Objectively, Japan was under scarcely any compulsion to initiate the Pacific War. However, many Japanese themselves saw the conflict as made unavoidable by the West’s existential threat to the empire’s economic, physical, and spiritual essence. Such views commanded wide popular support and held profound appeal for many in the military, particularly among mid-grade officers of the elite general staffs of the army and navy. Many did recognize that the great economic and geostrategic imbalances between Japan and the West seriously lengthened the odds against Japan, but patriotic-religious fervor convinced them that the risk had to be run and moreover that if they were resolute the justice of their cause would bring heaven’s blessing to their arms. These convictions were strong enough to bridge the otherwise great gulfs among various nationalistic factions and unite them in pressing more cautious elements to plunge into war. Nazi Germany’s early military successes played an important role in persuading the hesitant of the need not to “miss the bus.” In this context, both the policies of appeasement and deterrence tried by the Americans and Europeans were foredoomed. Despite reasonably accurate strategic warning, the U.S. government could find no way to avert war.
We won’t really know who is going to win the presidential election until November 4, and possibly not until the Electors cast their ballots on December 14. But if we think about the structural factors in conjunction with poll results we can gain a much clearer idea of the possibilities.
I start with the principle that however hard or easy it may be to chose one candidate or another in the first place, once we have decided and declared our decision — even if only to ourselves — we grow very unlikely to switch to another candidate. And the starker the contrast between the candidates appears to be the less likely we are to switch. In today’s highly polarized environment, switching from Trump to Biden, or the other way, is all but unthinkable.
The next thing to think of is the polls. A lot of people feel badly burnt by the 2016 polls and are inclined to ignore them in 2020. That’s pretty unrealistic. The polls in 2016 were as good or bad as they have ever been. The problem was the unthoughtful meanings people tried to impose on the numbers. The polls as a whole said that Clinton was ahead in the popular vote, and indeed she was. If you analyzed the polls well, you came up with an estimate of her popular-vote lead that was very close to the actual results. But of course U.S. presidential elections are not decided by national-level popular vote. For reasons that made sense in the 1780s, “electoral votes” were apportioned to the States by a formula that made voters in, say, Wyoming a great deal more equal than those in California. Since it is written into the Constitution it is far from easy to change, much as many people would like to. Until then, it is necessary to look at the polls State-by-State to translate human votes into electoral votes.
One of the things that led to some of the surprise in 2016 was that a lot of voters remained undecided until very late in the process. Both of the major candidates were widely disliked and distrusted, making the choice unusually difficult for many people. At the very end, polls were showing 13% or so undecided, or planning to vote for third-party candidates. (People who say they are going to vote third-party are often not deeply reluctant to switch to main-party candidates, experience shows.) At the last minute, even on Election Day itself, quite a lot of these people decided to vote for Trump — well over half of those who voted at all chose Trump, which was enough to flip several critical States into the Trump column. The lesson is, watch that undecided percentage.
As I write, the election is just over six weeks away, and things are not looking terribly bright for Trump. It’s not that he’s really all that far down in the polls, but the patterns present problems. He remains popular in States which are relatively overrepresented in electoral votes, as he was in 2016, and might win the electoral vote even if he lost the popular vote by 3% or even 4%. (He lost it by 2.1% in 2016.) But Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com presently projects that Biden/Harris will win 331 electoral votes, meaning that Trump/Pence would need to take away 62 of these in order to turn the tables. Most other serious analysts are pointing in the same direction — see the Cook Report Electoral College forecast, for example. If Trump & Pence held on in all the States where they currently lead (by Silver’s count) and also win in NC, FL, and PA, they they could get just enough electoral votes to win. So let’s look at these States.
North Carolina (15 electoral votes). Biden’s lead over Trump in NC is quite narrow, little more than 1%, although it has been remarkably consistent throughout the whole campaign. With 6% undecided, gaining that extra 1.5% does not seem totally out of Trump’s reach, but something is going to have to change for it to happen. Of course North Carolina has an especially rich history of election chicanery. One way or another, it’s really pretty early to count on NC going for Trump or for Biden.
Florida (29 electoral votes). Biden has led since early April and currently has a margin of 2.0%, with 5.4% undecided. In order to win, Trump has to pick up a very large fraction of the undecideds — two out of five at very minimum (with none voting for Biden), and probably a lot more. Election chicanery is far from unknown in the Sunshine State, and Gov. Ron DeSantis is very beholden to Trump, but this still looks like a pretty big lift.
Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes). The Keystone State could very, very easily be the one that decides the election. Biden has led significantly throughout the entire campaign in PA and right now polls at 49.7%. Trump is at 45.1%, so undecideds amount to 5.3%. That is to say that virtually all of the undecideds have to go for Trump if he is to win. Watch for lots of action in Pennsylvania, as well as North Carolina and Florida.
I want to draw attention to the consistency of the Biden lead in these States. That’s historically unusual, and quite different from 2016, and it suggests that a great many people made up their minds — generally as to whether to vote for Trump or against him — a very long time ago, and are not very likely to switch votes. It really is likely to be up to the undecideds, and Trump has to convince an awful lot of them if he is to win.
The first presidential debate comes up on September 29. The first debates have generally drawn big audiences and generate a lot of comment. But whether they or the subsequent debates exercise much real influence is far from clear.
That gets us to the October Surprise. It’s not even October yet and already we’ve had a major surprise in the death of Justice Ginsberg. As we see, Trump and Mitch McConnell at once decided to attempt to exploit this for advantage. It’s not clear what the outcome will be in terms of confirming or not confirming a new justice, but it is hard for me to see the Republicans extracting much electoral advantage from the spectacle in either case.
We can scarcely doubt that Trump has Roger Stone and other seasoned dirty-tricksters, not to mention executive branch loyalists very ready to bend their offices to serve his political ends, working feverishly to come up with something. In 2016, after all, James Comey, violating FBI and DoJ policy, announced what turned out to be a baseless innuendo against Hillary Clinton on October 28 which very probably won the election for Trump. Surely Trump’s men will come up with more dramatic (and probably even more meretricious) accusations to hurl against Biden.
