Peter Coleman’s “The Way Out” and the Roots of Political Polarization

November 11, 2021   •   By Hannah Baer

The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization

Peter T. Coleman

EARLIER THIS YEAR, there was a moment of escalated violence in Palestine/Israel when US liberals and leftists seemed momentarily more aware of the conflict. A common thread in the public statements I encountered, on social media and in conversation, was that we should no longer describe the colonization of Palestine as “complicated.”

In 2011, the theorist Peter T. Coleman presented a framework for understanding intractable conflicts: 95 percent of conflicts respond to mediation and negotiation efforts and can typically be deescalated. But five percent of conflicts seem to get worse when mediators step in. These are in fact, so complicated, that they begin to take on an irresistible, cyclonic quality, pulling people — even those far from the site of conflict — closer to the fear and rage at the center of the situation, forcing everyone to firmly take a side.

This is why Americans with otherwise conciliatory politics and/or limited interest in foreign policy will walk out of a dinner party or scream at a relative over what’s happening in Palestine. Zionists will say it’s antisemitism, but Coleman would say (I imagine) that antisemitism is merely one of dozens of polarizing dynamics that create the groundwork for intractability.

In his ambitious new book, The Way Out, Coleman applies this lens of intractable polarization to the US political system. In broadly tracing what other pundits and political scientists have made of polarization, Coleman warns that it is not simply social media, Donald Trump, or money in politics that has created our current fractured society. The Way Out holistically catalogs the existing literature on polarization, spanning from biological tendencies toward tribalism, social and interpersonal patterns of political segregation, competition frameworks in corporate culture, and histories of racism and economic deprivation, all the way through policies and procedures like gerrymandering and the Citizens United Supreme Court case.

Coleman is not a pundit; he is a negotiation expert and social scientist, and he comes across as wanting to make change rather than a clever point. He uses a relatively new model called dynamical systems theory, taken up across disciplines to analyze how complex systems — ranging from biomes to financial markets to an individual’s mental health — stabilize or shift.

As a social psychologist, Coleman is also particularly interested in how people tend to understand and react to complex systems. Profound complexities, such as those that mark intractable conflict or extreme political polarization, become psychologically exhausting and therefore repellent to almost everyone. As polarization increases, simplifying the situation becomes seductive. Both sides proliferate increasingly simple and oppositional narratives. Over decades of increasing polarization — Coleman uses data to show that our current situation seems to have started in the late 1950s — we ultimately descend into what he calls “American Psychosis,” a condition of stark discrepancies in basic reality across political divides.

Coleman calls this avoidant reaction to complexity “consistent complexity,” or “The Big Collapse.” He induces the feeling in the reader by showing a large multivalent flowchart with dozens of bidirectional loops, flows, and nodes — it’s hard to parse. If we view complex situations as simple, they are less stressful and ambiguous. If everyone who voted for the candidate we dislike is simply an idiot, an asshole, or evil (or some combination therein), we are free from having to do perspective-taking, considering alternatives to our sense of the world, or engaging with alterity in any deep way. Think again of the otherwise peaceful dinner party when the topic turns to Zionism.

One of Coleman’s many offerings about how to move away from the pitfalls of consistent complexity is to consider “contradictory complexity,” a tendency toward “more complex patterns of thinking, feeling, acting, and social organizing,” which can lead to “more constructive responses to conflict.” These include seeking out news sources with viewpoints that diverge from one’s own or participating in community groups that cut across various political ideologies. Such steps help one amplify psychological qualities such as tolerance for complexity and tolerance for ambiguity, enabling people to disrupt the entrenched patterns of polarized conflict dynamics. The tools he offers draw on elements of dynamical systems theory, such as the idea that when we are in states of intense conflict, there are latent pulls back to harmony that we can locate and leverage.

