Human brains aren’t built for self-rule, says Shawn
Rosenberg. That’s more evident than ever.
By Rick Shenkman
June 05, 2020 "Information
Clearing House" - Everything was
unfolding as it usually does. The academics who gathered
in Lisbon this summer for the International Society of
Political Psychologists’ annual meeting had been
politely listening for four days, nodding along as their
peers took to the podium and delivered papers on
everything from the explosion in conspiracy theories to
the rise of authoritarianism.
Then, the mood changed. As one of the lions of the
Shawn Rosenberg, began delivering his paper, people
in the crowd of about a hundred started shifting in
their seats. They loudly whispered objections to their
friends. Three women seated next to me near the back row
grew so loud and heated I had difficulty hearing for a
moment what Rosenberg was saying.
What caused the stir? Rosenberg, a professor at UC
Irvine, was challenging a core assumption about America
and the West. His theory? Democracy is devouring
itself—his phrase — and it won’t last.
As much as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics
might want to lay America’s ills at his door, Rosenberg
says the president is not the cause of democracy’s
fall—even if Trump’s successful anti-immigrant populist
campaign may have been a symptom of
We’re to blame, said Rosenberg. As in
“we the people.”
Democracy is hard work. And as society’s
“elites”—experts and public figures
who help those around them navigate the
heavy responsibilities that come with
self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined,
citizens have proved ill equipped
cognitively and emotionally to run a
well-functioning democracy. As a
consequence, the center has collapsed and
millions of frustrated and angst-filled
voters have turned in desperation to
His prediction? “In well-established democracies like
the United States, democratic governance will continue
its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.”
The last half of the 20th century was the
golden age of democracy. In 1945, according to one
survey, there were just 12 democracies in the entire
world. By the end of the century there were 87. But then
came the great reversal: In the second decade of the
21st century, the shift to democracy rather suddenly and
ominously stopped—and reversed.
Right-wing populist politicians have taken power or
threatened to in Poland, Hungary, France, Britain,
Italy, Brazil and the United States. As Rosenberg notes,
“by some metrics, the right wing populist share of the
popular vote in Europe overall has more than tripled
from 4% in 1998 to approximately 13% in 2018.” In
Germany, the right-wing populist vote increased even
after the end of the Great Recession and after an influx
of immigrants entering the country subsided.
A brief three decades after some had heralded the
“end of history” it’s possible that it’s democracy
that’s nearing the end. And it’s not just populist
rabble-rousers who are saying this. So is one of the
establishment’s pioneer social scientists, who’s daring
to actually predict the end of democracy as we know it.
Rosenberg, who earned degrees at Yale, Oxford and
Harvard, may be the social scientist for our time if
events play out as he suggests they will. His theory is
that over the next few decades, the number of large
Western-style democracies around the globe will continue
to shrink, and those that remain will become shells of
themselves. Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says,
will be right-wing populist governments that offer
voters simple answers to complicated questions.
And therein lies the core of his argument: Democracy
is hard work and requires a lot from those who
participate in it. It requires people to respect those
with different views from theirs and people who don’t
look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift
through large amounts of information and process the
good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires
thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.
Unfortunately, evolution did not favor the exercise
of these qualities in the context of a modern mass
democracy. Citing reams of psychological research,
findings that by now have become more or less familiar,
Rosenberg makes his case that human beings don’t think
straight. Biases of various kinds skew our brains at the
most fundamental level. For example, racism is easily
triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture of a
black man wearing a hoodie. We discount evidence when it
doesn’t square up with our goals while we embrace
information that confirms our biases. Sometimes hearing
we’re wrong makes us double down. And so on and so
Our brains, says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to
modern democracy. Humans just aren’t built for it.
People have been saying for two millennia that
democracy is unworkable, going back to Plato. The
Founding Fathers were sufficiently worried that they
left only one half of one branch of the federal
government in the hands of the people. And yet for two
centuries democracy in America more or less proceeded
apace without blowing itself up.
So why is Rosenberg, who made his name back in the
1980s with a
study that disturbingly showed that many voters
select candidates on the basis of their looks,
predicting the end of democracy now?
He has concluded that the reason for right-wing
populists’ recent success is that “elites” are losing
control of the institutions that have traditionally
saved people from their most undemocratic impulses. When
people are left to make political decisions on their own
they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing
populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia,
racism and authoritarianism.
