By Michael Rowan
“The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo Sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and techno-scientific society.”
-Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence
The anti-techno-scientific waves crashing on the shores of the U.S. November election and Venezuela’s December election are thoroughly misunderstood by conventional thinkers. We are not facing conventional elections, but asymmetric waves where two sets of perceived reality are clashing as minority dynasties replace democratic rule.
It’s obvious what will happen in December to Venezuela – the Paleo-revolution of 1998 and the fraudulent elections and governments thereafter will consolidate support behind dictator Maduro to rule over the continued collapse of the country, which is all but dead. However, in the US, there is uncertainty about whether minority rule will win the Electoral College vote and the US Senate vote in November, so that’s a major worry, but there’s little doubt that the ongoing civil war will continue to plague America no matter who wins.
This article is about why the asymmetric waves drowned Venezuela and threatened to throttle America. In order to understand the cause of waves, we need to know why polarization has occurred and what can be done to get Americans seeing the same reality, which is the nut of a very complex and largely unconsidered problem. Neither polling nor commentary has described why so many voters have given up on the system in the US, which is arguably the most successful system on the planet. This article attempts to do that.
Difficult as it may be to step back from campaign rhetoric, let’s put today’s political environment in E. O. Wilson’s biologically scientific context as we address the cultures and elections of the US and Venezuela, both of which I’ve studied closely for fifty years.
Those fifty years are actually only one tenth of 1% of the time that humans with brains genetically like ours have lived on this planet. In that 50 years, which is historically only a speck of time, an anti-system pushback against collective action (or inaction) erupted with a roaring rage in hundreds of millions of brains and in many places on earth, notably in Venezuela where populism first got elected (in 1998), and the USA where it recently got elected (2016) and is now up for re-election.
The “techno-scientific society” currently being rejected by 45% of American voters historically generated the greatest progress of humanity in the few centuries from the Enlightenment to the present, which includes the birth of democracy and magnificent advances in rational success.
A tribal, nihilistic movement to overturn rationalism and law may seem incredible to those who can’t imagine it happening. But our hunter-gatherer brains can easily imagine it. We need to think again about what really is going on in our own brains.
Collective action to create what E. O. Wilson describes as “a globally urban and techno-scientific society” historically generated consciousness of interdependence between and among all the peoples and countries of the world, which is now an electronic global village. But for 99% of the time our brains have ticked, fears were the prime drivers of survival, especially the tribal fear of strangers. Today’s anti-system wave is filled with fear of not fitting in, of being replaced, or of being of no importance anymore. Consequently, most Americans are experiencing an existential angst, an identity crisis.
Modern “progress” has been assumed to be for the good of humanity, but there’s another way to look at technology, complexity and change. While collective action in the last 50 years kept world war three from happening and increased economic progress for a healthier and wealthier world population that is close to meeting its Millennium Goals, there is disruptive anti-system movement unsettling the planet’s people and which must be examined more closely.
Here’s the problem about modern “progress”: A few nations are way more equal than all the others. And a few people in each nation are way more equal than all others in every country. We suffer from the 1% being as rich as the 99%. Inequality has stoked great fear in the hearts of those left behind.
A few of the global system’s collective leaders such as the USA, the European Union, and China effectively control or regulate world finance, trade, markets, immigration, warfare, weapons, the environment, and health, for all the others.
Simultaneously, the interdependent but vastly unequal world population of almost 8 billion humans is surrounded by instant information accessed through TV, the internet and the cell phone, where misinformation and disinformation are powerful forces for fear. Right now, virtually everybody knows everything under the sun, or thinks so. In the electronic environment, facts have become an existential tort; traditional communications and control systems are losing track; and insecurity with what’s true is driving people haywire.
Electrifying the wave of fear is terrorism. In the 21st century, global terrorism by anti-system actors revealed a flaw in what used to be called the world order. A few “world powers” spent trillions of dollars to prosecute wars in the Middle East which had little effect on the terrorists while producing an unintended consequence that has plagued the world ever since. Vast migrations mixed peoples who don’t know or trust each other, causing flares of racism, genocide, xenophobia and systemic disruptions especially in wealthy, democratic and heterogenous societies around the world. Democracy is in decline.
