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Are We the People Unfit for Democracy?

Maybe we are wired for authoritarianism—but the present crisis has another cause.

 Here's what we know from modern U.S. history, writes Lofgren: "The elites failed at every level." (Photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images)

Here's what we know from modern U.S. history, writes Lofgren: "The elites failed at every level." (Photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images)

In typically subtle fashion, Politico reported on a recent conference of political psychologists on the present state of democratic systems. Its arresting headline:  “The Shocking Paper Predicting the End of Democracy.”

It seems one of the participants, Shawn Rosenberg, professor of political science and psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, lathered the attendees into indignation with his thesis that the human brain just is not “wired” to make the dispassionate and rational choices necessary for a democracy to function.

In brief, our lizard brains prevail over our superegos, bypassing the hard work required for responsible self-government in favor of cheap solutions, scapegoating, and emotion-laden rituals of abasement before a charismatic leader (see Trump campaign rallies for details).

During the brief period in which democracies have flourished, Rosenberg posits that conscientious and hardheaded “elites” guided the public to make the right decisions, acting as a social GPS to prevent the befuddled masses from veering off course. In past eras, he says, they would have squelched imbecile conspiracy fantasies like Pizzagate, and the populace would have proceeded to elect leaders like, say, Mo Udall, rather than Steve King.

But newfangled contrivances like the Internet granted ordinary people the ability to send and receive information, meaning misinformation unmediated by elite gatekeepers such as the prestige newspapers (from which local papers syndicate 90 percent of their non-local news) or the three major commercial television networks.

Once the serpent of unfiltered information slithered into the garden, the multitudes were helpless before the onslaught of Breitbart and Alex Jones. Thus, the advent of Donald Trump, Victor Orbán, Boris Johnson, and the other gargoyles littering the globe. Their emergence is, according to Rosenberg, what the innate impulses of the masses, unguided by their elite minders, inevitably produce.

There is a kernel of truth in his claims, however subjective the evidence. The Canadian psychologist Robert Altemeyer has extensively studied authoritarian tendencies and how they translate into political choices. The 20 percent or more of any given population that he estimates has authoritarian traits (submission to authority, and hostility and aggression towards those seen as opposed to that authority) is certainly enough to swing elections when they are mobilized – as they typically are, given their susceptibility to following a magnetic leader.

Others have made related claims. Freud—no stranger to concocting unprovable hypotheses—admitted it sounded far-fetched, but after the carnage of World War I, he despairingly concluded that countering the universal human will to survive was a death instinct characterized by risky behavior and the channeling of pent-up hostility against others.

Highly conjectural. But there is evidence for some kind of innate destructive and nihilistic impulse. Polling has shown a shocking percentage of Americans who want to “burn it all down” (apparently fantasizing that the apparatus of government can lie in smoking ruins and they’ll still get Medicare). And millions of Christian fundamentalists believe in the Apocalypse as a literal deus ex machina that will zap the unrighteous (who conveniently happen to be people that fundamentalists scorn) while wafting goodie two-shoes types like themselves into bliss eternal.

But the unanswered question raised by Rosenberg’s hypothesis is, why now? Supposedly innate human traits should manifest themselves at all times—unless they are either dampened or exacerbated by outside stimuli. Rosenberg implicitly stipulates to that by saying that elites had in the past tamped down the herd impulse to irrationality, which the Internet and related media then released like a sorcerer conjuring an evil curse.

But isn’t this ascribing agency to a neutral technology whose moral content is whatever humans make of it? Do motor vehicles further the life instinct or the death instinct? One need only think of an ambulance versus a battle tank to see that inanimate technology cannot be pigeonholed into a simple moral category. How, then, did the Internet become so negative, and why did popular acquiescence to leadership by elites collapse?

What Rosenberg fails to mention is that since about 1980 at the latest, our so-called elites have engaged in a bacchanalia of irresponsibility and selfishness that bears comparison with prerevolutionary France or tsarist Russia.

Armed with the crackpot theories of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, they steadily drove the economy towards financialization and stock buybacks at the expense of creating tangible value. They gave priority to shareholders (mainly the super-rich, large institutions, and those owning preferred shares rather than the mom-and-pop investor) over workers or the community. They created absurd boom-and-bust cycles in the real estate market with vast McMansion tracts and liar loans. Meanwhile, wealth inequality grew to near-Third World levels.

Were the rich aware of the risk of amassing unprecedented wealth while the middle class stagnated and the working poor grew poorer? Did they worry that they were sawing off the limb on which they sat? No: most of them patted themselves on the back for their brilliance and looked upon the masses with the disdain of an English lord during the Highland Clearances.

