Today democracy is on the ropes, worldwide. It’s dissolving like sugar cubes left out in a deluge.
To understand the extent of the catastrophe, take the Brits first. Their democracy is now over 800 years old. If you count from the first Magna Carta in 1215 (the British Museum has several), it’s now 807. It has lasted centuries longer than ancient Rome’s democracy, and much, much longer than our own nation, which has existed for only 246 years.
Britain is unique in another respect: its geographic isolation. It’s an island nation, protected by oceans on all sides. In that respect it’s worlds away from Russia, whose location in the very center of the great Eurasian land mass has left it open to invasion and conquest, for millennia, from all directions but the frozen North. In just the past 250 years, Russia has suffered six invasions, twice by Napoleonic France, twice by Germany, and twice by Japan. Britain has suffered only two big ones in its long recorded history: the now-legendary Norman Conquest in 1066, and the last-century’s Nazi battle over London’s skies in World War II.
Finally, Britain can claim three of the four best thinkers in human history: Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin (the fourth being Albert Einstein, a German Jew). It also has had some of the wisest and most celebrated democratic leaders in human history, including Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill.
Yet even Britain just suffered for over three years from a buffoon-demagogue as prime minister. Then came the failed 44 days of another, Liz Truss, whose tenure was the shortest of any PM in Britain’s long history. What brought her short rule down was adopting the zombie idea of “trickle down” economics, thereby crashing financial markets in the midst of a global crisis.
We now know for sure that trickle-down is no solution to anything, except making the rich richer. It’s been proven wrong and harmful repeatedly since Ronald Reagan first introduced it in the nineteen eighties. His own vice president—who later became the first President Bush—dismissed it as “Voodoo economics.” Nobel-Prize winning economist and pundit Paul Krugman gave it its colorful yet accurate zombie nickname. Yet the most recent leader of the same nation that once produced three of humanity’s greatest thinkers adopted this zombie nonsense. It’s as if she had set out to re-prove the fourth’s definition of insanity: “trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
So Britain’s democracy appears to have lost its way, just like our own much younger one. We needn’t even mention Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, or Venezuela—or Italy’s recent, sudden turn toward the hard right—to see a global trend. What a mere three decades ago seemed like a global stampede toward democracy, which Francis Fukuyama misnamed “the end of history,” now seems to have become a rout.
Some writers recently have focused on how this is happening. Strong men have deluded dissatisfied people to act against their own economic interests. They have inveigled citizens to concentrate power in the hands of clever people with low analytical intelligence and even lower character, but great emotional intelligence and few scruples. Now even women have gotten into the act: the Brits’ short-reigning Liz Truss and Italy’s new PM Giorgia Meloni.
All these men and women have cemented, or are expected to cement, their grasp on power by classic authoritarian means. First, they curtail freedom of the press and kill judicial independence, as well as other checks and balances. Next, they pack the military and bureaucracy with cronies and sycophants. All along, they scapegoat minorities, immigrants and others, hounding, harassing, and disparaging them. Once they consolidate power sufficiently, they may start imprisoning, deporting, and maybe even executing them. Hitler, Stalin and Mao showed the way, and Putin is doing his best to follow them.
Our own Demagogue and his followers have even introduced a would-be tyrant’s innovation. They are hounding and fomenting hate for an entire political party, which over half the nation supports. We may soon observe, as bystanders, whether this innovation in despotism actually works. The short history of Nazi Germany is not propitious.
So the “how” is not the issue here. Since the last century’s brutal tyrants started the most terrible war in human history, the path from democracy to despotism has been clear. Several more have followed it, many more have tried, and some are achieving scary success today. Anyway, asking “how” addresses only the symptoms, not the causes, of our globally growing social disease.
So today the most salient question is “why?” Why has humanity suddenly taken a swift and perhaps decisive turn toward the dark side, mere decades after democracy seemed so ascendant as to become the destiny of our species?
The answer, dear reader, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. Specifically, the answer lies in our species’ lesser-known evolutionary traits, which demagogues and despots are exploiting to great advantage.
We humans have mostly ignored or minimized these traits, partly out of ignorance but mostly out of historical conceit and self-regard. Even the name we give ourselves is self deluding: Homo sapiens means “wise” or “knowing” man. Science has shown us how misleadingly false that self-regarding moniker is. Yet we continue to employ and believe it. Only with more accurate self-knowledge can we hope to make progress and restore democracy.
