Republicans want a top-down, hierarchical political and economic system. Democrats want a bottom-up system with maximum participation and broad sharing of society’s wealth. Who is right?
President Joe Biden just gave a speech about economics that has massive implications for the future of our nation. At the same time, a new study was published about how people lived in Mesoamerica before the European conquest that shows as many as half of all those ancient societies lived democratically and had a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth.
It seems like these are separate, disconnected stories. They’re not. And the tale they both tell gives us a major insight into the future of America, for better or worse, depending on the political decisions we make over the next few elections.
The stakes are getting higher every day, and it’s critical that we all understand how evolution and history led us to this dangerous and opportune moment. Please read on.
We tend to think of economies and political systems as separate things, but in reality they’re deeply intertwined. Both either can be fragile or resilient, and that fragility or resilience most often depends on their relationship to each other.
Resilience is the ability of a governmental system or an economy to weather stresses without “breaking.” It’s the key to understanding everything that’s happening today in both politics and economics.
One of the best and most widely cited analyses of the difference in resilience between democracy and autocracy, for example, is the 2021 paper by Wolfgang Merkel & Anna Lührmann titled Resilience of democracies: responses to illiberal and authoritarian challenges published in the peer-reviewed journal Democratization.
Noting that, “Illiberalism and authoritarianism have become major threats to democracy across the world,” they point out that:
“The more democracies are resilient on all four levels of the political system (political community, institutions, actors, citizens) the less vulnerable they turn out to be in the present and future.”
As I document in my newest book, The Hidden History of American Democracy: Recovering Humanity’s Ancient Way of Living, democracy is the default system for nearly every species of animal and the historic majority of human societies prior to the so-called Agricultural Revolution. And America’s Founders believed it.
From Putin’s disastrous attack on Ukraine to the governments of Iran and Afghanistan being controlled entirely by a small subset of religious men, we see the calamitous consequences of rule by the few.
Thus, we find that democracy — a system of decision- and rule-making that most efficiently encompasses the collective wisdom of the group — is a survival system every bit as important as technology, science, and economics.
Democracy doesn’t rule out leadership or hierarchies of wealth or power. Rather, it specifies that the power determining how those hierarchies are formed, maintained, and determined — who’s in charge, in other words — comes from, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “the consent of the governed.”
And we get there through voting.
This use of voting-based democracy to establish and maintain the resilience — the survival potential — of a group, tribe, nation, or even animal species is so universal that it’s not limited to human beings.
In the Declaration of Independence’s first paragraph, for example, Jefferson wrote that “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” compelled America’s Founders to reject British oligarchy and embrace democracy.
It got him into a fight with the Declaration’s main editor, John Adams, who thought it should say “the Christian God,” but Jefferson prevailed. His deist friends like George Washington, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Ben Franklin knew what he meant: nature and “God” interpenetrated each other, and they saw the result of that in the democracy – the balancing systems that produced ecological resilience – in nature.
And, I discovered when researching my new book, Franklin in particular believed after decades of experience working with Native American tribes that those rules of nature are as universal to humans as they are to all other animals on earth.
But was he right? Is nature actually democratic?
Biologists Tim Roper and L. Conradt at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, England, studied this issue in animals.
We’ve always assumed that the alpha or leader animal of the herd or group makes the decision, and the others follow, like human kings and queens of old. The leader knows best, we believe: he or she is prepared for that genetically by generations of Darwinian natural selection, or ordained by an omnipotent sky god.
But it turns out that there’s a system for voting among animals, from honeybees to primates, and we’ve just never noticed it because we weren’t looking for it.
“Many authors have assumed despotism without testing [for democracy],” Roper and Conradt noted in Nature, “because the feasibility of democracy, which requires the ability to vote and to count votes, is not immediately obvious in non-humans.”
Stepping into this vacuum of knowledge, the two scientists decided to create a testable model that “compares the synchronization costs of despotic and democratic groups.”
They and their research group discovered that when a single leader (what they call a despot) or a small group of leaders (the animal equivalent of an oligarchy) make the choices, the swings into extremes of behavior tend to be greater and more dangerous to the long-term survival of the group.
Wrong decisions, they hypothesized, would be made often enough to put the survival of the group at risk because in a despotic model the overall needs of the entire group are measured only through the lens of the leader’s needs.
With democratic decision-making, however, the overall knowledge and wisdom of the entire group, as well as the needs of the entire group, come into play. The outcome is less likely to harm anybody, and the group’s probability of survival is enhanced.
