Another Way to Think about the US Elections

By Herb Bowie

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County Map Purple

I was recently puzzling over the still surprising victory of Donald Trump in the recent US Presidential elections, when it occurred to me that there is another way to think about this whole chain of events.

What follows is going to require some understanding of evolving developmental levels for people and our societies, so let me start with a summary of my understanding of these.

Developmental Levels Summary

The following summary is largely based on the work of Ken Wilber, Clare W. Graves, Don Beck and Chris Cowan.

Both individuals and societies can be thought of as developing through a series of levels. Higher levels of development supplement lower levels, but do not replace them. Development cannot skip a level, but can be arrested at any stage: progression entirely through the series is in no way assured.

Developmental Levels
Level Name
Level Characterization
Corresponding Social Structure
1 Archaic / Instinctual Lone Wolf

Focused solely on immediate survival needs; minimal sense of self; behavior based on natural instincts and reflexes; concern only for physical self and physical environment; nothing that we would recognize as society or culture.

This earliest and most primitive level is really characterized by the lack of any social structure, but it’s important to include it, because we are all still motivated by basic survival instincts: fight or flight, hunger, thirst, avoidance of physical danger, and so on. Some social structures can override these basic instincts – as when a soldier goes to war to protect his or her country – but these basic survival motivations are all still present, and so must be kept in mind and accounted for.

2 Magical / Animistic Family

Beginning to differentiate self from world, and elements of world from one another, and to intuit causal relationships, but no accurate understanding of these relationships; impulsive, possessing faith in magic and superheroes; tribal kinship bonds, ethnic tribes, ancestral stories, superstitious beliefs.

These are the kinship bonds between husband and wife, parent and child, child and sibling, as well as the bonds linking those who share a particular ethnic heritage tied to a particular region.

The family structure serves to conserve knowledge and property by sharing them among family/tribal members, and passing these things down from one generation to another.

3 Tribal / Power Gods Power Pyramid

Egocentric; asserting self for dominance, conquest and power; evident in feudal empires and criminal gangs; people organize themselves based on power hierarchies, with the most powerful individuals leading the weaker; might makes right.

This is a hierarchical structure in which those above have power over those below, and in which the strongest rise towards the apex of the pyramid.

This sort of hierarchical structure is evident in gangs, in corporations, and in organized religions, to point out just a few common usages.

4 Traditional / Mythic Order Shared Principles

People organize themselves around mythic, fundamentalist principles of truth, with groups requiring close conformity to their particular principles, but with no reliable way to make value judgments comparing one group’s “truth” to another’s; group membership based on professed allegiance and obedience to shared principles, rather than on family ties or geography or membership in gangs; fundamental principles held to be absolute and unvarying; belief in the law and in an authoritarian hierarchy from which the law is passed down.

This is a structure bound together by a shared adherence to a set of written principles, or laws. These writings are accepted as fundamental articles of faith, and are intentionally difficult or impossible to modify.

This social structure can be seen in most religions and in any sort of constitutional government.

Note that such organizations are open to anyone willing to pledge allegiance to the shared principles, without regard for a person’s background or origins.

5 Modern / Rational Peer Network

Society advances based on use of the scientific method; quantitative methods are introduced that allow people to make objective decisions about what is true and what is false; truth is determined based on the testing of a variety of hypotheses, rather than reference to an absolute authority; oriented towards achievement of results.

These structures are based on networks of peers with common interests, willing to openly share their knowledge with others, and willing to have their beliefs challenged based on fresh data and/or new analysis.

All of science is based on this sort of social structure. Improvements in publishing, such as the printing press, and the World Wide Web, are critical enablers for this sort of structure.

6 Postmodern / Pluralistic Pluralistic Cosmopolis

Egalitarian; relativistic; situational; accepting of fluid affiliations; acknowledges that there are multiple, valid ways of perceiving reality, and tries to accept all people and life forms by placing value on diversity; may be seen as a means of accommodating multiple tribes, gangs and mythic orders within a single, overarching social order; consensus-based decision-making.

This social structure brings together people with many different interests, skills and backgrounds into a shared community in which all have equal status. Diversity is actively valued as a means of improving social cohesion, and as a means of bringing to bear as many different talents as possible. In this structure, individuals are encouraged to explore and discover new and meaningful ways of connecting with one another, essentially creating emergent structure. The World Wide Web is based on this structure.