But the unstable conditions that gave Comey’s letter such effect in 2016 are very far from what we see today. Public confidence not only in Trump but in anyone even remotely associated with him is very low. Having been badly used in 2016, the major news media are more cautious. Anything the Trumpists come up with will be seized upon by Fox News and other elements of the far-right media, of course, but it is questionable how much they influence the views of the undecided voters. We cannot entirely dismiss the impact of any such surprises, but it is far from clear that they can be decisive.
Moreover, as Bob Woodward has recently demonstrated, surprises need not be favorable to Trump. And more books of a potentially explosive nature are due out in October. Yet although Woodward has Trump on tape acknowledging that he cynically misled the public on a life-and-death issue, the response in the polls has been scarcely visible. This too speaks to the difficulties of changing the balance in this election, even with dramatic and true revelations.
Finally, there is the question of the influence of Vladimir Putin. There is little doubt has set his troll troops to spreading disinformation and dismay in an effort to aid Trump to stay in the Oval Office. And indications seem to be that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are very open to their efforts. But even crediting Messrs. Putin and Zuckerberg with the very worst possible intentions, I don’t see the Web campaign as at all decisive. It did not seem to have much visible effect in 2016 and people have grown more skeptical in the meantime. How many of the undecideds get a lot of their news and views from the social media, after all?
But what about Internet sabotage of the voting process? There are a lot of structural reasons why that is quite difficult in the United States, and the State and local election authorities all seem to be on the alert. Moreover, U.S. Cyber Command is now very actively involved, including preemptively striking at hostile Internet sites.
Finally, voting is underway already. It seems likely that a very substantial portion of ballots will be cast well before Election Day, particularly those for Biden & Harris. Thus what we see in the polls today is in substantial part a measure of voting reality. Undecided voters are not going to vote unless and until they decide, of course, but whatever window there may have been for flipping Biden voters is closing fast.
My bottom line is that there is still room for Trump to win, but only narrow room. Absent something quite unexpected and dramatic, Biden will win the election.
It would not be really unreasonable to say that Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory was a fluke. He trailed his opponent by nearly 3 million votes, two percent of all votes cast, but gained office through a peculiarity of the complex U.S. electoral system. Yet even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency the fact that Trump had received nearly 63 million ballots, 46.1 percent of the total, would still say something very striking about our politics. He did make some specific policy proposals and promises, but few even among his voters seemed to truly believe he would or even could make good on them (as indeed he has not with a few marginal exceptions). But the real core of his campaign was a series of scornful (and frequently untruthful) calumnies directed against a long list of “enemies” and declarations of war against them, together with promises to reverse immigration and trade imbalances. In office he has continued to campaign on the same bases while making little progress in fulfilling them, but his level of support generally hovers around where it has almost always been, about 40 to 45 percent of the electorate. His popularity is low compared to that of most first-term presidents, particularly in light of generally good economic conditions, but still very substantial. It seems particularly remarkable in light of his open and angry defiance not only of American political norms but of law and the Constitution. Nor is he unique. In this second decade of the third millennium, politicians with authoritarian ambitions have gained power in many countries by playing on popular resentments and xenophobia.
What is going on? Where is this headed? And is there anything to be done about it? Lots of people are chiming in on this and here I am going to survey some of the more notable and useful contributions before offering some proposals.
Achen & Bartels
Over the past few decades Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have contributed greatly to expanding understanding of how political processes work in the United States (and elsewhere) through analyses of statistical data on elections and opinions. In a book entitled, Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government, published early in 2016, they summarized the main findings, together with the evidence these are based on. First, they demolish what they refer to as the Folk Theory of Democracy, the notion that most people vote for the candidate who credibly promises to support the issues they care most about; in reality, they show, issue voting is distinctly uncommon—even though most people claim to be issues voters if asked. Instead, most voting is based strictly in group identity. Mr. X votes Democratic because his family is Democratic and he has always voted for Democrats. Or Ms. Y votes Republican because the pastor and all the members of her Evangelical congregation always vote Republican. As people will, X and Y and other group-identity voters can offer reasons for their choices that make them sound rational, but from the data it is clear that in most cases these are rationalizations rather than real reasons; X and Y have the illusion of thinking but not the substance. Group identities are largely fixed, at least in the near term, and this is why election results almost always are close to 50-50 Republican vs. Democratic.
The margin is small but very significant, and the fact that it shifts from election to election has a great deal to do with vague, unanalyzed feelings about the incumbent party. When things seem to be going well, and particularly their own personal economic fortunes, people give some credit to the political party in power—and conversely when they are not going too well. But of course things never consistently go as well as we would like or as we feel we deserve and as a result people store up a certain sense of frustration and resentment with the ruling party which grows slowly over time. Thus Achen and Bartels produce formulas that can reliably forecast the swing in the vote based on how long the party in power has remained in power together with the change in disposable personal income in the very final months of the campaign. Regardless of who the candidates might be or how they waged their campaigns these formulas predicted that in 2016 the Democratic candidate would have a 2.2 percent margin over the Republican—very close to the 2.1 percent by which Clinton actually beat Trump in the popular vote.
In this sense the 2016 presidential election was a remarkably ordinary election which fully vindicated the Achen and Bartels model. Nevertheless the two authors felt called upon to do more than take a victory lap. In the paperback edition of their book, Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government, with a new afterword by the authors, published in 2017, they review the results, finding little reason for surprise but much for disquiet. They show how our political systems are in disarray, at least in considerable measure because (with the best of ostensible intentions) …
we have drifted far from the view of the Founders that popular sentiment needs to be respected, but also tempered and refined by experienced, well-informed political judgment. The Founders were neither elitists nor populists; they sought a balance. In the current presidential primary system, that balance has tilted too far toward empowering popular sentiment. But we, the people, like the power, and we are resistant to sharing it with those more knowledgeable than ourselves. (p. 341)
Achen and Bartels are cautious about the cries that democracy is uniquely in crisis. Indeed, they observe, “the current political environment is probably more typical in the broad sweep of history than the mid-20th-century period that contemporary observers often think of as ‘normal.’ ” (p. 342) They nevertheless see a lot of danger in an environment in which “most politically engaged citizens are firmly committed to one party or the other, and they are willing to overlook a lot in order to feel good about ‘their’ politicians and opinion leaders…. [P]reserving constitutional democracy requires sound institutional structures and unfailing vigilance. At the moment, carelessness abounds, fueled in part by the folk theory of democracy. Foolish referendums and a slipshod procedure for choosing presidential candidates have had real consequences.” (p. 344)
I can testify that Achen and Bartels have been careful with their evidence and their analysis of it and its significance. Some of their conclusions, particularly regarding the implications of the 2016 election, do go beyond the strict limits of their evidence and rest instead on their considered judgement. But their judgement seems quite sound to me and I believe that they are right about the dangers in relying too much on the generally reactive and unreflective popular will. They do not really offer any proposals for remedies, at least not in this book.
