An Architecture for Conflict Prevention in the US

I am sitting in on—and occasionally helping teach—a graduate seminar on the ways theories of atrocity prevention could be used to address pressing issues in the United States. The instructor, Doug Irvin-Erickson, is using the course to help create what is known as an “architecture” for preventing such acts that we will gradually build after the semester is over, starting with a small workshop in May.

We do not start with the assumption that the United States is in danger of any kind of genocide or that any such tragedy that were to happen here would resemble anything the world has seen before. However, as anyone who has read Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die Yascha Mounk’s article in the current Atlantic will realize, American democracy is showing signs of trouble.

We are not suggesting that American democracy is in imminent danger. However, we are convinced that peacebuilders in general and atrocity prevention specialists’ notion of architecture for prevention have something important to add to the discussions sparked by the likes of those Harvard political scientists.

Architectures for prevention have been created by governments and other members of the elites in a number of African countries that have been through genocide or other forms of mass atrocity and want to keep them from happening again. We also understand that no American government—let alone the current one—is going to create such an institution here.

Instead, we are looking for ways to build them from the grass roots up. Over the course of the rest of this semester, the students will be exploring initiatives already under way that are reinforcing what Robert Putnam—yet another Harvard political scientist—call bridging social capital in which people who disagree find ways with working with each other despite their divisions. Much like Peace Direct in its support for locally based peacebuilding, our assumption is that average citizens can take important first steps in their communities and workplaces, which we can help grow into something much bigger.

We saw what one such initiative could look like in Oprah Winfrey’s segments on 60 Minutes on February 18. She brought together seven Trump and seven anti-Trump voters to participate in a focus group some time ago. To her surprise, the participants decided to continue meeting which prompted her to go back and hold another session with them which demonstrated that people can talk across ideological lines Nonetheless, despite their best efforts and the growing warmth among them, the group came close to falling apart when they differed over #metoo and related issues.

Still, it was a good start. It was also one of many that we are aware of.

Architectures for prevention and problem solving will involve more than just convening small focus groups hosted by television celebrities. We will be asking what communities can do on their own, how they can come together around specific local issues, how community leaders can model cooperative problem solving skills, and more. We will be looking for ways people at the grass roots levels can address the deep underlying “upstream” issues like race, gender, and religion that divide our country and that could some day truly put our democracy in jeopardy. Last but by no means least, we will be looking for locally based projects that could be taken to scale at a state, regional, or even national level.

We know the work will not come easily, but Winfrey’s fourteen interviewees or our sixteen students, it is a task we know needs to be tackled. We will begin the process by “mapping” the root causes of America’s most vexing problems and identifying leverage points at which local and national systems are most susceptible to change. Then, we will seek partners in the peacebuilding and other communities to help build a movement for social and political change that can follow in the footsteps of the various movements for equality that have shaped our own history and that of dozens of other countries around the world.

Also published on Medium.