This essay is the first in a series of three on this theme. It recites and briefly describes the human failings that demagogues and dictators exploit to bend us to their self-focused will. The next essay will describe how these evolutionary traits can be and are bent to that end. The final essay will propose some precautions that humanity might take to prevent and curtail the bending. Perhaps a long, new dark age will have to intervene before that can happen.
The first and most important human evolutionary trait is fear. Fear is our strongest and deepest emotion, and for good reason. It motivates individual survival and thereby the survival of our species.
In a brilliant, must-watch feature series, “Hacking Your Mind,” PBS describes fear (among other things) as “fast thinking.” It’s completely different from the “slow thinking” that our democratic ancestors described as “Reason” with a capital “R.”
And it has to be. Fear is an automatic, instantaneous emotional response that insures our individual survival. When our ancestors glimpsed a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the brush, or a rival human or animal seeking to grab their food, or when they came too close to a cliff, they didn’t have time to think. Their fear had to compel immediate action. It had to work fast. Waiting for a slow process of reasoning to play out would have courted injury or death.
So fear completely bypasses Reason—the very thing that we emphasize in our self-regarding species name. In modern terms, Frank Herbert said it best: “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Soldiers, adventurers and others can train themselves to overcome fear. They do so not by Reason, but by replacing fear reactions with equally instantaneous reactions based on assiduous, repeated training. Their drills try to make reactions to danger as automatic and “instinctive” as fear. For example, soldiers learn to drop to the ground, instead of running from hostile fire, thereby decreasing their physical profile to bullets shot horizontally. The fight-or-flight instinct is strong in us; it’s part of our DNA, which sometimes we must train ourselves to overcome in order to be safe.
Our second important evolutionary trait arises directly out of the first: distraction. We are easily distracted—especially from the “slow” process of Reason—by such things as sudden movement, bright colors, and loud sounds. Even in the midst of our deepest thinking and our most endearing reveries, these things can jolt us awake and divert our attention.
A special part of our brains, the amygdala, prioritizes incoming stimuli. When a stimulus threatens our well-being or survival—or our childrens’— it wakes us up suddenly. This also happens when a stimulus affects our reproduction: think of how many commercial ads exploit sex. So our physical brains are organized for systematic distraction from our most careful, analytic thinking; they have had to be, for our own physical survival and procreation.
Our third salient instinctive or evolutionary trait is “follow the leader.” We evolved from apes on the African savannah, living in tribes of clans of thirty or so individuals. Each clan was “ruled” absolutely by an alpha male. That leader’s strength and physical skill were challenged repeatedly, in confrontation and combat with external male challengers. That’s why we call this leader the “alpha” male: he was the best ape, or at least the most victorious, in a series of physical encounters and fights. And he ruled the clan only insofar as he won.
This social organization made sense in our primeval context. The inter-male combat selected the clan leader for such desirable physical traits as strength, speed, reaction time, and alertness in spying and challenging interlopers. These skills helped protect the clan from predators and interlopers and preserved the clan and its “harem” of females with babies from harm.
This tendency to follow the alpha male is part of our evolutionary history. It grew along with us as we evolved from apes to humans and from tribes of thirty to great nations of over a billion individuals. Xi Jinping just confirmed it, once again, by having himself anointed supreme leader of China, breaking China’s short tradition of two-terms-and-out, much like our own 22nd Amendment. So now a single alpha male will be making all crucial decisions for a nation of 1.4 billion people. That’s some tribe!
In our species’ infancy, skilled alpha-male leadership was most important (and most strict) when the clan was in danger. That point of our evolution followed us well into humanity, too. The ancient Romans created the position of “dictator” (a Latin word), with the consent of the Senate, when a threat to society (usually a war) seemed to demand the quick and decisive reaction that only a single male leader could provide. When the threat subsided, the Senate’s democratic rule resumed. Only in recent centuries has the meaning of the word “dictator” morphed into the idea of a permanent supreme leader—the role at which Xi apparently aims now.
A single, alpha-male leader was fine for small tribes of naked apes competing for food and territory and trying to escape predators on the African savannah on which we evolved. But is it right for us as a species today? Is it appropriate for nations of hundreds of millions or over a billion people?