Interestingly, the book makes many references to the work on authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, and democracy by Kinder and Kam, and also some to that by Stenner, which tends to buttress my view that this is a serious and comprehensive analysis.
Well-known political scientist Francis Fukuyama has recently published, Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2018) which he says was written specifically in response to Trump’s election, while incorporating ideas he had long been developing. His central theme is the struggle for thymos (also seen as thumos, both transliterations of the Greek θυμός). To the Ancients, thymos represented the element of passion or drive in our souls, but for Fukuyama it is specifically the need for recognition of our identity and value as individuals and members of our primary identity groups. While this need is a human constant, Fukuyama believes that modern circumstances have brought it to the fore and made of it a focus for conflict. He sees a need to merge particularist identities into an integrative overarching national (but not nationalistic) identity and proposes various policies to further this.
The book is coherent and offers many interesting observations but it doesn’t seem terribly satisfying to me. While the resentments of Trump supporters come though clearly enough in news stories and interviews, I am still not really convinced that they are primary rather than derivative of other factors, and Fukuyama offers little to still my doubts. Nor am I convinced that there truly are 63 million people for whom these resentments are a factor strong enough to be the primary reason to vote for Trump. Finally, while many of the proposed remedies do seem like attractive ideas in the abstract I wonder both about their efficacy and political acceptability.
Fukuyama never mentions the work of Achen and Bartels, of Kinder and Kam, nor of Stenner. Clearly, it seems, he has not cast his intellectual net very widely.
Sides, Tesler & Vavreck
In their recent, Identity crisis: The 2016 presidential campaign and the battle for the meaning of America (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018), John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck painstakingly dissect the campaign, drawing on a great deal of data from many different polls and studies. They do not engage in any formal statistical modeling or hypothesis testing in the main text but they do present their data in a series of a great many clear and well-conceived graphs, which I think adequately support their arguments. (Some more formal statistical work is summarized in appendices.) They do not take issue with the work of Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (which they cite extensively) but seek to penetrate to the factors which determined, strengthened, and undermined party identifications in 2016 and since.
The authors show that the key factors were immigration and race. (Both of course are tied to the work of Kinder and Kam, which they make extensive use of.) Republicans were more likely to express xenophobic and racist views than Democrats before Trump came along, but he played to and intensified these tendencies as the cornerstone of his campaign and was rewarded with a substantial and intensely loyal “base.” No other issues in the campaign had nearly equivalent potency, Sides, Tesler and Vavreck show. But these issues are so important to many Republicans that they forgive any and all other sins or lapses on Trump’s part. However, his continued efforts as president have not rallied any significant number of others to the banners of xenophobia and racism, at least in net (just as Kinder and Kam would predict).
For the moment that makes the Republicans the party of xenophobia and racism, at least in electoral terms. The Republican electorate is ready to support policies of grinding the faces of the poor (whom it identifies with racial minorities) but policies of enriching the rich have met with much less enthusiasm than the party leadership had hoped, however disguised, and trashing health care guarantees, a dearly-held objective of hard-line conservatives, has proved to be about as popular as ebola. Moreover, regardless of personal preferences any Republican who tries to run on a platform that does not prominently feature wholehearted support for Trump’s xenophobic and racist views is quickly made to repent the error of his ways, or else face ignominious defeat.
The authors tell their story in clear and engaging terms, supported by their wealth of graphs. They close with
What gave us the 2016 election, then, was not changes among voters. It was changes in the candidates. Only four years earlier, issues like race and immigration were not as central either to the candidates or to voters. The 2016 election was different because of what the candidates chose to do and say—and then, after the election, because of what Trump has chosen to do and say as president. Those choices have had consequences for voters.
Political leaders will always have those choices. They can call someone un-American or a “son of a bitch” or “deplorable.” They can call someone’s country a “shithole.” They can tell us to “beat the crap” out of someone they disagree with. They can also ask us to welcome others, to find common ground, and even to heal the country. These choices are what helped build the identity crisis in American politics. They are also what can help take it apart.
Thus Sides, Tesler and Vavreck show a picture of the political system with greater agency than that presented by Achen and Bartels, but it is agency on the part of the candidates and their handlers rather than the electorate—whose role is to have their latent tendencies activated or not by the candidate. And although they mention the role of the media and the disproportion in their coverage of various aspects of the campaign they do not really engage regarding the extent of media influence, or the role of right-wing agitprop entities such as Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh in activating popular resentments and fears.
I’ve written before of the work of Ronald Inglehart, which I regard as some of the most significant social science of our time. My earlier post included a reference to a paper he co-authored with Pippa Norris, “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse” (Perspectives on Politics 15, no. 2 (2017): 443–54.)
Recently Inglehart, with colleagues Jon Miller and Logan Woods, gave a talk along broadly similar lines at the American Political Science Assn. meeting, “The Silent Revolution in Reverse: Trump and the Xenophobic Authoritarian Populist Parties.” It has not yet been seen print but no doubt will and in the meantime is available in working paper form at the link.
What these two articles have to say can best be conveyed, I think, in a merged paraphrase of their abstracts:
Growing up taking survival for granted makes people more open to new ideas and more tolerant of outgroups. Insecurity has the opposite effect, stimulating an Authoritarian Reﬂex in which people close ranks behind strong leaders, with strong in-group solidarity, rejection of outsiders, and rigid conformity to group norms. The 35 years of exceptional security experienced by developed democracies after WWII brought pervasive cultural changes and the spread of democracy. Postwar prosperity brought these changes with a substantial time lag, since they moved at the pace of intergenerational population replacement; and though high levels of security were conducive to these changes, short-term economic downturns brought temporary reversions to Materialist values rooted in security anxieties. During the past 35 years, economic growth continued, but virtually all of the gains went to those at the top; the less-educated experienced declining existential security, fueling support for Populist Authoritarian phenomena such as Brexit, France’s National Front and Trump’s takeover of the Republican party.
