Reflection 2: The Deep Roots of Our Indecent Politics

As an observer of politics for more than 50 years, one persistent and powerfully present theme is this: The steady deterioration of decency’s 7 values – respect, understanding and empathy, acceptance and appreciation, fairness and justice – in both tone and substance.

In these years, the rhetoric of our two major parties has promoted meaningfully different agendas. Republicans’ public position is that, if we allow private, competitive markets to operate without restraint, greater decency will be a natural by-product of the private choices that accumulate under this system. Democrats, on their side, similarly endorse free market principles but seek to maintain and increase decency through governmental corrective initiatives.

Executive power since the 1960s has bounced back and forth between the parties: Kenney/Johnson followed by Nixon/Ford; Reagan/Bush One followed by Clinton; Bush Two followed by Obama. So, if our major parties actually subscribe in practice to their publicly stated goals, you would expect to see some coherent progress toward a more decent world during their years in power in ways that reflect each of their approaches.

But this hasn’t happened. When it comes to decency, the actions of both parties have been strikingly at odds with their official, publicly promoted ideologies:

Republicans have been deafening, in their silence, when it comes to leadership in promoting the private initiatives that are supposed natural by-products of the free market’s “magic,” exemplified by the utter absence of any enduring trace of Bush One’s “thousand points of light,” or Bush’s Two’s “compassionate conservatism.”

And the Democrats have been richly complicit in the erosion of safety net programs including, for example, the Bankruptcy Reform Act, signed into law by Carter, that deeply compromised the sanctity of union contracts; Clinton’s welfare “reform” and repeal of decades old regulations separating lending from investment banking; and Obama’s failure to seek meaningful financial re-regulate in return for $1.59 trillion in bailout funds; and

So what is going on? While disingenuous choices by contemporary politicians are part of the story, the more fundamental cause is deeply rooted in our evolution and history as a species.


Over the course of our 300,000 years as a species, humans have evolved exceedingly effective survival mechanisms; mechanisms that have allowed us to grow, in the last 50 to 100,00 years, from a geographically limited, sub-Saharan group of primates into the planet’s dominant species. And, the best theorists point to sensitivity to one another – and, with it, our ability to cooperate and communicate – as our key evolutionary edge.

While we are weaker and slower, our ability to intuit what others feel meant that a nod of the head or change of expression could be instantly understood by a fellow hunter at 50 yards. Living as hunter/gatherers, — the reality for almost all of years as a distinct species – this ability and the capabilities it fostered were the key to our evolutionary success.

The implication, confirmed by contemporary neuroscientists such as Dan Seigel, is that we are fundamentally affiliative beings. Our natural state is to be in intimate connection with, and to care for, one another. As Seigel says, it makes no sense to think of a single brain in isolation. From birth, and throughout life, our brain is molded and evolves by interacting with other brains. That is how we are neurologically wired.

But this is not the full story. Like other mammals, we have a second emergency system: Fight or flight. And because it is designed to deal with mortal danger it has a number of unique characteristics.

First, it is fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain. A car cuts across your lane without warning and what happens? You swerve superfast – your fight or flight brain in action. Only then do you realize that a car cut in front of you – your thinking brain.

In addition, since failing to remember the mortal risk of a crouching tiger 6 months or 20 years later would be a truly lousy idea, evolutionarily speaking, that part of your brain never forgets.

Finally, once activated, your fight or flight brain takes control of your mind and body. To support immediate counter-measures, it rushes hyper-alert chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) into the system and blood to the large muscle groups. And it shrinks the activity of the thinking brain, thereby minimizing the risk of having complex considerations interfere with the fast action required to insure survival.


So what does all this evolutionary and neurobiological theory have to do with our indecent politics? That gets back to our species’ history over the last 10,000 and 200 years.

As hunter/gatherers we spent long days quietly cooperating with one another in the mundane tasks of survival, with only occasional episodes of terror: A confrontation with an animal or neighboring group, a natural disaster. But then, about 10,000 years ago, as Jared Diamond describes in Gun, Germs, and Steel, we learned how to domesticate crops and animals.

The effect on humanity was seismic. Now, for the first time in our history, one group of people – through control of the food supply – could forcibly exercise control and dominion over others, and do so on a vast scale. The result: Our history as a species moved decisively and dramatically in that direction. We ceased to exist as small, isolated groups of hunter/gatherers. City/states, nations and empires became the norm.

But with this new, very different way of living, the people in control needed to develop new, ever more complex techniques for maintaining and expanding their power. When we remember the powerful physiological effects of fight or flight, it is not surprising that strategies that activated that part of the brain became key tools.

Demonization of the “other” became, and has remained, a mainstay of our governance. Why? Because when people are in a fight or flight state – out of fear of annihilation by an enemy – their willingness to follow, and to be controlled by, a leader greatly increases.

Thus, cultivating our auxiliary fight and flight mechanisms for political purposes has a long history.

But a key, crucially important additional piece of the puzzle is this:

Technological developments in the last 200 years have vastly upped the ante. Why? Because so many of life’s taken for granted down times – the times that allow us to be in our base-line affiliative state for a great majority of our hours and days – no longer exist. And, as an unintended but enormously important consequence, there has been an exponential increase in the times during which fight or flight states of mind are predominant.

Thus, for all of our time on earth – until 200 years ago – nighttime automatically resulted in a cessation of work, while summer’s heat and winter’s cold naturally and inevitably modulated the intensity of our activities. In addition, work rhythms were modulated by the weeks, and sometimes months, it took for communications to be sent and received.

