“The wolf is united for attack, the sheep is united for defense, but the bee is united for all the activities and feelings of its life” – Wilfred Trotter
I try to stay out of politics. And biker bars. And vegan restaurants. But mostly politics. I feel it’s only fair, given my conviction that almost everything and everyone is out to get me in some existential sense. After a while, a low-grade paranoia becomes a lifestyle. Oh, I consistently vote and religiously consume the requisite promotional materials and mainstream media, but generally consider the whole democratic process an activity on par with deciding which horn the bull will gore me with and in what vital organ. Either way it hurts and I’ll ultimately bleed out, but it preserves the illusion of control and it validates the bull. As the type of individual who treats enumerating the apocalypse as a hobby, I’ve found a great deal of grist for my mill in the 2016 U.S. presidential primary race. Monsters abound across the ideological spectrum, and not only are they all resolutely determined to go bump in the night or direct our attention to those things that do, but just like the monsters of our mythologies, we can see our own reflections in them.
Screwed up politics is not a uniquely American, or even modern phenomenon, nor are our perennial concerns such as the barbarians at the gates, the reliability of our allies, the true threat posed by our enemies, how to effectively redistribute the wealth (either spread it around or concentrate it at the top), fair trade with the neighbors, and the incessant nattering about the next generation’s impending degeneracy. Ever since we decided to stop with all the hunting and gathering and take up a trade, the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” as the defining proclamation of human consciousness really should have been replaced by “there ought to be a law”. As long as that law applies to someone else, that is.
Declaring politics a bloody battlefield for the egomaniacal and narcissistic, where the masses are identified as either wolves to control or sheep to be led is just irredeemably banal, and why being platitudinous wasn’t included in the seven deadly sins, I’ll never know, but one of the primary innovations of democracy was to declare that our leaders are our leaders only because the public to some extent approves of them, or as Savoyard philosopher Joseph de Maistre observed in 1811, paraphrasing Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, “Every nation gets the government it deserves”. Given the tenor of the current political process, one might reasonably ask, “How could we possibly deserve this?” The answer, as it is with so many things – evolution.
We are social creatures. It’s one of our dubious charms. One of the basic tenants of evolution is that organisms finding themselves under environmental or competitive pressure, genetically speaking, selectively eliminate the types which are comparatively unsuited to the conditions they face. The more severe the external pressure is, the more severe this natural selection would be, rather counterintuitively restricting variation within a narrow range, rather than encouraging diversity. Some would argue that increased variation promotes potential for increased survivability of a species, but this is not borne out when one considers that once an organism gets out from under the direct pressure of natural selection, say by becoming a social critter, variation increases. In essence, with buddies to watch your back, help you hunt, or collectively build temples to the appropriate gods, that is, by becoming a gregarious species, you gain the freedom to vary that the loner lacks. And presto, with an explosion of variation we wind up organized in a complex group, thumbing our noses at natural selection, and before long you’ve got yourself a society, albeit a society with rich variation among individual members.
Freeing ourselves from the tyranny of our environment, the evolutionary forces operating upon us are increasingly social, which also means that they are irregular in direction and fluctuating in strength. As society gets more complex, and the bonds that tie it to us grow stronger, oddly confusion and disorder increase, because as observed before, our social nature allows for greater variation among us, thus there is no conformity of belief, opinion, attitude, communication, or universally agreed upon forms of interconnection. But underneath our civilized veneer, we are in many ways herd animals. We imitate group members of higher social status (see Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, or Sigmund Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego). The problem, of course, is determining who is of higher status, particularly in a culture that celebrates individualism.
In social psychologist Wilfred Trotter’s seminal work on group mentality Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, while attempting to understand how his contemporary Europe had descended into the chaos of the First World War, he suggested in times of social or environmental stress, we seek any leader and power accrues to anyone who offers stability, but not the stability of the steadfast and considered, rather the stability of uncomplicated conviction. “This type supplies our most trusted politicians and officials, our bishops and headmasters, our successful lawyers and doctors, and all their trusty deputies, assistants, retainers, and faithful servants. Mental stability is their leading characteristic, they ‘know where they stand’ as we say, they have a confidence in the reality of their aims and their position, an inaccessibility to new and strange phenomena, a belief in the established and customary, or capacity for ignoring, what they regard as the unpleasant, the undesirable, and the improper, and a conviction that on the whole a sound moral order is perceptible in the universe and manifested in the progress of civilization. Such characteristics are not in the least inconsistent with the highest intellectual capacity, great energy and perseverance as well as kindliness, generosity, and patience, but they are in no way redeemed in social value by them” (Trotter, 1917, p161).
The defining characteristic of this election season has repeatedly been identified as voter “anger”, an anger at the inevitable defects of civilized life in a democratic society where human development, a progressive cultivation of those qualities that make human beings such wonderful creatures (our capacity for altruism, compassion, cooperation, and sacrifice for the greater good) is left merely to chance and the winds of fad and fashion. We truly do seem to get the leaders we deserve amidst rapid technological and social shifts. We truly seek out leaders who offer comfort, but are almost universally disinterested in human progress and novel solutions to our problems. The curious conundrum we find ourselves in politically is analogous to Trotter’s understanding of the causes of World War I. “The war was the consequence of inherent defects in the evolution of civilized life; it was the consequence of human progress being left to chance, and to the interaction of the heterogeneous influences which necessarily arise within a gregarious unit whose individual members have a large power of varied reaction. In such an atmosphere minds essentially resistive alone can flourish and attain to power, and they are by their very qualities incapable of grasping the necessities of government or translating them into action” (Trotter, 1917, p162).
Nobody wants to go back to picking nuts and berries in the forest while trying to avoid being eaten. Well, most people. Yet, we can all see the discrepancy between what humanity is capable of at its finest, and the depravities we are capable of at our worst. We convincingly sing the praises of peace, justice, the pursuit of happiness, and progress towards an ever brighter future for our species, then hand the reins over to those who manifest a limited capacity to envision mankind’s potential for something greater. As the 19th Century Pakistani poet Muhammed Iqbal said, “Nations are born in the hearts of poets, they prosper and die in the hands of politicians”.
Trotter, W. 1872-1939. Instincts of the Herd In Peace And War: by W. Trotter. New York: Macmillan Co., 1917.