We were told the internet age would harken in a rebirth of democracy — or the beginnings of it in places where it has never been. That the power elites of old would be overwhelmed by the self-organizing masses. That the real power of centralized hierarchies would be supplanted by the new power of emergent social movements.
And now we have millions of people in the United States rallying against the system by supporting Donald Trump. We see that a choice architecture in our elections is structured to give us one of two pro-corporate candidates who serve the status quo logic of exploitative economic policies that funnel wealth from those very same self-organized masses into the bank accounts of themselves and their crony peers.
The cognitive scientist in me is not the least bit surprised by this.
I study the workings of the human mind and specifically how social meaning arises through shared cultural constructs like language, ritual practices, the roles and relationships arising in social institutions, and how all of these things interact with the spread of norms and values in a society.
One of the most important discoveries to come out of this large body of research (spanning fields like psychology, linguistics, evolutionary studies, neuroscience, anthropology, and computer science) is that the human mind is physically structured to conceal the meaning-making process from conscious awareness.
We look out into the world and it “just makes sense” to us. Our brains wire themselves across our lives to recognize familiar patterns — filling them in where they only partially appear. When we scan across a room — like the one I am sitting in at a coffee shop in Seattle as I write these words — what we see is recognizable shapes for things like chairs, tables, men and women, each with a known category telling us it is person or furniture or whatever else it happens to be.
But we don’t have conscious access to the photons hitting our retinas to deliver this visual information into our skulls. We aren’t able to feel the part of our visual cortex that detects edges and boundaries or fills in colors as this information is sent on to other parts of our brains to signify emotional significance and produce “gestalt” meanings that arise fully formed in our awareness.
This is how our minds work. We construct illusions of meaning that we then act out as meaningful things while we go about our lives. We experience the world as richly structured and meaningful because our brains and bodies evolved across millions of years to become the cultural animals we are today.
What does this have to do with political power? In a word, everything.
I want to make the provocative claim that the illusion of power IS a kind of real power. This is how Donald Trump as a symbolic icon (or Hillary Clinton as a cultural meme) can wield so much influence to preserve status quo arrangements of economic and political power.
Throughout the history of our species, our ancestors spent 99% 0f their time living in small hunter-gatherer societies made up of a few dozen to a few hundred people. They were almost entirely egalitarian because everyone knew everyone else and would-be dictators were kept in place through dynamic processes of shaming, incentivizing, expelling, or in rare cases executing them.
The social nature of human cultures is such that we don’t like to be dominated by other people. This creates a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress in our bodies. So when we have the ability to spread gossip and unleash our frustrations among friends and family we tend to see matters taken care of fairly quickly.
But all of this changed with the rise of large, hierarchical city states after the birth of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. As division of labor arose across the growing populations in these settlements, it became possible for a power elite to take advantage of social divisions to divide the population against itself and stay in power.
Flash forward to the time when technological advances enable us to produce vastly complicated systems of education and communication. Where we have video and audio information merged into television content and a literate population capable of thinking and acting through rich “downloads” of culture telling them who to trust, where their people came from, what is good and just about the tribe they belong to, and how other tribes are the root cause of their woes.
This kind of environment “selects” for the use of propaganda to divide and conquer a population. It enables the stories about reality to float across the minds of many people (who then repeat them reflexively each time the relevant prompts are present in their environments). This creates a situation where the illusion of power is one of the most powerful tools for social control available.
So why does it matter that Donald Trump’s campaign team chose to plagiarize a 2008 speech from Michelle Obama for Trump’s wife to deliver at the Republican National Convention in 2016? It matters because this activates a meshwork of stories that were previously embedded in US political culture — those that activate Democratic Party loyalists to actively share media content about how horrified, disgusted and dismayed they are at the lack of morality this Republican demagogue embodies.
Yet it also activates a different set of stories in the minds of Republican Party loyalists about out-of-touch intellectual elites, the liberal establishment, and its history of oppressive corruption that has been fed to them for decades through conservative talk radio and television shows.
What we see coming out the other end is the predictable pattern of binary opposition. All nuance disappears. The multicultural reality of many different sub-cultures — groups like African American suburban neighborhoods in the Midwest, third-generation Asian communities across the west coast, Appalachian hillbillies and rough necks of the Great Plains, New York Jews, and so forth — vanishes from sight and we are left with a strong impression of two teams engaging in epic battles for supremacy that leave most of us disconnected and disaffected. This is how the binary “choice architecture” I mentioned above is put in place. Our landscape is reduced to two undesirable options on purpose and by design as a process of social control.
So the majority of us don’t vote.
And the same power elites (who stand for corporate control of our own government as a tool of foreign exploitation of governments overseas) remain in power. They control us by letting our illusions run rampant.
Said another way, it is us who are collectively in control. But our blindness to the roles we perform unconsciously keep us from seeing it. We are the invisible energy — the life force of politics — that these elites use to become powerful.
I say enough is enough. It is time for more awakenings. We need more people who practice meditation so they can learn how their minds react to different cultural stimuli. We need people who become comfortable wielding their personal power collectively to transform the divisions into unity of values, perspective, and alignment toward action.
This is how #BlackLivesMatter can merge with #FeelTheBern.
This is how local food movements can merge with education.
This is how decriminalization of recreational drugs can merge with efforts to close down private prisons.
This is how we step into power and reclaim American democracy.
Note how it will require training and practice. We’ll have to see the systems of wealth hoarding that hide in our minds. It will be necessary to recognize our shared malaise of a broken economy is the emotional powerhouse we can activate to update and replace the elite institutions that keep status quo power structures in place.
It is time to stop feeding the monster and instead nourish our own better selves.
Onward, fellow humans.
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