Government & Politics

Vermont Conversation: Are we doomed to fight?

Amanda Ripley, left, and her new book "High Conflict." Images courtesy of Amanda Ripley

The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman is a VTDigger podcast that features in-depth interviews on local and national issues with politicians, activists, artists, changemakers and citizens who are making a difference. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or Spotify to hear more.

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The past week has been filled with images of high conflict. There was the shocking violent right-wing attacks on government institutions in Brazil, which appear to be a copycat of the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.

Then there was the chaotic election of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a madcap four-day, 15-round epic in which a small far-right faction of the GOP held the rest of Congress hostage to its demands.

How do we break out of this cycle in which disagreements quickly spiral into good-versus-evil, us-versus-them battles? And how did we get here?

Journalist Amanda Ripley tackles these questions in her bestselling book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.” Ripley was an investigative reporter for TIME Magazine and writes regularly for The Atlantic and Washington Post. She is also author of the bestselling book, “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way,” and she hosts the Slate podcast “How To!” for which she interviewed then-candidate and now U.S. Rep. Becca Balint in a piece called, “How to Run for Office Without Being an A**hole.”

In "High Conflict," Ripley writes about “how good people get captured by high conflict — and how they break free.”

Ripley said there is a time-tested method for generating conflict. 

“When I look at mob activity like we just saw in Brazil, what I think most about is the climate of fear and threat and blame that has allowed this to happen,” she said.

Ripley cited the power of “conflict entrepreneurs,” such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News, to incite people. 

“Influential voices in the media and in politics (utilize) the same kind of recipe: … generate a feeling of threat, that there's a crisis, identify a villain and then proclaim yourself as the hero who can save the day. That is how, again and again, again, politicians and pundits have managed to cast a sort of spell of high conflict over people.”

She tweeted this week about how to avoid another Jan. 6, based on her conversation with security and democracy expert Rachel Kleinfeld: “For [journalists]: 1. Amplify non-extremists. 2. Report out disagreements within parties/groups, not just between. 3. Correct your audience's mistakes about the other side. They are vast. For Politicians: Call out your own party more — and the other party less. One works, the other doesn't. For Regular People: Don't share violent memes. It might sound kind of funny & not important, but in fact, jokes are one of those things that go beyond our rational brain & allow us to do things we would never normally say or do."

Ripley has also criticized the media for how it has helped stoke conflict. She confessed in the Washington Post that she often avoids the news because it can be depressing and “paralyzing.” She cites studies showing that 4 in 10 Americans do the same thing.

“Almost no one is really happy with the way politics is happening, the way the news is covered, the way we are treating each other,” she said. “I think there's a huge opportunity there.”

From politics to news, “most Americans are yearning for something different. Widespread dissatisfaction is what we need to change this,” Ripley said.

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.


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