The techno-scientific society of today is clearly not prepared to provide simple solutions to complex problems requiring global collective action, such as climate change, economic inequality, a pandemic, immigration, poverty, famine, displacement or fears of “replacement” by presumed racial enemies. However, simple solutions are exactly what anti-system people everywhere desire. They are not interested in science, facts, or probabilities; they want certainty the way it used to be in paleolithic times, especially in rural areas that move slower than heterogenous, cosmopolitan and liberal societies or knowledge economies.
It’s a challenge. As Wilson observes, we are an innately dysfunctional species. We are having a hard time living with each other. We are all conscious and free but live with the same brain as paleolithic humans. All of us want political equality but only half of humanity today lives in a nominal no less real democracy. All of us want economic equality (of a sort), but factually the top 1% of humans – mostly white and male -- have wealth equal to all the other humans living on the planet, who are mostly female and darker-skinned. This is the way it’s always been from tribal times, a fact that contradicts the relatively recent cultural beliefs in political equality and universal human rights.
Democracy, for all its aspirations and rhetoric, is a messy process idea, and has not rid the world of the concentration of power and money in the hands of the few. Minority rule of democracy as in the USA, does not help (the Electoral College, the US Senate, and the filibuster rule, have largely guaranteed minority rule by rural Republicans).
Global and US economic inequality is increasing by the minute, driving up fear. Economic needs generate political waves and storms of protest against the system. The convergence of nominal political equality and actual economic inequality has rendered political rhetoric largely nonsensical and governments dysfunctional or paralyzed. Democracy is in steep decline.
This was predictable. American hypocrisy about aspirations and reality is not much different than it was 244 years ago when rich, white, male slaveholders met to write lines like “All Men are created equal” and “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.” For all our modern progress, the unrealized aspiration of true democracy litters the American experiment with the ashes of time, as hope vanishes, and fear mounts.
The traditional US parties have no idea that the two-party, status-quo election pitting Tweedledee versus Tweedledum, is considered ridiculous by most of the voters. Registered independents have outnumbered both Democrats and Republicans for the last half century. The US came to see the power of this anti-system wave in 2016. Democracy can run but it can’t hide from a tsunami: Americans can and might vote to scrap the system itself.
Civilization, which most people take for granted, evolved along an unplanned path from tribes to city-states to nation-states to empires to global states and global institutions or corporations, which in today’s terms constitute the sum of the collective acts of a techno-scientific society. Civilization vastly increased the number, life expectancy and per capita wealth of the world population over a short time span, while inequality remained the same or worsened. People are seeing the contradiction today because of TV, the cell phone and the computer.
From Wilson’s evolutionary biology perspective, civilization is a relatively recent phenomenon of human life, which is still organized around the DNA of an ancient, fear-based hunter-gatherer brain. What modern people with ancient brains want to know today is how can the system help me deal with my fear today? And the system has no simple way to even talk about that.
The distribution of information makes a big difference in consciousness and the existential stories people tell to themselves. What makes democratic governing less likely in the 21st century is the globalization of TV, the internet and the cell phone, which provided everyone on the planet with a superfluity of entertaining and distracting information as well as an easy and daily A-B comparison between themselves and the rich and famous.
Amazon’s founder is now wealthier than the bottom half of all humanity. “How did that happen?” anyone asks. “How did one guy get as wealthy as a few billion of us?”
On TV and the internet, the world of the rich and famous lives side by side with billions of people facing poverty, unemployment, rejection, and loss generated by complex, hard-to-understand phenomena such as digitalization, globalization, and the knowledge economy. Resentments are rife against science, facts, rationalism, democracy and government, which created an opportunity for Amazon but not the vast populations that serve as the bricks and mortar of the human pyramid.