Is an alpha-male “decider” useful when our individual survival depends mostly, if not entirely, on the learning and training of expert specialists, including doctors, surgeons, airplane pilots, computer programmers, computer designers, military generals, climate scientists, and operators of nuclear power plants? Doesn’t the notion of a solitary individual (let alone a solitary male) making detailed decisions on matters of expertise at least seem a bit incongruous, in the age of deep specialization, diversified knowledge, division of labor, and decades-long training of specialists?
The final evolutionary trait that affects our social organization is tribalism. It may or may not be built into our DNA, but susceptibility to tribalism surely is. Social scientists recently have proved this point in experiments with young children.
The experiments are simple but surprising. A trained staffer takes a kid around three years old, who’s able to communicate verbally, into a closed room alone. The staffer gives the kid a T-shirt colored orange or green, explaining that the kid is now a member of the orange or green “team.”
After a bit more explanation of what the “team” means, the staffer shows the kid pictures or photos of kids in ambiguous social situations, including possible aggression (pushing, shoving), ganging up, and theft. When asked to “explain” what is happening in these pictures, the kids generally give the benefit of the doubt to members of their own “team.” They attribute anti-social, harmful or negative acts and intentions to the other “team.”
The tribalism being tested here, in very young children, is completely artificial. The kids are divided into “tribes” or “teams” by giving them T-shirts of different colors, at random. The testing staff selects the colors in advance, without regard to the kids’ preferences or favorite colors. Yet the results show that even very young kids can be “trained” to the functional equivalent of prejudice against others merely by suggesting that the others comprise a rival team.
Of course no racial, national, ethnic or religious prejudice can be, or is, encoded in DNA. At that level, the famous line from the song in the musical “South Pacific” is accurate: “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
But these recent experiments show, as nothing has done before, how susceptible to learning prejudice we can be. Prejudice itself may not be, but team building and inter-team competition are built into our psychological makeup, and they can promote prejudice and sectarian violence when misdirected. Social organization, like language, is psychological, not logical.
I’ve had four careers, all requiring “slow” thinking and analysis: science/engineering, law school and practice, law teaching, and now writing a blog. The most challenging and interesting of the four was teaching law, which I did for 24 years.
In the United States, law professors use the so-called “Socratic method.” We ask our students, in class, a series of probing questions based on their reading and study. Thus we encourage them to develop the habit of “slow” thinking—albeit “on their feet” in the classroom—after careful reading and analysis. Sometimes students’ answers reveal depths of insight and analysis that their professors have not yet reached.
So I’m going to end this already-long first essay in this series now, with a few Socratic questions. Do modern politicians exploit the four evolutionary traits of our species listed here: (1) fear that displaces rational thought; (2) distraction from “slow” rational thought, by “bright-colored objects” that can invoke either fear, hate or desire; (3) the wish for a strong, decisive leader to solve all problems and save us from harm; and (4) susceptibility to tribalism, including prejudice based on “race,” national origin, religion, sexual identity, and even things as artificial as “teams” based on a T-shirt color chosen at random? If politicians do exploit these traits, does one set of them, or one party, do so more than others? If so, which one(s) and how? How many of today’s politicians offer rational “slow-thinking” solutions to today’s demanding social problems? Which ones, how, and why?
In my second essay in this series, I’ll lay out my own answers to these questions. But I hope to see, in comments to this essay or that one, insights beyond my own.
In the last essay in this series, I’ll provide some tentative solutions to these tools of demagoguery and despotism, ranging from preventative structures and institutions that democratic governments might adopt to strategies and tactics in political campaigns. I hope commenters will provide others.
Perhaps some future society will study these proposed solutions, just as our Founders studied the rise and fall of the Roman empire and sought to ward off a similar fate with careful checks and balances. If we are to progress beyond the demagoguery, despotism, and incessant wars that have filled our species’ short history—and that now seem to be making a dismal comeback—we must learn to overcome these inborn traits with “slow” thinking and corresponding social organization. The rise of self-knowledge borne of science, which was just getting of the ground at our Founding, provides a basis for progress that our Founders never had.
As recent years have proved beyond doubt, our species’ path to self-improvement will be steep and arduous. Fukuyama’s “end of history” is still far away, unless of course we extinguish ourselves with nuclear war or runaway global warming.
Today democracy is on the ropes, worldwide. It’s dissolving like sugar cubes left out in a deluge.