Observing the recent political shenanigans in Alberta one notes an intriguing pattern of human behaviour. During the recent competition for leader of the UCP, and therefore for premier of the province, we saw candidates ridiculing Danielle Smith’s proposed Sovereignty Act. Yet after she became leader and the bill was introduced into the legislature, all were supportive of both Smith and her act.

Perhaps the revised version took all their concerns into account, but that would be surprising considering Smith is now promising to amend it in response to the tsunami of criticism. More likely they just recognize who hands out cabinet positions.

We have seen similar behaviour down south. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, a number of prominent Republicans heaped contempt upon him. For example, Senator Ted Cruz called him a “pathological liar,” “a narcissist” and “utterly amoral.” This was after Trump insulted Cruz’s father. Senator Lindsey Graham pronounced, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed…….and we will deserve it.”

And so it went. But after Trump won, his Republican critics soon changed their tune and became deferential if not obsequious supporters.

So are politicians a bunch of sheep who blindly follow their leader? No, or at least no more than the rest of us. They are just people. Like all people they need to know their place and when they do, when they know who’s boss, they fall in line. We are a social species, a hierarchical species. We need to know our status, no less than other social species such as wolves or chimpanzees. And like other species, while we may strive to raise our status, we are inclined to observe the protocol attached to the status in which we find ourselves, deferential to those above, assertive to those below.

As a hierarchical species we are susceptible to authoritative figures. Those who assume leadership positions inherit an aura of power to which we are inclined to submit. Even in democracies we like strong leaders when we might be better advised to prefer collaborative ones.

The strong man’s followers are not motivated by the same emotions as his political colleagues. His followers sense a kindred spirit, sharing their fears and biases, who can defend them from the elites and honour their virtues. His fellow politicians are driven by fear and ambition, fear of the followers who he can unleash on them, and ambition for political favour.

So is democracy unnatural? Does the people submitting to the leader seem more satisfactory than the leader submitting to the people?

Democracy has powerful advantages, not the least of which is the ability to get rid of a leader when he no longer serves our interests. Quite aside from offering us the ability to select the leadership that best suits our interests in the first place.

But the hierarchical impulse can overcome democracy. And the more fearful we are the more we seek the strong man to reassure and protect us. And that can get us into very serious trouble. It destroyed Europe in the 1930s.

Even in the most robust democracies we can see the threat. The submission of Donald Trump’s followers and colleagues to his every whim could have led the US into fascism, and may yet. Danielle Smith’s first legislative foray included an undermining of democratic process.

Democracy isn’t a natural condition for Homo sapiens. If we want to preserve it we must recognize that unfortunate fact and constantly create and maintain the conditions that nourish it. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty. We must create and maintain a degree of political and economic equality such that the great mass of the citizenry feel that they matter, that they are heard.

This is something the Americans have not been doing, something Joe Biden is attempting to correct. If he fails, the hierarchical impulse may yet bring the American project to an end.

One thought on “Homo sapiens—a hierarchical species”
  1. Great analysis of democracy supported by most interesting evidence. We all know all the pieces floating around like flotsam. You put them together like a skilled Jigsaw player.

    Thanks Bill!

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