In the last few weeks of the session, two committees in the House and Senate were at an impasse over a bill important to both sides. One colleague kept saying to me in increasingly exasperated tones, “Their position doesn’t make any sense. We could clear this up in a few minutes with just a very small amount of money. Why won’t they take the deal?” Shuttle diplomacy (over Zoom) wasn’t working. Conversations between chairs and leadership teams couldn’t seem to break the logjam. We were all discouraged, and the conflict felt intractable. But then I remembered “High Conflict,” a new book by Amanda Ripley.
Ripley is an investigative journalist for The Atlantic, and her new book examines the concept of “high conflict” — when we get consumed by a disagreement and the friction metastasizes into a battle. The battle then escalates into an all-out “us versus them” feud. Ripley’s book examines real-life high conflict situations and deconstructs how the main players were able to shift out of the toxic patterns. This book was my bible for the last four weeks of the legislative session.
Two of the most useful concepts in the book are the “crock pot” and the “conflict entrepreneur.” The crock pot is a shorthand for identifying what a conflict appears to be about, as opposed to what it’s truly about under the surface. It’s a reference to when a married couple goes through a bitter divorce and have a knockdown drag-out fight about something seemingly inconsequential like a crock pot. The crock pot isn’t just a small kitchen appliance; it symbolizes deeper things about the marriage that may be too painful to examine. The crock pot becomes the proxy battle. These kinds of battles are not just at play in marital strife; they are part of our political conflicts, as well.
The other concept I found useful in my work is “conflict entrepreneur.” A conflict entrepreneur is someone who exploits high conflict for their own ends. They see an opportunity and seize on it, much like a business entrepreneur, but their aims are not about moving through conflict and creating something. Instead, they want the conflict to continue because they reap the reward: emotional, political, monetary or egotistical. Once you start to identify these folks, you can’t un-see them.
Ripley uses the example of the feud between President Richard Nixon’s children, Julie and Tricia Nixon, who fought bitterly for years over the Nixon Library. Conflict entrepreneurs — lawyers, library employees and family members — took sides and fueled the rancor. It took five years and a court-ordered conflict resolution, but once the conflict entrepreneurs were removed from the equation, the sisters resolved the conflict in less than a day.
In politics, we often have real differences of opinion and divergent policy goals. Legislators disagree with each other, with constituents and with the governor. The divisions are not always along party lines and points of disagreement aren’t always what they appear to be. We are all imperfect humans with emotions and ego and it’s sometimes difficult to untangle what’s at the heart of a matter. But often, that’s the only way through.
As I approached the conflict between these two committees, I thought about the crock pot: What did this small amount of money actually represent to each side? That was a mighty a-ha moment for me. The conflict wasn’t about the money at all. The money, no matter how small an amount, represented a betrayal of deeply held values for our colleagues in the House. Once I realized this, their position made a lot more sense. They weren’t stonewalling us. They had a deep disagreement with us about the policy itself; the money wasn’t the issue. Acknowledging the reasons for their position made it possible for us to move forward towards a plan both sides could get behind.
In this situation, we didn’t have to contend with outspoken conflict entrepreneurs, but we do see them sometimes in the legislative world. These are the folks in the proverbial room who aren’t interested in a productive outcome. Their goal is to sow discontent and mistrust. Sometimes it’s to protect their own hides, to deflect blame. Sometimes the political game itself is something they enjoy, not the policy. Conflict entrepreneurs can be neutralized but only if we start to identify them.
I’ve recommended Ripley’s book dozens of times in the past few months as I’ve heard from Vermonters across the state who fear we’re truly facing an existential crisis for our democracy. We all want another way forward, another frame for understanding each other and avoiding high conflict and the demonization of those with whom we disagree. It’s going to take years of hard work and difficult conversations to shore up our democracy, and all of us who are engaged in this work need help. Ripley’s book is a great place to begin.
Becca Balint is Vermont Senate President Pro Tem.