The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are the people
holding power at the top of the economic, political and
intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support
democratic culture and institutions and the power to do
so effectively.” In their roles as senators,
journalists, professors, judges and government
administrators, to name a few, the elites have
traditionally held sway over public discourse and U.S.
institutions—and have in that role helped the populace
understand the importance democratic values. But today
that is changing. Thanks to social media and new
technologies, anyone with access to the Internet can
publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even
if it’s rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false
claim, like the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a
child sex ring from the basement of a Washington D.C.
pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.
While the elites formerly might have successfully
squashed conspiracy theories and called out populists
for their inconsistencies, today fewer and fewer
citizens take the elites seriously. Now that people get
their news from social media rather than from
established newspapers or the old three TV news networks
(ABC, CBS and NBC), fake news proliferates. It’s
surmised that 10 million people saw on Facebook the
false claim that Pope Francis came out in favor of
Trump’s election in 2016. Living in a news bubble of
their own making many undoubtedly believed it. (This was
the most-shared news story on Facebook in the three
months leading up to the 2016 election, researchers
The irony is that more democracy—ushered in by
social media and the Internet, where information flows
more freely than ever before—is what has unmoored our
politics, and is leading us towards authoritarianism.
Rosenberg argues that the elites have traditionally
prevented society from becoming a totally unfettered
democracy; their “oligarchic ‘democratic’ authority” or
“democratic control” has until now kept the
authoritarian impulses of the populace in check.
Compared with the harsh demands made by democracy,
which requires a tolerance for compromise and diversity,
right-wing populism is like cotton candy. Whereas
democracy requires us to accept the fact that we have to
share our country with people who think and look
differently than we do, right-wing populism offers a
quick sugar high. Forget political correctness. You can
feel exactly the way you really want about people who
belong to other tribes.
Right-wing populists don’t have to make much sense.
They can simultaneously blame immigrants for taking jobs
away from Americans while claiming that these same
people are lazy layabouts sponging off welfare. All the
populist followers care is that they now have an enemy
to blame for their feelings of ennui.
And unlike democracy, which makes many demands, the
populists make just one. They insist that people be
loyal. Loyalty entails surrendering to the populist
nationalist vision. But this is less a burden than an
advantage. It’s easier to pledge allegiance to an
authoritarian leader than to do the hard work of
thinking for yourself demanded by democracy.
“In sum, the majority of Americans are generally
unable to understand or value democratic culture,
institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner
required,” Rosenberg has concluded. “To the degree to
which they are required to do so, they will interpret
what is demanded of them in distorting and inadequate
ways. As a result they will interact and communicate in
ways that undermine the functioning of democratic
institutions and the meaning of democratic practices and
I should clarify that the loud whispers in the crowd
in Lisbon weren’t a response to Rosenberg’s pessimism.
This was after all a meeting of political
psychologists—a group who focus on flaws in voters’
thinking and the violation of democratic norms. At the
conference Ariel Malka reported evidence that
conservatives are increasingly open to authoritarianism.
Brian Shaffer related statistics showing that since
Trump’s election teachers have noted a rise in bullying.
Andreas Zick observed that racist crimes shot up
dramatically in Germany after a million immigrants were
What stirred the crowd was that Rosenberg has gone
beyond pessimism into outright defeatism. What riled
the crowd was that he’s seemingly embraced a kind of
reverence for elitism no longer fashionable in the
academy. When challenged on this front, he quickly
insisted he didn’t mean to exempt himself from the claim
that people suffer from cognitive and emotional
limitations. He conceded that the psychological research
shows everybody’s irrational, professors included! But
it was unclear that he convinced the members of the
audience he really meant it. And they apparently found
There were less discomforting moments in Lisbon. The
convention gave an award to George Marcus, one of the
founders of the discipline, who has dedicated his career
to the optimistic theory that human beings by nature
readjust their ideas to match the world as it is and not
as they’d like it to be—just as democracy requires.
But this isn’t a moment for optimism, is it? What is
happening around the world shows that the far-right is
on the march. And when it comes to the U.S., the problem
might be larger than one man. Liberals have been praying
for the end of the Trump presidency, but if Rosenberg is
right, democracy will remain under threat no matter who
is in power.
Rick Shenkman, founder of George Washington
University’s History News Network, is the author of
Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the
Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).
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