People unmoored from facts may also feel that collective government programs helping the super-rich or racial minorities, immigrants or “others” not like them, are a direct and intended insult, a humiliation to them. Humiliation is a very powerful organizer of permanent misunderstanding, rage and revenge, feelings that have biological roots reaching down to the tribal DNA of every brain now pulsing on the planet.
Populist leaders like Chavez and Trump are superficially seen as poor and rich but psychologically they are the same. Both felt humiliated by systems and societies and both got revenge by surfing the waves of resentment in their countries.
Electronic media are making things worse. Internet disinformation opens the door to the mainstreaming of conspiracies of alien impregnation of humans, magic potions to cure the sick, or voodoo economics to get rich quick. By isolating in media bubbles confirming their fact-less biases – media such as polarizing websites, disruptive TV channels or massive rallies of like-minded loyalists -- people can build permanent filters in their brains, which in evolutionary terms, have been wired with built-in suspicions of non-tribal members. Tribalism and fear are pervasive in the 21st century.
It is not difficult to think like a Paleo-Human in the cable TV, internet and cell phone age.
We don’t live in the past but the past lives in us – it’s in our brain’s DNA. What’s happening in our present stirs powerful, immobilizing fears from our Stone Age past. For some today it is the end of times, to be welcomed, where the good will be separated from the evil. For others it is the day to take revenge on the know-it-all elites who run the knowledge world with what can be heard as gobbledygook.
But for those desiring to conserve the cosmopolitan, liberal system created by civilization it presents a unique challenge: how can they prove to those saying no to the “globally urban and techno-scientific society” that it can work for them? This is a huge task requiring constructive policy, outreach, patience and inclusion of all, which is to say, a mission for political and economic equality, and nothing less.
That is not what happened in Venezuela for the last 22 years or the USA for the last four years. Politics has solidified polarization in both countries. We’re going down the wrong track. The demolition of Venezuela and the decline in America is there for anyone to see.
In 1998, Venezuela’s Paleo-wave rejected the white male dominated political elite and all they nominally stood for, which included a burgeoning global, urban, techno-scientific society that had not curated inclusive institutions to deal with poverty, corruption and systemic racism. The rejection was so complete that it became a matter of cult loyalty for the wave to abandon constructive alliances, trade, commerce, education and law, while pretending it was just reforming them. The problem with Paleo-isolation in the modern world is that it makes the country totally irrelevant to itself and the world. It is living in the Stone Age, pretending it’s modern, and cannibalizing its own wealth.
When the anti-system populists captured their first election in Venezuela, the defenestration of governance rendered the country totally dependent on the Commander. The Constitution was rewritten to guarantee the election of the Commander. The checks and balances on executive power were entirely eliminated. The National Assembly and Judiciary became laughable rubber stamps of the Commander. Those deemed disloyal to the revolution were denied government services; their property was confiscated; and if they continued to resist, they were arrested, interrogated, imprisoned or forced to flee across the border, as over 5 million have done (1 in 6 Venezuelans are refugees, about the same as Syria).
Knowledge, science, and technology were replaced by loyalty, nepotism and corruption. In the ensuing years, the economy slowly fell by half and then half again. When the Commander (Chavez) died, his sub-Commander took power. After the fraudulent elections became intolerable to the world, 58 nations did not recognize the paleolithic Commander Nicolas Maduro. From 1998 to 2020, over $300 billion has gone missing from Venezuela’s oil revenues.
Next December’s “election” is not a vote with any meaning. Maduro’s cult will count the votes and continue to loot the country, which is bankrupt and poor, until no blood can be drawn from stone, as the world stands by helplessly.
In the USA, the Paleo-wave of predominantly white, male, rural, low wage and skill people, representing over 40% of the US population, rejected the traditional political elites because they were being left behind by the knowledge society and they felt they were being “replaced” by previously lower caste humans – African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Independent Women, Native Americans on reservations, LGBTQ Americans, and Immigrants from strange, darker places. Trump was the carrier of that resentment and the surfer of that wave, nothing more. But the effect is historic and mind-boggling.