But all that has now changed. We eliminated winter 150 years ago (with central heating), night time 120 years ago (with the electric light), and summer 60 years ago (with air conditioning). And, beginning in the mid-19th century, physical distance has been progressively obliterated as a limiting factor – with trains, cars, and planes; the telegraph telephone; and, in the last 20 years, cell phones, emails, texts and the Internet.

Now, thanks to technology, we can work all the time; a tendency that the culture powerfully reinforces with its emphasis on compete and win, dominant and control mindsets – whatever the cost. The result? Our fight or flight physiology is, more and more, in a state of constant activation. We are literally at risk of having this emergency auxiliary system become our new, base line mental state.


So why is our politics so indecent? Because, without regard to party or ideology, our mainstream politicians unerringly – and unnervingly – reflect the fight/flight mindsets that, increasingly and at an accelerating rate, have taken center stage in our lives.

The result? Though they may believe their own rhetoric, the great majority of our political leaders are not motivated by a desire to create a more humane, equitable and just world. To the contrary, the day-by-day choices that, over time, mold and reflect their priorities operationalize these deeply engrained flight or flight states of mind. In their deeds, if not their words, their priority is to “compete and win” and then, once in power, to maintain their position through “domination and control.”

On the Republican side, the route from rhetoric to reality is fairly straightforward. In their expressed ideology, decent outcomes occur automatically. If we are all free to pursue our private interests, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of the rest. And the absence of increased decency is explained, not through possible flaws in the theory – and, thus, in their policy choices – but through Democratic policies that prevent full implementation of the free market.

On the Democratic side, the journey to what is substantially the same outcome is more circuitous and, thus, more difficult to come to grips with. And this is an important point since, on balance, more people with an expressed passion for social justice identify as Democrats (me, included).

For this reason, their more hidden path away from decency, and toward compete and win values, means that the very people who are most motivated to blow the whistle on mainstream politics’ indecent ways are also more likely to remain mired in their side’s official story; concluding, for that reason, that the fundamental problem is with the other side – the Republicans – and not with the system itself.

Here’s how mainstream Democrats arrive at this place of indeecency.

They begin, it is true, with a series of programs that, if implemented, would promote decency: Jobs training, housing and education subsidies, an increased and expanded minimum wage, and so on. But then, the system grinds them up. And so, as the years go by, the great majority of these initiatives either do not become law or, if they do, are watered down to a point where their impact is more symbolic than real.

In the mainstream Democratic version of our politics, however, the failure of these “good” Democratic initiatives is attributed to the machinations of “bad” Republicans. And so, comforted by the belief that the Republican’s are the real problem, they gloss over their thorough complicity in what I see as the real story of our politics: A long series of bi-partisan, “under the radar screen” policies choices that favor the rich; that is, the funders of the very compete and win, dominate and control agenda that is so central to purposes of all our politicians, both Democrat and Republican.

Once you start to look, examples of this unacknowledged, largely invisible agenda show up everywhere. In addition to the policy choices cited at the beginning of this Reflection, here are a just few more examples:

  • Rules changes that have allowed senior corporate executives to receive massive payments in the form of stock options, with their favorable capital gains tax rates;
  • A massive expansion of our patent and intellectual property rights that give pharmaceutical, hi-tech and other industries expanded monopoly power over a vast array of products;
  • Emasculation of insider stock trading rules;
  • A massive expansion arbitration clauses that cut off consumer recourse to the courts;
  • Exclusion of mortgage debt and student loans from bankruptcy relief;
  • A steady increase in the inheritance tax exemption – from $675,00 in 2001 to $5.45 million in 2016.

For a fuller explanation of this phenomenon, I highly recommend Robert Reich’s concise and insightful book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015). And see, my discussion of his book in Reflection #87, Economic Inequality, Part 1 – How We Got Here.

A final note: Despite their defining importance to our political fate, these choices (and the overall policy trend they represent) are almost never a part of the political debate that shows up in the mainstream media. And that is no accident.

Even if we put aside the mainstream media’s complicity with the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values, the promoters of this agenda more far typically embed these initiatives in highly technical language hidden, within the dense fog of legal language that is a part of even the simplest bill or proposed rule. Alternatively, they are the result of (not at all benign) inattention and, thus, legislative/executive inaction in the face of private choices that, as they accumulate, deeply and negatively impact the public.


In saying all this, I want to emphasize that I am not a complete pessimist. Politicians who do transcend these fight or flight mindsets – and they do exist – enjoy an inherent advantage since their policies are more congruent with our true nature as affiliative beings.

Moreover, there are inherent problems with policies and tactics that push us toward chronic states of arousal since they are manipulative, exploitative, and physically and emotionally draining – all qualities that limit their continuing appeal. In the end, politicians with a more humane approach have, I believe, the better of the argument.

But we need to recognize that we live in a culture that is deeply out of synch with our biology and has been, to an increasing degree, over the last 200 years. Thus, while mainstream politicians can simply exploit current trends, politicians and political activists who are seeking a better way have the much more difficult task: To mount a challenge to the status quo that persuasively presents a more decent alternative.

Understanding the problem we face is, of course, vitally important. But diagnosis only has lasting value if it is a prelude to corrective action. In other Reflections, I seek to address some aspects of this all-important “what to do about it” question. See, for example, Reflection #49 Politics – Systems Analysis, Values Solutions; Reflection #73, Making Broadcast News More Decent; Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2; and Reflection #88, Economic Inequality – Making Things Different.

My hope, needless to say, is that by focusing on the deep values-based roots of our current political situation, the many decent, well-intentioned people that exist, across the political spectrum, can come together in a unified effort to create a more just, fair, and humane world.