Bernard Marcus (net worth: $6.5 billion), a co-founder of Home Depot, had this to say about protests against Wall Street: “Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” (One suspects this misanthrope is responsible for the hardware chain’s lack of customer service).

Stephen Schwarzman (net worth: $18.2 billion), co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Blackstone, a private equity firm and the world’s biggest buyout shop, is well known for throwing a $5 million birthday party for himself. His attitude towards lesser mortals who can’t afford Rod Stewart performing at their birthdays? “You have to have skin in the game,” he said, suggesting that because many people make too little to pay federal income tax, they are somehow not full participants in society. That would surprise millions of working poor who are subject to payroll taxes and state and local sales taxes, both highly regressive forms of taxation.

But Schwarzman objected to having more skin in the game when President Obama, roused from his normal policy of favoring Wall Street, suggested reform of a tax-dodge called “carried interest” that allows hedge-fund sharks to pay artificially low rates. The idea of treating hedge-fund profits as ordinary earned income bestirred Schwarzman to whine, “It’s a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

Over the last several decades, plutocrats like Schwarzman got plenty of help; elite institutions have largely been subverted by the propagandists and coat holders of the super-rich.

Since the Jazz Age, the media-entertainment complex has catered to wealth fantasy. But it was balanced by the occasional Greed or Grapes of Wrath, and in the climax to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Claude Rains got his comeuppance. After a last hurrah from Norma Rae, the complex went all-in for wealth porn, from Risky Business to all the comedies about normal, fun-loving families who just happen to live in Winnetka, Illinois (median family income: over $250,000), such as Home Alone and other epics. Now Downton Abbey teaches Americans to ape the English upper class of our perennial vain aspiration.

“Serious” media got in the act, too. They lovingly concocted the simulacrum of a bogus Donald Trump, now the avatar of Americans’ disillusion with democracy. Throughout the 1980s, Lou Dobbs, then with CNN, regularly slobbered over Trump’s fake exploits (30 years later, Dobbs bathes his Führer in adorationso extreme it would have made Goebbels blush). Bankrupt by the early 2000s, Trump was given a fraudulent makeover courtesy of NBC (one of the alleged gatekeepers of news integrity) and The Apprentice, making him a byword for admirable success in every opioid-addled crossroads town of America’s vast interior.

And what of the grove of academe, where Rosenberg derives his credentials and authority? The corporatization of the ivy-covered walls is one of the biggest stories of the last four decades. Despite skyrocketing tuition, non-tenured teaching positions have grown to nearly three-quarters of faculty. These are mostly adjunct professors, who in many cases make McDonalds wages with no benefits.

Where does all the tuition go? Increasingly, every campus has a horde of lavishly paid vice presidents and administrators; many are community influence peddlers or fund raisers among the rich. Whole departments (typically in economics) are auctioned off to wealthy donors, with a concomitant risk to objectivity.

Price inflation in the university system approaches Pentagon contracting levels. The very book expounding Professor Rosenberg’s thesis sells for $99.33, neatly demonstrating academia’s textbook racket. Nothing illustrates this corporatization better than The Ohio State University’s attempt to trademark the word “The.” Its predictable failure makes one doubt the rigor of the university’s law school.

The elites failed at every level. Even the vaunted military general officer corps, routinely given knee-jerk adulation that Napoleon might have found excessive, has added to the mess. While they have been conspicuously unsuccessful at winning wars, they’re adept at lining their pockets while living in the luxurious trappings of Roman proconsuls.

Thanks to congressional largesse after 9/11, generals can make more in retirement pay than their final active duty pay rate. Not that they want to rusticate on a paltry quarter-million a year: most vastly supplement their government stipend by becoming board members or consultants of defense contractors.

This revolving-door corruption explains mega-disasters like the F-35 and the Zumwalt-class destroyer (specifically designed around two 6-inch guns that are unusable for lack of affordable ammunition – meaning the ships are mere floating casinos relieving taxpayers of their money). Even James Mattis, hailed as the noblest Roman of them all after the inevitable Trump firing, was mixed up in the Theranos blood test fraud.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the masses, finally seeing the scam that elites foisted on them under the false flag of liberal democracy, heeded their lizard brains and gave up on democracy altogether. The fact that they somehow managed to install as their tribune a basilisk so relentlessly inimical to the common man that he makes George W. Bush look like Tom Joad, is a riddle, or perhaps a cosmic joke—one whose explanation requires a psychologist with more insight than Shawn Rosenberg.

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