This raises two questions: (1) “What motivates people to support Populist Authoritarian movements?” And (2) “Why is the populist authoritarian vote so much higher now than it was several decades ago in high-income countries?” The two questions have different answers. (1) Support for populist authoritarian parties is motivated by a backlash against cultural change. From the start, younger Postmaterialist birth cohorts supported environmentalist parties, while older, less secure cohorts supported authoritarian xenophobic parties, in an enduring intergenerational value clash. (2) But for the past three decades, economic gains have gone almost entirely to those at the top, while a large share of the population experienced declining real income and job security, along with a large inﬂux of immigrants and refugees. thus increasing support for xenophobic parties:. Cultural backlash explains why given individuals support Populist Authoritarian movements. Declining existential security explains why support for these movements is greater now than it was thirty years ago.
The same underlying dynamic is still at work, but it is now moving in reverse. For example, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, pure Materialists (for whom anxieties about economic and personal security are primary) were nearly four times as likely to have voted for Trump as for Clinton—while pure Postmaterialists confident of their security were fourteen times as likely to have voted for Clinton as for Trump. This value-based cleavage has become much stronger than the once-powerful cleavages based on income, education, occupation or social class.
Also quite recently, Inglehart has published another book, Cultural evolution: People’s motivations are changing, and reshaping the world (Cambridge U.P., 2018) which discusses these themes in greater depth. I have only just started it but so far so good.
Finally, Norris and Inglehart are due very shortly to publish yet another book that is clearly relevant to the issues discussed here, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism (Cambridge U.P., 2018).
What is to be done?
I want to go into this in greater depth in another post, but fundamentally I come away seeing two things to be done, one for the nearer term and one for the longer term.
Fundamentally we need to make our political system work better, and to make our electorate think more clearly. The latter is definitely a project mainly for the long haul, but something can be done more immediately on improving the functioning of the political system—and needs to be. Together, Achen & Bartels and Sides, Tesler & Vavreck provide the clue: we need to return to the ideas of the Founders (and specifically James Madison) about tempering popular passions through the influence of the pros who have the will and time to inform themselves and the motivation to exert themselves in favor of stability. In particular, the nominations processes need to be made less “democratic” and more subject to the guidance of the party “establishments.” The point (as Madison and his colleagues quite clearly understood) is not that the pros are smarter or more virtuous but that they have the motivation and means to try to keep the system on the Constitutional rails.
How is this to be done? The answer, friends, is leadership and politics. Those of us who care about such matters need to move to spread the ideas and persuade. Politics may be difficult but it’s unavoidable.
For the longer term project of getting a better, more thoughtful electorate it is Inglehart who provides the clues. It is the lack of security for much of our population over a period of several decades that has bred a generation or more of people who are fundamentally disposed to be hypersensitive to threats from foreigners, people of other races, and people with “strange” beliefs or cultural practices. No matter what happens many of these people will never be able to change this fundamental disposition, which will always be available for activation by unavoidable circumstance or through deliberate manipulation by the unscrupulous.
What can be done is to create an economic environment which essentially all children grow up in an environment of reasonable comfort and security, as well as a public order which makes good on the promise of equal protection under the law for all. Not to create Utopia but to make an environment which will not stunt the emotional development of children and will ready them to be truly independent and responsible adults.
Did I say that I had easy solutions? What this will require, first of all, will be to limit the disparities in wealth that have grown so enormous over the past few decades, in the first instance by reinstituting heavy taxation for the very rich. It has been done before and it can be done again. Indeed, awareness of the need has already progressed so far as to infect the pages of Fortune magazine.
More another time.
I’ve recently read a widely-noted new book by Graham Allison, Destined for war: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The question that Allison addresses, whether the United States and People’ s Republic of China (PRC) might somehow go to war, is of supreme importance and I want to set down my initial thoughts in response to his treatment.
Graham Allison will long be remembered as a scholar. His 1971 book, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, is of enduring interest, not so much for its account of the history of the crisis as for its analysis of alternative models of decision making.
In light of this I approached this book with positive expectations. But sadly, Destined for war, I believe, is not of that caliber. In fact, in many ways it seems quite peculiar. Fortunately, the best parts are the very final conclusions and recommendations. Less fortunately, the path to them is very frequently a matter of the proof of the obvious by means of the dubious.
Unless you seriously doubt that China is economically strong and growing stronger, or that the possibility over the next few decades of conflict between China and the United States can be disregarded altogether because it is less, say, than one in a million, then you will find nothing in the first three-quarters of this book that is worthy of your time and attention. If you read it and find that it contains novel and important information this will largely be because you have been misled.
I will explain.
Essentially, Allison’s arguments are
- China is surging ahead of the United States both economically and militarily, so much so that nothing can stop it from achieving global dominance.
- This situation of a rising power (China) overtaking a formerly dominant one (us) is very dangerous. It has frequently led to war in the past and could very well do so now.
He develops these points at some length, but in an easy, non-academic style. So non-academic, indeed, that in a number of areas he plays pretty fast and loose with the facts. Although Allison wants us to believe that he is dispassionately examining the issues the reality is that there is much more exhortation than analysis here.
One aspect of the problem is that, learned as he is in some areas, Allison is a political scientist specializing in IR (international relations) theory and expert neither in economics nor Asian history, nor has he more than very distinctly limited understanding of technology and military affairs. Sometimes he shows astute judgement in which sources to consult in these matters, but too often he doesn’t.
His weaknesses in economics are on full display in his projections about the future relative economic strengths of the U.S. and China. The one thing we can be quite certain of about the economic future is that it’s highly uncertain. To be sure, there are things in which momentum or accumulated stocks play a very big role, permitting a degree of fairly confident prediction; population, for instance, or the size of naval fleets. But in things like GDP growth, technological innovation, or social trends, for instance, we are flying blind and a look back at the confident predictions of experts in the past is (or certainly should be) quite sobering.
Instead Allison takes at face value PRC pledges of 6.5%/year growth for a number of years to come, contrasting this with the U.S. trend of little more than 2%/year, leading him to assert confidently that China will soon vastly outstrip the United States.