Racism, xenophobia, sexism and ethnocentrism were familiar in the USA, which has struggled and failed to fully include in society the indigenous peoples, black slaves, women, immigrants of color in society, the poor, and anyone with views that challenged white male supremacy. White minority rule is established
The US Constitution established a democracy with institutions tilting the gameboard in favor of smaller, rural, agrarian states and against larger, urban, immigrant states. The Electoral College (which elected two minority vote Republicans already in this century), the US Senate (2 senators for each regardless of population), the filibuster rule in the Senate (requiring 60 of 100 senators to effectively pass legislation), the Supreme Court (Republican presidents have better chances to appoint court members) and the Census (Republicans have better chances to gerrymander congressional districts) have all produced skewed results favoring Republican minority rule.
Further, US efforts to right the wrongs of inequality, poverty and injustice done to various groups of victimized humans have been recently resented by rural, white males who felt “replaced” or “discarded” by society’s affirmative action, which is ironic. If facts count for anything, the US has made minimal progress to correct inequities of urban immigrant and ethnic minority groups, while benefiting agrarian states with subsidies and rewarding upper-class white males especially the richest 1% wherever they live.
Trump has moved the US closer to an imperial presidency, damaged world alliances, consorted with outlier and rogue nations, reduced immigration, punished urban residents, deregulated the environment, ignored science and intelligence agencies (even in a global pandemic), ordered the Justice Department to help him politically and persecute his opponents, and conducted an open voter-suppression effort backed by government forces. Four more years of Trump’s minority rule could do lasting damage to democracy, creating an imperial presidency and contributing to the rapid decline of America in the world, including nepotism, fraud and self-dealing at the highest levels of government.
The reason Trump has total Republican support even though most Republican office-holders disdain him is not because they have no courage. It is because minority rule is the only way white supremacy can survive in the way the Founders thought of it. No woman, black slave, or non-propertied white person could vote in America’s first presidential election; in fact, only 6% of the population – all rich white men – were qualified to vote then. The Bill of Rights has expanded the voting poll since then, to the point that white dominance is seen as threatened. Protecting the white race is what Republican politics is all about in 2020 and it might work.
Polls, which can predict nothing but show trends, suggest that Trump is in position to win by a slight margin in the Electoral College even if he loses the national popular vote by 6 percent or more, his second a minority-rule victory (Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by 2.8 million votes in 2016), which would scandalize common sense worldwide.
Joe Biden appears to be 8% ahead nationally and a closer 4% in the battleground states but it all depends on who turns out to vote and where. Trump is running a voter-suppression campaign in blue states and at the Post Office (against voting by mail, in a pandemic!) and at the Department of Justice. Trump has also said he may not recognize the election result if he loses. Trump has resonated with racial animosity, ferocious attacks on women leaders, and ginned up fears of Muslims, Hispanics, and any independent critic including many from his inner circle. His base doesn’t think about Trump’s crudeness or slime; it fears Armageddon has arrived and it is time to live or die.
If Trump somehow wins, and he could, America will fall into a political, economic and social decline that may be impossible to recover from – witness Venezuela. If Biden wins by a little but loses the Senate, minority rule will continue as it did for the second term of Obama and nothing will get done. Continuous political acrimony will produce a bad social and economic outcome for all Americans.
If Biden wins by a lot, America has a chance at reconciliation if Biden reaches out to red states to counter the Paleolithic Curse, and to bring them back into the world of facts, science and law by addressing inequality; but other Democrats, once in power, may seek revenge for what Trump did to America, which will strengthen Trump for a 2024 run at the presidency. He may go to prison but he is not going away.
Those who believe the story of America’s decline is over if Trump is defeated are sadly mistaken. Those who believe that America’s democracy is resilient enough to renew a relationship of trust with Trump’s base – as Mandela did with South Africa’s white masters – are hopefully right. But if the past is prologue, what’s facing America in the coming years is a continuation of the Civil War that, truth be told, was never really settled in the time of Abraham Lincoln, and doesn’t have much chance of being settled now.Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America and the just released How to Prevent Trump from Doing to America What Chavez Did to Venezuela, published by Amazon Books.