) in Waltham, Massachusetts on 9/8/17. Originally posted on and reproduced here with permission from the author.]