For the United States the risks are largely in policy. Immigration is a significant plus factor and if Trump Administration plans to cut it back severely go through there will almost surely be reductions to growth in both GDP and GDP per capita. In addition, some Republican officials have repeatedly indicated a real willingness to force a default on U.S. debt as a means to force through policy changes. Most economists believe that any real default (lasting more than a very brief period) could cause a worldwide financial collapse comparable to that of 2008, and leave a lasting residue of poor U.S. credit and high risk premia on U.S. debt, all of which could be expected to have severe impacts on economic growth.
The PRC leadership seems unlikely to stumble into such ruinous policy choices, but China’s economic risks are nevertheless serious. Sustained rapid growth has led to accumulation of imbalances and distortions in the economy. The government has proven adept and firm about managing the economy, but some problems are growing to levels that threaten to defy even the best management. (It’s interesting to note that many people who insist that government destroys everything it touches in the U.S. display a great deal of faith in the PRC government’s ability to manage the country’s economy.)
But China is well into the most dramatic example of the demographic transition ever seen, reflecting a confluence of natural forces associated with economic modernization exacerbated by the “one-child policy” the government insisted upon, with some exceptions, from 1979 to 2015. As a result the country’s working-age (and military-age) population will decline steadily and its old-age population will grow for decades to come, and its total population will start to shrink. Unless there is compensating strong growth in labor productivity this will result not only in rising social expenses but slowly rising GDP.
The United States by contrast enjoys higher effective reproduction rates (due largely to immigrant groups) as well as population growth due to immigration, which combine to provide a powerful support for GDP. While the U.S. too has an aging population problem is it not nearly as severe or progressive as China’s, and the influx of young immigrants (for as long as it’s allowed to last) provides a pool of people to work in caring for the old.
Allison throws out numbers in a fairly unsystematic way. He expresses projections in constant U.S. dollars (baseline usually not specified) at PPP, asserting confidently that PPP is the best way to compare national incomes for defense purposes. It’s widely agreed that PPP is best for comparing overall welfare, but that’s because it’s constructed for that purpose. It should be self-evident to anyone who thinks about it that this in general is not the best way to make military-potential comparisons. Just because a dollar spent in China will buy twice as many (say) haircuts or restaurant meals as it will in the United States doesn’t mean that it will buy twice as much military capability. Allison truncates a CIA statement in a way that significantly distorts its meaning, changing
The data derived from the PPP method probably provide the best available starting point for comparisons of economic strength and well-being between countries. … GDP derived using the OER [official exchange rate] method should be used for the purpose of calculating the share of items such as exports, imports, military expenditures, external debt, or the current account balance, because the dollar values presented in the [CIA] Factbook for these items have been converted at official exchange rates, not at PPP. One should use the OER GDP figure to calculate the proportion of, say, Chinese defense expenditures in GDP, because that share will be the same as one calculated in local currency units.
PPP “provides [sic] the best available starting point for comparisons of economic strength and well-being between countries.”
On his page 7 Allison casually suggests that China might double or even quadruple its levels of labor productivity over the next ten to twenty years. When I’ve put this to economists familiar with such matters I’ve always gotten the same reaction: a snort of laughter. As one says, if Allison knows the secret of productivity growth in a maturing economy (where services are rapidly displacing manufacturing as the principal employer) it would be nice to share. It’s reasonable to expect more rapid productivity growth in China than in the U.S. (since China can copy us in an effort to catch up). But the major obstacles to productivity in China are structural and at best will yield slowly and painfully to reform efforts. Corruption is clearly a very major problem and Allison speaks in upbeat tones of Xi Jinping’s drive to extirpate it. Yet Chinese regimes have been inveighing against corruption time out of mind and have periodically mounted draconian campaigns to sanction the malefactors with little fundamental effect. The social roots underlying corruption, known as guanxi, reach to the very heart of Chinese society — and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that Xi heads. The CCP has waged war against guanxi since long before it gained power, but with quite limited success. Guanxi is changing but we will not soon see a China with even U.S.-levels of corruption, let alone those of Germany, the Netherlands, or the U.K. There can be little doubt that corruption will remain a major drag on Chinese economic efficiency for a long time to come.
For what it’s worth here are the OECD’s projections of GDP not just for China and the U.S. but for all of the large and middling powers active in the region, in 2005 U.S. dollars at PPP, out three decades in the future:
|Projections of GDP at PPP in 2005 U.S. dollars, trillions.|
Note that China has no allies other than North Korea (whose economy is too small to show up in this table). The policy of the Trump Administration seems to be to weaken U.S. alliances but if we assume that this does not become permanent the United States could reasonably be expected to be joined by others in any conflict. In the table it’s easy to see how the United States together with plausible allies might outweigh China in GDP measured at PPP.
To further buttress his case Allison summons a number of more or less striking anecdotes about Chinese economic expansion and some deep-sounding generalizations regarding Chinese historical trends. The anecdotes are all very positive, but anyone who has followed China’s development at all closely will know that it would be equally easy to assemble a parade of disasters and horror stories. It’s not impossible that China has at last found the clear path to unending successes without setbacks, but it’s not something to bet a great deal on, I should think.
Periodically through the book Allison tells the reader tales of the magnificence and uniqueness of classical Chinese civilization, including that it is 5,000 years old and continuous since then, and that until the rude intrusion of Britain followed by others in the early- to mid-1800s, China had only dealt with other nations on a lofty patron-client basis. While this is all a standard part of the PRC’s patriotic myth, taught to every Chinese schoolchild, it takes very little scholarly reading to discover the limitations and distortions in it. For the regime, of course, these myths serve an understandable purpose, but their value for Allison is less clear. Naturally their falsity tends to diminish the impact of the “lessons” he derives regarding Chinese history.
The distortions of Allison’s view of China may derive, I suspect, from his friendship and admiration for the late Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), long the strongman autocrat of Singapore. Lee was part of the Chinese diaspora, his great-grandfather having emigrated in mid-1800s. But he was educated at Cambridge and practiced as a barrister before leading Singapore’s successful movement to persuade the British to bestow independence on a city that had actually been created by Britain in the first place. Over the next few decades Lee oversaw the tremendous increase in wealth in Singapore.
Allison, nearly a quarter-century Lee’s junior, wrote a very admiring book entitled Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World. There’s no question that Lee was an exceptional man who had a good deal of reason and opportunity to study the China of his time, but of course there were limitations to his knowledge, and he had a particular perspective that may not serve all purposes. Nevertheless, Allison seems to have adopted Lee as his one authority on China except for occasional references to Henry Kissinger (who also has demonstrated limits to his understanding of Chinese history).