A leftist friend, upon seeing a copy of The Way Out, with its red-and-blue cover graphic suggestive of national unity, remarked, “This looks stupid.” I tried to explain why the book interested me. “I am too black-pilled,” my friend responded, “to be interested in how to repair Congress.” His comments stayed with me. Is the project of repairing the fractured United States basically a centrist project? If one’s vision of a just world is decentralized anarcho-communist networks, or the complete abolition of the US military and free housing and health care for all, or the public execution of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, to — as some of my favorite 2016 election–era graffiti read — “MAKE AMERICA NOTHING AGAIN,” does the polarization discourse have anything to offer?

There is historical as well as theoretical weight behind the idea that simple, piercing (i.e., polarized) arguments are both important and effective. Among Coleman’s interlocutors in The Way Out is psychologist Philip Tetlock, who has written about complexity and antebellum rhetoric around slavery in the United States. Tetlock argues that holding nuanced opinions did not produce abolition of slavery. Rather, abolitionists made simple, undeniable arguments. This finding, Tetlock believes, means that integrative complexity (the psychological construct for being able to see and pull together many disparate positions) is not intrinsically morally superior.

Coleman understands this problem. He repeatedly explains how activists often deliberately and effectively reduce complexity in order to build movements against oppression. He gently critiques various nonprofit social projects that attempt to combat polarization through relativist frameworks that promote dialogue. Without an analysis of the conflict’s landscape, the ways people get pulled into it, and a deliberate understanding of how to manage such psychological pulls, these projects often fail. Nor does Coleman believe that just agreeing with each other solves social problems. He repeatedly references how pro-choice and pro-life community leaders met in secret for years in Boston after a clinic was bombed. Notably, the leaders were able to humanize each other and contribute to deescalating the violence, but their preexisting beliefs actually strengthened while they developed their clandestine alliance.

Broadly speaking — and I penitently include myself in this — intellectuals sometimes believe themselves to be smarter and more righteous than others. Part of Coleman’s paradigm shows us that our own reactions and opinions are induced by cobwebbed micro- and macro-level contextual factors rather than by individual observations and cleverness. The Way Out presents dozens of examples to demonstrate that no thinking subject is above cognitive bias; our perceptions of contemporary politics are often clouded by seemingly unrelated tendencies, visible or invisible, and much larger than us. The precise feeling of righteousness and superiority over our adversaries is actually common in polarized dynamics.

Coleman seems to believe that if we want to use polarizing arguments, we should understand how they function and their consequences. And I suspect that he also believes that the limits to their usefulness are important to keep in my mind if we ultimately want to win. If we want to, say, actually abolish police or prisons, holding the belief that police officers are categorically subhuman may actually slow us down.

As a leftist with revolutionary daydreams, I’m compelled by Coleman’s belief that political systems have properties metaphorized through physics (e.g., volatility, flexibility). As many activists and theorists have argued, toppling hefty structures requires an accurate analysis of the conditions in which one struggles. Additionally, as we watch progressive organizations from magazine editorial boards to university departments routinely get torn apart in debates around ideological issues, often producing stalemates rather than transformation, Coleman’s strategies for navigating polarization are insightful and unquestionably timely.

If there’s a weakness to The Way Out, it’s perhaps Coleman’s admirable yet sometimes muddled effort to balance taking a side and remaining accessible to diverse audiences. Like an acrobatic thief dodging laser sensors, he delicately describes a complex reality, deliberately appealing to what he calls “the exhausted majority.” His struggle to avoid offending right-wing readers — he doesn’t criticize Trump, despite discussing him at length — left me wishing he had transparently shared more of his personal process around trying to describe polarization without being, well, too polarizing.

In a moment where there is near-universal consensus that things are not looking great, yet bitter fracture around what in particular is wrong, a holistic explanation of why we can’t agree is an unequivocal gift. Part of what is illuminating in The Way Out is even the possibility of a political path forward that involves transformation of the current ideological battlegrounds. And part of the hope is that such a transformation would benefit all of us, not just the faction of people with whom we agree about everything.

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Hannah Baer is a writer and clinical psychology doctoral student living in New York City. Her first book, trans girl suicide museum, was published by Hesse Press in 2019.