There’s a reason Donald Trump just came out against the United States Constitution, and it’s not because he’s simply a fascist or that the guy he paid to show up for his classes in prep school and college didn’t fill him in on civics.
It’s the same reason he publicly had dinner with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes instead of, as when he was in the White House, keeping his dinners with Mark Zuckerberg and others who helped him win the White House in 2016 private.
Trump has now made the same mistake Napoleon made, the same mistake Hitler made, the same mistake Putin made when he invaded Ukraine. It’s the mistake the business press says Elon Musk is making, as did Sam Bankman-Fried, and Mike Lindell.
It’s the mistake Xi Jinping is making right now governing China.
All these rich and powerful men had/have the same thing in common: they believed their brilliance or success in one area meant they were brilliant and would be successful in all endeavors.
As a result of this false belief, each surrounded themselves with yes-men and lived in a bubble, disconnecting them from their business or political constituents…leading to bad, poorly informed decision-making processes.
In other words, each rejected democracy.
A threat like this to democracy is also a threat to all life on Earth. Because, at its simplest, democracy can be described as the ultimate human survival behavior.
From the earliest appearance of Homo sapiens 300,000 years ago, the great challenge for every group of humans was finding a way to survive both in the face of environmental challenges like predators, food scarcity, and local climate variations and to survive predation from other nearby groups of humans covetous of local resources.
A massive body of scientific literature, most accumulated over the past century, shows that group decision-making is almost always superior to decision-making by charismatic individuals or small groups of people who’ve managed to ringfence resources that give them great wealth and power over others.
We see this across the animal world — with swarm, flock, and school behavior — and we see it across world human history. It’s universal.
Democracies are most robust when the people lead politicians who are responsive to popular opinion; they’re most fragile when politicians can ignore public opinion because they’ve seized the power to choose their voters and dictate the terms of governance.
Dynamic advanced democracies, like Germany in the 1920s, can find themselves in crisis within a decade when a single charismatic leader and his select in-group become the nation’s sole decision makers. We were almost there with the Trump presidency, and may well end up back there with DeSantis or another Trump wannabee.
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 making and rulemaking that most efficiently encompasses the collective wisdom of the group — is a survival system every bit as important as technology, from stone tools to weapons of war to rocket ships.
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 democracy is so universal that it’s not limited to human beings.
In the Declaration of Independence’s first paragraph 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 small fight with the Declaration’s main editor, John Adams, who thought it should be “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 were the same thing, interpenetrating each other.
And they operate by certain rules of nature that 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 the 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.
But it turns out that there’s a system for voting among animals, from honeybees to primates, that we’ve just never noticed because we weren’t looking for it.
“Many authors have assumed despotism without testing [for democracy],” they note 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.”
Conradt and Roper 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.
Because in a despotic model the overall needs of the entire group are measured only through the lens of the leader’s needs, wrong decisions would be made often enough to put the survival of the group at risk.
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. “
Democracy, it turns out, is the norm in the 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.
When this process becomes advanced, democracies typically morph first into oligarchies (where we largely are now) and then dictatorships (where Trump just proposed to take us).
When the US Supreme Court ruled in a series of decisions between 1976 and 2013 that it is mere “free speech“ protected by the First Amendment when wealthy people or corporations nakedly buy and bribe political figures to alter the rules in a way that benefits themselves, they placed a cancer at the heart of our democracy that has now significantly metastasized.
The great challenge of our day is going to be to excise that disease, to wrest control of our economic and political systems away from the small group of billionaires and politically active corporations that have seized it.
These men (mostly) and CEOs have, like Trump and Putin, come to “believe their own BS,” as the old expression goes. It blinds them to the larger impact of their political machinations on all of society, all of humanity, all life on planet Earth.
Instead, they welcome the corruption the Supreme Court put into place with Citizens United, which gives the tiny slice of morbidly rich people such massive power. They welcome it because they think — being “secret geniuses,” as Brian Klaas wrote about last week — that they’re deserving of it and uniquely know best how to use it.
To the extent that the United States is still a democracy — and lacking a legislature or court system willing to challenge America’s oligarchs — the only option left to Americans to save our nation and the world from these “secret geniuses” is to soundly reject them and their bought-off shills at the ballot box.
It won’t be easy, but if this is not accomplished soon our current marginally democratic oligarchy will become a dictatorship with a thin façade of democracy, much like modern-day Hungary or Russia.
And that’s not just a threat to Americans: it’s a threat to all life on Earth.