Allison is surely right that China has been growing at unprecedented rates, economically, for the past three decades, much as Japan did in the 1960s through the 1980s. When you start from a base as low as China’s it is possible to catch up at astonishing rates — for a while. But just as Japan did China faces some factors which can limit its rate of growth. Which ones it will encounter first and how severe they will be remains to be seen, but one thing we know without question is that high rates of exponential growth cannot continue forever.
Allison also warns that China will overtake the United States in science and technology (S&T). The issues are highly complex and Allison is scarcely the first political scientist to issue naïve summary judgements. There is a great deal that is not known about S&T, including how best to stimulate its growth. The Soviets devoted great attention and massive resources to it for decades, with spotty success. Scotland, a small country with relatively modest wealth, has been a major source for 2½ centuries. There are many hypotheses and not enough evidence to pass reasoned judgement on most of them.
One thing that is certainly clear is that over the longer run technology depends on a supply of scientific knowledge to permit significant advances. The United States throughout its history has never lacked for those ready and able to use the scientific knowledge of the day to create technological knowledge. But the U.S. record in consistently producing scientific knowledge has been much more uneven. With many of our brightest finding Wall Street more alluring than the laboratory and an increasingly anti-intellectual political establishment imposing arbitrary and ignorant restrictions on research while cutting funding there certainly are real clouds on our scientific horizon. It seems all too possible that we are eating our seed corn.
In addressing the bottom line in the balance of power Allison again quotes Lee Kuan Yew, who never fought a war or studied war, to the effect that economic power outweighs military power. He seems unaware of the extent to which the Allies used their maritime power advantage to destroy German economic power in World War I, and Japanese as well as German power in World War II. China’s economic power is vulnerable in very much the same way as Germany’s was. In any serious conflict with the maritime West her overseas trade would stop almost instantly as warships seized or if necessary sank ships bound to or from Chinese ports; what then of her economic power?
Finally, Allison speaks with rather cynical admiration of China’s “unique mastery in using hard instruments of ‘soft power’ ” in employing market power to damage trading partners in retaliation for political affronts. He gives as a major example China’s actions to withhold rare-earth metals supplies from Japan in 2010 in order to deliver a rebuke for the seizure of a Chinese fishing vessel. He fails to point out the costly longer-term damage this has done to China’s markets for its rare-earth metals as well as the caution it has engendered among those considering importing any critical goods from Chinese suppliers. Western firms regularly assess supply-chain vulnerabilities and are particularly wary about depending on Chinese sources. Such are the rewards of heavy-handed trade policies.
Allison also weighs in on the military balance, seeing China pulling ahead as the U.S. stagnates or declines. He shows here his lack of knowledge and understanding of military technology and capabilities and cites weak sources (virtually the only kind publically available, of course). The reality is a great deal more nuanced and complex. The PRC is moving ahead militarily but there seems no visible prospect that it will be able to seriously erode U.S. capabilities to do it very great damage in a conflict. While Chinese forces may increasingly be able to put U.S. forces at risk when operating in certain areas there is no way they can prevent them from continuing to exercise overall dominance over the ocean commerce that is essential for Chinese prosperity nor from maintaining robust support for those states in the region that do not wish to submit to Chinese control. China is inherently a land power and probably could, if it chose, come to dominate quite a large swath of the Eurasian continent, but it faces very different and more formidable problems in challenging so great a maritime power as the United States is.
In the second section of the book Allison starts with his analysis of the lessons to be gained from Thucydides’ (c.460BCE-c.395BCE) magnificent history of the Peloponnesian War (431BCE-404BCE), in which Athens and Sparta alike were ruined. He keynotes this with two quotations from Thucydides
The final point was reached when Athenian strength attained a peak plain for all to see and the Athenians began to encroach upon Sparta’s allies. It was at this point that Sparta felt its position was no longer tolerable and decided by starting this present war to employ all energies in attacking and, if possible, destroying the power of Athens. —Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. —Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Allison sees this as an instance of a general tendency for tensions and potentially conflict to arise out of a dynamic power (such as Athens was) to challenge the position of an established dominant power (e.g., Sparta), terming it the Thucydides trap.
IR specialist that he is, Allison has conducted a statistical examination, compiling a file of 16 cases which he sees as fulfilling the requirements of his Thucydides trap concept and showing that in 12 of them a war resulted. Here he explores the original Greek case in modest depth, based on Thucydides’ book (which is essentially the only source we have). Then he very briefly sketches five selected cases from the 17th to the 20th centuries, drawing sweeping conclusions about why each resulted in war. Finally he presents the case of the First World War, concluding that it too is a clear-cut example of the action of the Thucydides trap.
I’m going to focus on two cases which I happen to know something about — a good deal more about them, as it turns out, than Allison seems to.
In the case of the war between Japan and the United States, the Pacific War of 1941-1945, Allison treats it as a separate conflict in isolation from the other currents of World War II. But from such a false starting assumption, as Gerhard Weinberg has shown, it is possible only to reach erroneous conclusions, which Allison proceeds to do. In fact, at its roots, the Pacific War resulted not from Japan’s rise (which amounted to little at that time) but from Hitler’s. It was by allying itself with Hitler and tying its fate to his that it brought war on its head. The Pacific War was no instance of the Thucydides trap at all but rather one element of a much larger and more complex conflict.
Allison is far from alone in muddled thinking about the origins of the Pacific War, and there are many authors whose treatments are little better, so perhaps we can pass this over as an aberration — or at least we might were it not paired with a much less forgivably distorted account of the origins of World War I.
In Allison’s telling, the Anglo-German battleship-building race of 1898-1912 and the fears it evoked in Britain’s rulers and public was at the root of the conflict; everything else is secondary. He’s not the first person to advance such a view but it is not at all widely accepted. For his purposes, however, this serves to convert what most present as a multi-party, multi-origin conflict into a straightforward case that can be fitted into his Thucydides trap framework; but it certainly fails to impress me.
Two years before this book was published Allison contributed a chapter stating some of its main arguments to a volume edited by two other noted scholars and including contributions by a number of others, whose theme is summarized in its title: The next great war? The roots of World War I and the risk of U.S.-China conflict. Several of the other contributors to The next great war also are big names in IR or Harvard colleagues who are eminent in other fields. And yet The next great war receives no citations in Allison’s new work, which ignores many of its themes. It certainly seems odd at best.
