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.