“Democratic decisions are more beneficial primarily because they tend to produce less extreme decisions,” they note in the abstract to their paper.
Britain’s leading mass-circulation science journal, New Scientist, looked at how Conradt and Roper’s model actually played out in the natural world. They examined the behavior of a herd of red deer, which are social animals with alpha “leaders.”
What they found was startling: Red deer always behave democratically. When more than half the animals were pointing at a particular water hole, for example, the entire group would then move in that direction.
“In the case of real red deer,” James Randerson noted, “the animals do indeed vote with their feet by standing up. Likewise, with groups of African buffalo, individuals decide where to go by pointing in their preferred direction. The group takes the average and heads that way.”
This explains in part the “flock,” “swarm” and “school” nature of birds, gnats, and fish.
With each wingbeat or fin motion, each member is “voting” for the direction the flock, swarm or school should move; when the 51% threshold is hit, the entire group moves as if telepathically synchronized.
Dr. Tim Roper told me:
“Quite a lot of people have said, ‘My gorillas do that, or my animals do that.’ On an informal, anecdotal basis it [the article] seems to have triggered an, ‘Oh, yes, that’s quite true’ reaction in field workers.”
I asked him if his theory that animals — and, by inference, humans in their “natural state” — operating democratically contradicted Darwin.
He was emphatic:
“I don’t think it is [at variance with Darwin]. … So the point about this model is that democratic decision-making is best for all the individuals in the group, as opposed to following a leader, a dominant individual. So we see it as an individual selection model, and so it’s not incompatible with Darwin at all.“
Franklin and Jefferson were right. Democracy, it turns out, is the norm in nature’s god’s animal kingdom, for the simple reason that it confers the greatest likelihood the group will survive and prosper.
When democracies begin to drift away from this fundamental principle, and those who have accumulated wealth and the political power typically associated with it acquire the ability to influence or even control the rule-making process, democracy begins to fail. It becomes rigid and fragile.
When this process becomes advanced, democracies typically morph first into oligarchies (where we largely are now because five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery in Citizens United) and then Orbán-like dictatorships (where Trump, DeSantis, and the other wannabee autocrats in the GOP want to take us).
Similarly, research on pre-European-contact Mesoamerican societies published by archeologists Gary M. Feinman and David M. Carballo validates the extensive claims by America’s Founders that I cited in my new Democracy book: the most resilient and longest-surviving aboriginal and indigenous societies were also the most democratic.
Citing a 2018 study they’d published of 26 pre-contact Mesoamerican cities, the researchers were every bit as explicit about humans as had been Conradt, Roper and Randerson about the red deer:
“We found that more than half of them were not despotically ruled and that the more collective political centers had greater resilience in the face of droughts and floods, and warfare or shifts in trade. Cities that addressed their social challenges using more collective forms of governance and resource management were both larger and somewhat more resilient than the cities with personalized rulership and more concentrated political power.”
Digging deeper into the archeological record in the five years since that publication, they wrote this month:
“In a later study that included an updated and expanded sample of 32 well-researched Mesoamerican cities, we found that centers that were both more bottom-up and collective in their governance were more resilient.”
Thus, the kind of bottom-up democracy advocated by Democrats — where the largest number of people can vote, pluralism is encouraged, and the will of the people is respected even when it means your party loses power — has sustained America through most of our history (and has been continuously improved, in fits and starts, through the progressive enfranchisement of African Americans, women, and naturalized immigrants).
On the other hand, restricting democracy (as the MAGA GOP is committed to) by making it harder to vote, concentrating political power from the top-down, and using hate and demonization of racial, religious, and gender minorities to acquire and hold political power leads a society straight toward autocracy, fascism, and — most importantly in this context — a loss of cultural, political, and societal resilience.
Which brings us to Joe Biden and the truly extraordinary reshaping of the American economy that he and Democrats in Congress have used their democratic electoral victories to bring about.
It turns out that economic systems — just like political decision-making systems — that are driven from the bottom up are far more resilient than those dictated from the top-down, and Biden brought the proof.
Wednesday night, President Biden gave a speech in Chicago that was almost entirely ignored by our corporate media. It should have been front-page news, because he did not only declared war on Reagan’s neoliberalism, but he also declared major victories on the road to recovering an American economy that works for everybody, not just the morbidly rich:
“I’m here in Chicago today,” Biden said, “for the first quarter of the 21st century, to talk about the economic vision for this country: the economy that grows the economy from the middle out and the bottom up instead of just the top down. When that happens, everybody does well. The wealthy still do — (applause) — everybody does well. The poor have a ladder up, and the wealthy still do well. We all do well.”
