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The Middle East and the Debt Ceiling Conflict -- The Similarities and Challenges of Ideological Conflicts

07/29/2011 02:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

Those of us outside of Washington D.C. are faced with potential disaster if our elected representatives cannot compromise on debt ceiling limits. The conflict has spiraled into pure ideology. As a mediator and peacemaker, I deal with this type of conflict frequently. Anyone in my business will tell you that ideological conflicts are difficult at best and sometimes impossible to resolve. Nevertheless, ideological conflicts can be managed with sufficient skill and patience. Skill and patience do not sit well at the same table with ideology without the help of professional facilitators, mediators or peacemakers.

Ideological conflicts are best explained by social identity theory. Social identity theory says that people define themselves in terms of the groups to which they belong. They see themselves as having a social identity. 'I am a pious and faithful Muslim, and God has chosen me to do his will. I am a Bible-believing Baptist, and God has reserved a place in heaven for me. I am a Haredi Jew, and God honors those like me who scrupulously obey the Torah. I am a Tea Party Patriot, and believe that no government is better than any government. I am a progressive Democrat, and believe that social justice is a right endowed to all Americans.'

Social identities control behaviors within groups through beliefs, values and norms. The stronger one's social identity to a group, the stronger the conformance to the group beliefs. Any threat to the group belief is experienced individually as a personal threat. Any person who is not a member of the group is stereotyped as an outlier, and if the conflict is intense enough, is dehumanized -- they become the evil other. We can see this conflict dynamic playing out in the rhetoric between the conflict parties in Washington D.C. The number of conservative blogs featuring President Obama as evil is growing. The president is dehumanized as a way of maintaining group cohesion and increasing self-esteem.

The dynamics that drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the same dynamics that fuels the debt ceiling conflict in Washington D.C. Extremists on both sides have staked out a moral high ground based on their respective social identities. Because they have wrapped their self-esteem so tightly with their group beliefs, values and norms, any compromise is a compromise of self. Therefore, negotiation is impossible. After all, how can I compromise my identity? How does one exchange one square centimeter of the sacred land of God for peace?

Not all social identities lead to serious conflict. Several conditions must be met before ideology leads to intractable conflict. First, the social identity must be strongly internalized into one's self. That is, the identity is simply important to how one sees oneself and creates transcendent meaning in life. In other words, the group ideology becomes more important than the individual, making individual sacrifice easier. Does the name Mohammed Atta ring a bell here?

Second, there must be opportunity for comparison and competition between groups. In other words, individuals must perceive other groups with opposing beliefs, values and norms against which they can compare themselves. In this case, the extremists compare themselves to the moderates and centrists in the context of a national debate over the debt ceiling and deficit reduction. When an out-group has been identified, social identity allows for categorization of the out group as evil, which strengthens in group solidarity, cohesion and self-esteem.

Finally, there has to be a social context that creates insecurity and anxiety. In the debt ceiling conflict, the extremists believe that the path of the evil other is destroying America. The frustration and anxiety drives in-group members together and further separates them from the mainstream.

Social identity conflicts become more intractable as the differences between groups are maximized. In Washington, the conservative extremists refused to consider tax increases as part of the solution to the deficit. When the moderates have proposed a deficit reduction proposal that does not include tax increases, to maintain maximum contrast, the conservative extremists have to take an even further extreme position and say that debt ceiling limits must be tied to deficit reduction. They are compelled to move away from compromise to preserve their unique identity. This is an emotional response to conflict that is not amenable to logical discourse, persuasion or objective facts. Thus, offering solutions to satisfy extremist demands do not solve ideological conflicts. That is why the Democrats are doomed to fail in achieving a compromise with the Tea Party.

Managing ideological conflicts requires interest-based considerations rather than positional, distributive negotiation. There really cannot be an explicit negotiation because identities cannot be negotiated. Instead, the parties must be led to discuss their actual interests, needs, goals and desires. The conflict parties need to sit across the table from one another. Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama seem to have developed a good working relationship at times, but that is not enough. Since they are both dealing with extreme elements within their own constituencies, there must be opportunities for the president to meet with the Tea Party Patriots, and for the leaders of the Tea Party to meet with liberal Democrats. Obviously, these meetings have to be facilitated by professionals skilled in conflict conversations because the parties themselves do not have the capacity to be civil and respectful to each other. Where is Bill Ury when we need him?

The conditions for successful resolution of the deficit reduction and debt ceiling conflict are demanding, and time is running out. On its present trajectory, the debt ceiling conflict seems to be heading for impasse and default. The conservative extremists may see this as a victory in that the shutdown of government is better than compromising with the Democrats. Engaging the partisans across the table, as unwieldy and late as it might seem, may be the only way out of the impasse. Hopefully, someone will assert moral leadership and make this happen.

Douglas E. Noll is a professional mediator and the author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus 2011). More can be found at www.elusivepeace.com.