Ideas have no power on their own. But when they prompt collective action…. (More)

Democracy Crumbling Pt. III: Collective Power

This week we give the Squirrel a few days off and put the resident faculty back to work for a series on Democracy Crumbling. Monday we began with our eroding democratic norms. Yesterday we saw how power can dominate over widely-shared ideas. Today we restore the importance of ideas by exploring the power of collective action.

“A moment of silence”

On Monday evening, the U.S. House did the most useless thing they could in response to the massacre in Las Vegas: the now-habitual moment of silence. Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark (D) refused to participate:

“We’ve had our grisly House ritual of expressing our heartfelt grief, followed by a moment of silence. But the moments have extended into years. Families at home did not send us here for our thoughts and prayers. No one in this chamber was elected to tackle our country’s challenges with moments of silence,” Clark said in a House floor speech.

She is correct, not merely as a matter of politics but also as a matter of science. More specifically, of biology.

Individually, we are nothing more than chimpanzees with less body hair. Indeed we’re somewhat less. As tree-dwelling creatures, chimpanzees can avoid most predators. Their stronger arms also give them the power to fight off most of the predators that can get up into the trees. We plains apes aren’t as strong as our genetic cousins and only the most gifted among us – gymnasts and the like – could scamper into a tree like a chimp.

As a solitary species, we plains apes would have been extinct millions of years ago. We’re that vulnerable … individually.

Fortunately, we’re not a solitary species. We’re a social species, indeed what Jonathan Haidt calls an “ultrasocial” species. So far as we know, we’re the only species to cooperate in larger-than-kinship groups. You can see hundreds of cape buffalo roam together, cooperating to survive, but they’re all at least close cousins. Likewise for everything from bees to birds to chimps. Except us.

Go to almost any government building, almost any school, almost any large business, and you’ll find hundreds if not thousands or even tens-of-thousands of humans cooperating, and most are not close cousins. Our ultrasocial-ness is what allowed individually-frail plains apes to survive.

But to activate our ultrasocial-ness, we must communicate … precisely the opposite of “a moment of silence.”

“Unalienable rights”

Consider this famous claim in our Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As a matter of science, biology, “natural law” … that claim is complete bullshit.

Science is, in Karl Popper’s well-chosen term, about falsifiability. It’s about claims that can be tested against evidence and thus, possibly, disproved. Nothing is “self-evident” in science, and certainly not the statements that follow. We are manifestly not “created equal.” We have no scientific evidence of a “Creator.” And as for “unalienable Rights” – to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” – those words were written by a man who bought and sold human beings as property. He no more believed those words, in any scientific sense of their meaning, than he believed he could jump up onto the moon.

As a matter of science, biology, “natural law” … you have exactly two “unalienable rights” — (1) the right to take what you want from those who are weaker; and, (2) the right to give what you have to those who are stronger, rather than let them kill you and take it. That “law of the jungle” is the only scientifically observable “natural law.” Period.

Fortunately, Jefferson’s quickly pivoted to something nearer to science:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It is factually correct that “Governments are instituted among Men.” The rest of that sentence – and what follows in the Declaration – is a statement of ideals rather than facts. Not all governments are instituted “to secure these rights,” and not always “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Still, those are laudable ideas and they can become at least somewhat true in specific instances. But not through a “moment of silence.” Those ideas become true and those rights become real only if they are communicated and form a foundation for collective action.

And legally, that’s what the Declaration of Independence was: a public rejection of British sovereignty, a declaration of war against the British crown. A declaration of collective action.

“We the People…”

I emphasize “collective” because conservatives and libertarians have turned that into an epithet. They offer endless paeans to “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance,” such as this absurd statement by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) in response to the massacre in Las Vegas:

[I]t’s an open society and it’s hard to prevent anything. I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions. To protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said – get small.

Set aside for a moment – if you can – the ugly callousness of blaming the victims, a crowd of 22,000 concert-goers for not “tak[ing] precautions … protect[ing] themselves … try[ing] to stay safe … get[ting] small” when a gunman opened fire from 32 stories above with what were effectively machine guns. I’m surprised he didn’t say they “got themselves shot,” you know, the way women “get themselves raped.”

But set that aside. What Sen. Thune said was fundamentally un-American. I mean that in the most literal sense — that it is contrary to our founding document:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Note all those collective nouns: “We … people … union … the common defense … the general welfare … ourselves and our posterity.”

Not a single mention of individualism, rugged or otherwise. Nothing about self-reliance. Nary a word about concert-goers having a civic duty to “take precautions … protect themselves … try to stay safe … get small.”