“Beware, be very aware!” is the theme of Allison’s third section. He warns that China is ten feet tall and growing, and that her leaders are supremely wise, patient, and calculating, while America’s are naïve louts who are putty in their masterful hands. Then he contrives several scenarios which he deploys to argue that they might easily be drawn into hasty and fantastically ill-considered decisions for war over trivial causes, with no gain whatever in prospect. All in all it’s a remarkable performance, all the more so from a man justly famous for his subtle and realistic analysis of the foibles and strengths of high-level decision-making.
Throughout he displays profound ignorance of U.S. military and defense technological capabilities and potentials, as well as a consistent tendency to take Chinese propaganda about Chinese capabilities at full face value. This sort of tendency to make sweeping net assessments founded in deep ignorance of the realities has historically been quite dangerous. It unquestionably contributed to the origins and both world wars, and to needless defeats and suffering.
The final, relatively brief section focuses on policies and practices to ameliorate the risks of conflict. Following as it does after 184 pages of frequently meretricious arguments based in often ill-founded factual claims, it comes as considerable relief to find that for the most part its recommendations are sensible and the claims made for them are modest.
It’s all quite odd, extremely so. Most people, I find, are entirely prepared to take it for granted that a great power with a very prominent chip on its shoulder, as China has, presents some risk of war that we must be wary of. Surely it doesn’t require 184 pages — more than three-quarters of this book — to establish that China is indeed a great power with a chip on its shoulder, and to point out that its growth presents challenges.
In the process it might be well to dispose of the two principal “impossibility arguments” that people raise in an effort to deny the threat:
- War is “impossible” between two nuclear powers, except in the form of a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
- War is “impossible” between two states that depend on trade between them for much of their prosperity.
Both are addressed very briefly in the final section, but not in the depth needed and never before the end.
It is well established (as has long been apparent to sellers of used books) that of buyers of blockbuster bestseller books, only a minority ever read as far at the halfway point. It’s easy to believe in this case, where the first 75% of the book is largely dross. Readers would be well served in this book by starting it on page 187. Ignoring the first parts would give them the added benefit of avoiding contact with much toxic intellectual waste to be found in its earlier sections.
To give so bad a report of a book by an author whom I respect and admire for his previous work gives me no pleasure, but I don’t feel I have much choice.
 A 1999 revision coauthored with Philip Zelikow updates the history in light of much added evidence; its title is unchanged.
 Regarding the unreliability of economic forecasts, even in the relatively short term, see Hites Ahir and Prakash Loungani, “There will be growth in the spring: How well do economists predict turning points,” CEPR, http://voxeu.org/article/predicting-economic-turning-points; Prakash Loungani, “How accurate are private sector forecasts? Cross-country evidence from consensus forecasts of output growth,” International Journal of Forecasting 17, no. 3 (2001); Kevin J. Lansing and Benjamin Pyle, “Persistent overoptimism about economic growth,” FRBSF Economic Letter 3 (2015).
 For a different view as well as independent estimates see Peter E. Robertson and Adrian Sin, “Measuring hard power: China’s economic growth and military capacity,” Defence and Peace Economics 28, no. 1 (2016).
 Allison pp. 10-11.
 For a survey of guanxi and related issues see Thomas B. Gold, Doug Guthrie and David L. Wank, eds., Social connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
 Regarding the discontinuities in the 4,000 year history of Chinese civilization (not 5,000 years as Allison repeatedly insists) see John Keay, China: A History (London: Harper Press, 2009), or any other history informed by the discoveries of the past three decades. For the realities of shifts in China’s relations with the world as circumstances changed see Morris Rossabi, ed., China among equals: The middle kingdom and its neighbors, 10th-14th centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
 For a somewhat better informed debate about the evolution of critical defense capabilities see Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia,” International Security 41, no. 1 (2016) together with Andrew S. Erickson et al., “Correspondence: How Good Are China’s Antiaccess/Area-Denial Capabilities?,” International Security 41, no. 4 (2017).
 See Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler, and World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 205-06 as well as Gerhard L. Weinberg, “Grand Strategy in the Pacific War,” in Pearl to V-J Day: World War II in the Pacific, ed. Jacob Neufeld, William T. Y’Blood and Mary L. Jefferson (Washington: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000), pp. 1-3.
 For well-regarded recent treatments of the war’s origins see Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper, 2013) as well as Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (New York: Random House, 2013).
This little essay is occasioned by reading Henry Kissinger’s 2014 book, World Order (Penguin).
It’s amazing to think that until he was drafted into the army for World War II the summit of Henry Kissinger’s ambition had been to become an accountant! It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no one any good. And equally amazing to think that he published this book in the tenth decade of his life! His intellectual vigor and depth of insight are astounding.
I appreciate his clarity about the subject of the book:
World order describes the concept held by a region or civilization about the nature of just arrangements and the distribution of power thought to be applicable to the entire world. [p. 9]
And I find myself very thoroughly in sympathy with what I take to be his central points:
To strike a balance between the two aspects of order—power and legitimacy—is the essence of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself. [p. 369]
To achieve a genuine world order, its components, while maintaining their own values, need to acquire a second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of any one region or nation. [p. 373]
I’m not quite so consistently admiring, however, regarding some of what he says in the middle portions of the book, for even Kissinger’s erudition has its limits and often he does not know what he does not know.
Kissinger of course is the most noted diplomatist since Bismarck (though he’d rather be compared, I suspect, to his dissertation subject, Metternich). But before that he had been a political science scholar specializing in IR — international relations. Indeed, he made significant contributions to developing the field in the ferment following World War II, aided by his command of German. Like other IR specialists he sought general lessons regarding relationships between states in the study of history. In his time (and to a lesser extent still today) this meant the history of Europe since 1648, marking the end of the terrible Thirty Years War and the negotiations in two cities of the German state of Westphalia that set the terms of peace. He refers repeatedly to the “Westphalian order” which he avers was expressed in the peace agreements and has governed the nature and relations of sovereign states ever since. In particular, the Westphalian order is taken as having fixed the concept of sovereignty, which is central to IR theory. This story was for long taken as absolutely correct by IR specialists and to a large extent still is. But deeper historical research over the past half century has shown that it’s largely an a-historical fiction, conjured by 19th century historians in an effort to rationalize the then-existing order. This is laid out quite clearly, for instance, in the widely read article,
As Osiander shows, the actual peace treaties address scarcely any of what are taken to be the principles of the “Westphalian order.” The concept of sovereignty, in particular, took more or less its modern form only in the mid-19th century when the Industrial Revolution — and particularly its revolutions in transportation (railroad and steamship) and communications (telegraph and mechanized, high-volume printing) — joined what had previously been relatively isolated and self-contained small regions into integrated markets coextensive with political states, leading to the emergence of nationalism and the nation-state. Only in this environment, so different from that of two centuries earlier, could a “Westphalian order” truly emerge.