Biden then went straight for the jugular, calling out Reagan’s rejection of the New Deal and the Great Society and the GOP’s replacement of them with neoliberalism in the most blunt of terms:
“This vision is a fundamental break from the economic theory that has failed America’s middle class for decades now. It’s called trickle-down economics — fundamental economics, trickle-down. The idea was — it’s the belief that we should cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations — and … I’m tired of waiting for the trickle-down. It doesn’t come very quickly. Not much trickled down on my dad’s kitchen table growing up.”
Biden also pointed out how Reagan established the model for gutting our government. Ron DeSantis was simply following in Reagan’s footsteps when, this week, he promised to eliminate the departments of Education, Commerce, Energy, and the IRS if he becomes president.
It’s the modern Republican way: Trump got rid of almost half the scientists at the EPA, laid off workers at the IRS and Social Security administration, and filled the Justice Department with rightwing neofascists who still resist investigating many of his crimes.
In 1983, as I note in the book on Neoliberalism, Reagan ordered the DOJ, SEC, and Department of Commerce to essentially stop enforcing our nation’s anti-trust laws. The result has been a massive monopolistic consolidation so severe that virtually every industry in America is now dominated at least 70 percent (and often as much as 85 percent) by five or fewer corporations that work together as cartels.
When United raises fares $100, American does the same ten minutes later. When one food processor cuts portion sizes 5 percent, everybody else does within weeks.
As Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and other economists have repeatedly pointed out — and Ralph Nader noted in his foreword to my book on American monopolies — this has driven a new form of inflation that the Fed is powerless to stop except through punishing American workers by inducing a recession.
Reagan also began the offshoring craze, giving companies tax incentives (that were actually increased by Trump!) to move their factories and production to low-wage countries.
At his speech in Chicago this week, Biden took it to them, again referencing neoliberal Reaganomics:
“And it’s a belief that we should shrink public investment in infrastructure and public education — shrink it — that we should let good jobs get shipped overseas. And we actually have a tax policy that encourages them to go overseas to save money! We shouldn’t let big corporations amass more power while making it harder to join a union.”
The last time an American president was this outspoken about Republican loyalty to the morbidly rich and the corporations that made them that way was when FDR, in 1936, said, “They hate me, and I welcome their hatred!”
Biden didn’t pull a single punch:
“Folks, let me say this as clearly as I can: The trickle-down approach failed the middle class. It failed America. It blew up the deficit. It increased inequity. And it weakened our infrastructure. It stripped the dignity, pride, and hope out of communities one after another, particularly through the Midwest, Western Pennsylvania, and heading west.
“People working as hard as ever couldn’t get ahead because it’s harder to buy a home, pay for a college education, start a business, retire with dignity.
“The first time in a generation, the path of the middle class seemed out of reach. And I don’t think it’s hyperbole; I think it’s a fact no matter whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or an independent.
“I knew we couldn’t go back to the same failed policies when I ran, so I came into office determined to change the economic direction of this country, to move from trickle-down economics to what everyone in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times began to call ‘Bidenomics.’
The president pointed out that America is now leading the world in economic development, and in creating more than 13.4 million jobs he’s beat the record of every other president in American history.
Just the past two years have seen over $490 billion in private investment in US business, creating a building and manufacturing boom that rivals Franklin Roosevelt’s and Dwight Eisenhower’s.
We now have the lowest unemployment rate since the 1960s, and the lowest Black and female unemployment rates in American history.
Biden then went through a long list of other efforts and programs to rebuild the American middle class, all from the bottom-up and middle-out. The era of trickle-down is over, he proclaimed, as long as a Democrat remains in the White House. (His speech is really worth reading in its entirety: hopefully it’s the kick-off for his campaign for 2024.)
The legacy of Reagan’s rejection of classical Adam Smith economics and adoption of trickle-down neoliberalism made America less resilient and more vulnerable to being shattered by internal or external shocks.
It shook our confidence in government so severely that we elected a populist psychopath as president simply because he promised to “drain the swamp.”
Americans knew something was very, very wrong; they just hadn’t figured out it all began 42 years ago with Reagan’s completely reordering the American economy and the GOP consciously deciding to exploit racial hate, homophobia, and misogyny as a political weapon.
America is now on a new and brighter course, one that comports with a genuine scientific and historic understanding of how to build and maintain resilient societies and economies.
Now all we have to do is work like hell to keep it.