Quite to the contrary, phrases like “the common defense” and “the general welfare” all but declare a duty of “We the People” – through our government – to protect those concert-goers. That is a duty of collective action, and it’s right there in our government’s founding document.

That’s why the right-wing mantras of “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance” – and Sen. Thune’s ugly, callous, victim-blaming – are “fundamentally un-American.” In the most literal sense of that phrase.

“The time to have these conversations and make the necessary reforms is now”

Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes understands that civic duty of collective action, and its prerequisite of communication:

We all awoke Monday to a grim ritual. As we looked at our phones, we saw that dozens of people had been slaughtered in Las Vegas by a madman with a gun. For the victims, survivors and families, this is a nightmare come true. My heart aches for them, even as it swells at the thought of the first responders who rushed to help the many Americans who felt the awful reality of meaningless death and avoidable loss.

But now what? The question cannot be escaped, even by those who wish the whole subject would go away. We are the most powerful nation in the world, a city upon a hill, exceptional. But we can’t seem to stop — or even slow — the regular murder of our citizens in headline-grabbing mass shootings or in the daily count of suicide, assault and domestic violence that ends the lives of nearly 35,000 of us a year.
They will tell you it’s “too soon” to discuss policy in the aftermath of this shooting. That it dishonors the dead to “politicize” the tragedy. They will insist, instead, on meaningless moments of silence designed to look compassionate and hide our inaction. Malarkey. Gun violence in this country is epidemic, and not a day passes without a gun-related tragedy. We can’t wait for the bloodshed to pause to start talking about the change that might save lives. The time to have these conversations and make the necessary reforms is now. Or many years ago, when real action might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

While Republicans like Sen. Thune would reduce us to solitary, vulnerable plains apes, Democrats like Rep. Himes recognize that the most important evolutionary adaptations that enabled our survival were those that formed our capacity for complex speech: from changes in the shape and placement of the tongue fine-motor control of the lips and diaphragm to changes in the size and composition of our brains. When we respond to massacres like Las Vegas with “a moment of silence,” we throw away the very biological adaptations that allowed we plains apes to survive and thrive.

“Overwhelming public sentiment should, in theory, result in policy that might stanch the flow of blood”

Indeed when we demand “a moment of silence” – and surrender communication and thus our capacity for collective action – we throw away democracy itself, as Rep. Himes explains:

We are, in most realms, a democracy. Overwhelming public sentiment should, in theory, result in policy that might stanch the flow of blood: policy like universal background checks, banning large magazines and implementing “No-Fly, No-Buy.” If public sentiment mattered, these things would become law. But none of them will be brought up for a vote. Republican leaders will not cross the minority of Americans who fear, at every turn and in every moment, the nonexistent conspiracy to do away with their constitutional rights. And they certainly will not alienate groups like the NRA that are happy to trade lives for profit, some of which will find its way into campaign war chests.

Instead, an impotent Congress will hold a moment of silence, and an uninterested president will order flags flown at half-mast and make a show of a somber visit to the scene of the latest crime. In the background, arguments buzz among the leadership of the House of Representatives about the decent interval of time necessary before voting on legislation to ease restrictions on firearm silencers.

We discussed yesterday how our looks-like-a-democracy is now chained to the will of the tiniest minorities: the 9% who say it should be legal to discriminate against LGBTs, the 10% who say the wealthy pay too much in taxes, the 13% who say the God-King should try to make Obamacare fail … and the 11% who say our gun laws are too strict.

Those profoundly-undemocratic chains exist, in no small measure, because Republicans have been choosing their voters – through ever-more-aggressive and ever-more-precise gerrymandering – rather than letting voters choose their elected leaders. And just yesterday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussed how profoundly corrosive that is:

The plaintiffs seemed to find a more receptive audience in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who told Erin Murphy – arguing on behalf of the Wisconsin legislature – that the “precious right to vote” is at the heart of this case. If legislators can “stack” a legislature, so that the result of the election is “preordained,” she queried, where is the incentive for voters to actually go to the polls? “Society should be concerned,” Ginsburg concluded.

Our Constitution does not call for “moments of silence.” Quite the contrary, it calls for “We the People” to debate the issues of our times, to communicate ideas and – through collective action – turn them into tangible rights that government secures for us. If “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” don’t mean the right to attend a concert without being mown down by a madman with machine guns …

… then those words mean nothing at all and we truly are back to “natural law” — the law of the jungle.

We must not let Republicans reduce us to chimpanzees-with-guns. We must not be silent.


Image Credits — Democracy: Bryce Durbin (; Cracks: MothvalleySage (DeviantArt); Smoke and Painting effects: Crissie Brown (


Good day and good nuts