Have you ever wondered why it is that Progressives repeatedly lose ground in American politics? We almost always have the facts on our side. The experts agree with us. Hell, a lot of us are the experts. And yet history clearly shows that Conservatives have the best political game in town. They dominate political discourse, establishing which frames shape the most important issues of the day. Their values associated with rugged individualism, mass consumption, and a contempt for civil society are blasted at the American public through massive media outlets that they have acquired and built up over the last several decades. And when the global economy melts down as a direct result of their economic and fiscal policies, who gets blamed? In a word, liberals.
What’s going on here? Why is it that Conservatives are so good at winning and Progressives produce a lackluster resistance at best? The answer comes from a fundamental insight from evolutionary biology. Stated simply, it goes like this:
When two groups compete, the one with the most social cohesion wins in the long run.
This insight arises from research on group selection that reveals how social animals capable of working as a team readily out compete those individuals who must struggle on their own. The astute observer will already note the profound irony here — a political group whose ideology elevates the individual over the group (Conservatives) has managed to cultivate more group cohesion than the political group whose ideology blends community well-being with that of the individual. I’ll come back to this irony in a moment.
Progressives are easily kept on the defensive through the age-old strategy of Divide and Conquer
A fantastic overview of group selection can be found in E.O. Wilson’s groundbreaking new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which builds a powerful argument for how humanity’s social nature enabled us to dominate every ecosystem we have entered in our 2 million year history.*
The argument goes something like this:
- Throughout history, a tiny number of species have developed a capability known as eusociality — advanced social organization comprised of large numbers of individuals with differentiated roles including members that span more than one generation.
- Most eusocial species discovered in the fossil record are the social insects — ants, bees, termites, and wasps. Every one of these species has been so successful at thriving that their bodies contained more than half of the biomass in the ecosystems where they lived, meaning that they completely dominated the niches populated by them. This pattern continues up to the present.
- Humans are the only eusocial species to have the additional properties of strong emotional bonds between group members and advanced cognitive abilities that enable us to form coherent gestalts of meaning — especially the capacity for shared cultural narratives and tribal identities — which have enabled us to out-compete and dominate less socially adept animals in every ecosystem we have entered.
- The key strategy underlying this pattern is that well-organized groups, which elevate the needs of the whole over those of individuals, are more successful at acquiring resources and consolidating power than those individuals or groups that are less organized.
Sound familiar? In American politics, we see the top-down authoritarian worldview of Conservatives enabling them to fall in line and take marching orders. They form strong loyalty bonds through religious affiliation, old money networks, and various social clubs that give them an immense capacity for social cohesion.
And what about Progressives? We are divided into issue silos, unable to form lasting coalitions that bond us together under the same ideological flag, and easily kept on the defensive through the age-old strategy of Divide and Conquer. We have difficulty trusting each other and our funders are unable or unwilling to invest in talent for talent’s sake — they always need to monitor the outcomes of their giving and almost never fund the operational needs of our advocacy organizations.
This is the real reason why we lose. It isn’t that their ideas are better. The difference is entirely in the execution. They set the agendas and we react to them, plain and simple. So what can we do about this dire situation? Again, the answer is easy to state:
Progressives need to engage in a values-based strategy that builds trust across the issue silos. We need to focus on building communities of shared identity that bind us together.
Building trust across organizations requires a three-pronged approach. First, we have to know our own values so that we can articulated them with authenticity and authority. Secondly, we must make these values explicit and engage in the practice of radical transparency to leave no questions about where we stand and what we care about. And third, we’ve got to seek out those who resonate with these values at the core level of their personal identity. It is upon this foundation that we can engage in the vital work of building trust.
There was once a time when I engaged in values-based strategies as a frame analyst, working with George Lakoff at his think tank, the Rockridge Institute. It was a telling experience that we were unable to break through the professional divisions of pollsters, bloggers, public intellectuals, elected officials, and all of the other categories that routinely divide us. We also repeatedly found that each issue group clung to its own ground, unwilling to share power with those progressives who were motivated by something other than their pet cause. And worst of all, we observed how a small cohort of elite players would sabotage up-and-coming progressive talent in order to preserve the fiefdoms they had built. All told, it was an ugly situation.
I learned a great deal about progressive politics during that turbulent period of time in 2007 and 2008, and even more while running my consulting company in the years since. It’s a sad state of affairs that even after the major hit we took from the combined effects of disaster capitalism in the financial meltdown and the enactment of Citizens United that has crippled what remains of the integrity in our electoral system, that we are still so feebly organized today. Even more so, considering the great strides that have been made after a global progressive movement appeared from outside of politics in the garbs of the Arab Spring and Occupy,
The challenges to be overcome in the world hinge absolutely on our ability to come together as a species on the world stage. As I write these words, leaders from across the globe are meeting to discuss what they are willing to do about the ecological crisis at Rio+20. Two decades after agreements were made about the need to tackle human-caused climate disruption, we still don’t have a governance structure in place that enables to work together to protect the planetary commons upon which all life depends.
Again, the fundamental issue is trust. We have yet to endow our international institutions with the power of citizen sovereignty that transplants and augments the sovereignty of nations. We are unable to trust our neighbors on the other side of the fence to act in our collective interest for the preservation of our future as a sacred responsibility for our children and grandchildren.
It’s time for Progressives to claim our power and transform the political and economic systems
On a positive note, there are clear trends toward increasing empathy and the sharing of trust throughout history. Jeremy Rifkin documents the tale with an inspiring breadth of scope in his work, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. We are more capable of seeing ourselves in the other — be they women, diverse ethnicities, LGBT communities, or non-human life — than ever before. Our capacity for cultivating shared identity, and the social cohesion it enables, is stronger than ever before in the history of civilization. We have more tools and knowledge about collaboration and conflict resolution right now than ever before, and new insights are revealed daily in the global quest for knowledge about the human condition through the various sciences and scholarly efforts of our educational institutions.
So we can take the shared values — which are deeply progressive — that resonated with hundreds of millions through Occupy and activate them for our collective good. Now is the time to turn the tide and win the cultural war for our collective future. Outdated notions of authoritarian rule by oligarchs and chieftains no longer apply to our digitally connected, globally conscious world that we live in today.
Now is the time for Progressives to claim our power and transform the political and economic systems that stand in our way. And the ultimate source of our power will be found in the levels of trust we create.
*Some may draw the line closer to 200,000 years, since that’s how far back we have evidence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. I am allowing for a deeper historic range that includes the evolutionary period that produced the incredible explosion in cognitive ability, which depended heavily on our ability to form social groups in order to survive and thrive across the northern African continent in previous millennia.
Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational and research center devoted to the application of cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.
Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training