7 Integral / Systemic Global Systems

Sees the importance of the earlier levels, and of the developmental model as a whole; while still acknowledging the value of diversity, also recognizes the validity of healthy value hierarchies.

A systemic approach consciously and dynamically constructs and modifies social mechanisms with an awareness of all of these various types of structures, with the goal of producing optimal outcomes for society as a whole.

Note that, from an interior perspective, this level encourages an acceptance of all these structures, respecting the strengths of each, without any bias for or against any of them.

For additional details, refer to these earlier posts:

Application to US Politics

If we think about the candidates and our electorate from this perspective, it’s possible to make a few cogent observations.

  1. Our most popular political candidates are able to demonstrate their ability to operate successfully at all or most of these different developmental levels (1 - 7). Barack Obama is a good example of this, and Bill Clinton was another.

  2. During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton only ever really seemed credible at the Green Postmodern / Pluralistic level (6).

  3. Donald Trump is clearly entrenched in levels 1 - 3, with little if any ability to operate above the Red Tribal / Power Gods level.

  4. If we consider the much-discussed urban/rural divide from the perspective of Developmental Levels as Evolving Social Structures, then it’s clear that our large cities are the places dominated by levels 4 - 6, whereas our more rural areas are primarily dominated by levels 1 - 4. This is not so much a question of an evolution of consciousness, as it is a question of which social structures are most useful in which environments.

  5. As America has shifted much of its labor needs from growing and building things to the use of technology for the manipulation of information, it has increased the size of this divide: with fewer jobs in rural areas, and with the information economy growing in large cities, those still left outside of the cities increasingly have little use for social structures that are characteristic of levels above 4.

  6. Donald Trump was, and is, in many ways a perfect candidate to mobilize this part of our electorate. He is clearly a champion for levels 1 - 3, and he is one who has visibly succeeded on the very turf typically dominated by those operating primarily at levels 4 - 6: he has succeeded in the media, and he has had his name emblazoned on many large and impressive edifices found in the middle of some of our largest cities. So for those living in suburbia and in the country, Trump is a very attractive leader to champion the somewhat neglected interests of those living outside of our most populous urban areas.

  7. The world’s largest businesses have been quietly moving towards a greater focus on the Red Tribal / Power Gods level (3). These businesses increasingly operate outside of the laws and norms laid down by any one nation, and are increasingly interested in achieving global dominance of their chosen market segments. As we begin to think of the world, not in terms of a place with limitless opportunities for discovery and application of new technologies, nor as a global community operating under the rule of law, but as a large but limited pie, both in terms of resources and in terms of markets, then our focus naturally shifts towards acquiring and keeping power, and away from societal principles, away from scientific research, and away from egalitarian impulses to live and let live. Instead, we are back at the might-makes-right level. And, again, Trump appears a highly qualified leader if this is the kind of playing field we’re on – he certainly presented himself as much more capable of leading at this level, when compared to any of the other presidential candidates of either party in 2016.

  8. When you consider the ability of large businesses to place jobs wherever they want, and you consider the ability of radical terrorists to kill innocent civilians wherever they want, you feel yourself much more in need of a level 3 leader than someone leading at levels 4, 5 or 6. You want to be part of a large, mighty tribe with a strong, powerful leader.

  9. When we ponder the meaning of the term “elites” in our current political discourse, it quite naturally is used by those constrained to levels 1 - 4, to refer to those who have the luxury of being able to operate at levels 5, 6 and 7.

What Next?

For those of us who still believe in the importance of the rule of law, the written word, the scientific method, critical thinking, equality and diversity, how do we reinstate political leaders who have some capability to operate at these higher levels of development?

I think there are three main areas on which we need to focus our energies.

  1. We need political leaders who appear credible at all of these levels. In particular, it’s important not to neglect the lower levels, even while recognizing the importance of the higher levels.

  2. We need large tech companies to begin placing jobs requiring a college degree in areas outside of the large, popular urban areas. Until these parts of our country have more jobs requiring people with the capability and the need to operate at higher levels of development, we cannot expect these parts of our country to fully recognize the importance of these higher levels. This does not require sacrifice from anyone. Many employees would gladly relocate to areas with lower housing prices, less population density and greater access to the outdoors.

  3. We need to use these higher levels of development to assess the performance of our current and incoming political leaders. This will require some patience. It does no good to start pointing fingers now. But it would do a lot of good to establish some reasonable measures of success and then start tracking these on a monthly basis, in a non-partisan way, showing numbers and trends by state and county, as well as at the national level.