The fundamental principles of this order, as Kissinger sees them are [p. 3]
- It relies on a system of independent states.
- Through their independent and separate pursuit of their own concerns and interests these states act to check each other’s external ambitions through a general equilibrium of power.
- Each state is assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each acknowledges the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrains from challenging their existence.
In his view, this is set of “Westphalian” principles of order is purely a practical accommodation to the reality of the Europe of nearly four centuries ago, not founded on any unique moral or scientific insight. Other principles of order, he emphasizes repeatedly, are entirely possible; why should they not emerge from experiences other than that of 17th century Europe, and why should they not be equally valid?
But really the principles emerged not from the wreckage of the Thirty Years War but instead from the situation of Europe of the mid-19th century. And the European situation of that time was very strongly shaped by the forces of industrialized communications and transportation, which are now taking a deep grip across much of the non-European world. Will these forces not tend to drive the huge stretches of the world which are developing so rapidly in our time to accept some variant of the “Westphalian order” for much the same reasons that the West did a century and a half ago? That is, if national consciousness is growing more powerful in these countries and if their economic and administrative structures are becoming more tightly knitted together, why won’t they and their neighbors come to regard one another as more distinctly sovereign? And why won’t their increasing wealth and integration make them both more satisfied and formidable, decreasing propensity toward interstate conflict? In such a light it seems as if the “Westphalian order” is a good deal less particularistic and idiosyncratic than Kissinger makes it out to be.
What about the various traditional visions of international order that Kissinger sees in other societies? I don’t know all that much about political and social history and current philosophy in many of the regions he discusses. But I am pretty familiar with those of China and Japan and can see that here too there are significant gaps in his knowledge which, as I see it, lead him to some questionable generalizations. While I expect these societies to retain identifiably distinct characters for a very long time to come, at a deeper level I think that Kissinger underestimates the extent to which the Japanese already see things in a framework very similar to those of Western nations, and that to which the Chinese are moving in that direction.
This impression is strengthened by other social science research, especially that summed up in
The authors elaborate on the theme in
Based on massive analysis of worldwide survey data collected from hundreds of thousands of respondents over nearly five decades, Inglehart and Welzel [2010, p. 563] conclude
Economic development tends to bring enduring changes in a society’s values that, at high levels of development, make the emergence and survival of democratic institutions increasingly likely.… [C]ertain modernization-linked mass attitudes are stable attributes of given societies and powerful predictors of effective democracy.
At the same time they caution [2009, p. 33] that
It is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place.
In essence, Inglehart and his collaborators have shown, growing up with a sense of economic and personal security tends strongly to lead to development of persistently tolerant values that are strongly conducive to democracy. And democratic government is a shared aspiration in most lands. As people feel more prosperous and secure, they become more likely to embrace and even demand democracy.
Some will scoff that the Trump Administration has stopped democracy in its tracks, right here in its American homeland. The question is addressed in
Looking at data from both the U.S. and Europe, Inglehart and Norris pick out several strands in the currents of populist authoritarianism. One problem is that particularly in the U.S. the sense of economic security has been declining for many as economic gains have gone almost exclusively to those at the very top of the income distribution, while institutions of mass economic security, such as stable long-term employment, guaranteed pension benefits, and Social Security, have withered or come under deliberate political attack.
The problems of economic security probably have not been great enough to account for the democratic reversals by themselves, but the influxes of immigrants and refugees over the past few decades have at the same time powerfully activated xenophobic responses. As authoritarian populists in all the major democracies early discovered, xenophobia is the open road to electoral success in such circumstances. As a result, progress toward democratic development is stalled or even in retreat through much of the developed world.
This is probably not a permanent situation, however. A combination of demographic and realistic factors seem likely to blunt and even reverse the effectiveness of xenophobic scare tactics, leaving the issue of income distribution. This is powerfully affected by government action, which in most of the West is at least somewhat sensitive to the political process. Assuming that authoritarians do not in the meantime manage to wrest the levers of political control entirely from the hands of the populace it is likely that eventually there will be at least a partial reversal of policies that so markedly favor those already at the top of the income distribution, leading to at least some leveling in the distribution of economic benefits. (The issues here are complex and critical, of course, and I want to explore them at greater length, but at another time.)
Assuming a recrudescence of democratic development, impelled not by ideology but by socioeconomic fundamentals, we can reasonably expect a growth and spreading of embrace of concepts of international order among the increasingly democratic states of the developed world. While statesmanship will no doubt have ample scope in this, it will principally be an organic development, a natural product of the interaction of democratic states.
But what of the undemocratic, undeveloped world? Will democracy spread everywhere, solving the problem? Unfortunately, the prospects do not appear bright. The kinds of intensive and extensive long-term opinion survey results that underpin the analyses of Inglehart and his collaborators have been much more difficult to obtain from these areas but based on limited work in Islamic lands it appears that the socioeconomic support for democratization, while progressing, has a very long way to go in these areas. [See forthcoming Inglehart, Ronald: “Changing Values in the Islamic World and the West. Social Tolerance and the Arab Spring.” In Mansoor Moaddel, Michele J. Gelfand (Eds.): Values, political action, and change in the Middle East and the Arab Spring. New York: Oxford University Press.] This is likely to be at least equally true in most other undeveloped areas.
In these circumstances I see little near-term prospect for development of a world order that has truly universal support. While this is unfortunate, prospects do appear reasonably favorable over the next few decades for the spread of a concept of international order enjoying wide support in the states that dominate in terms of economic power and military potential.
I’ve heard Donald J. Trump compared to Hitler, Mussolini, Nero, Ivan the Terrible, and Vlad the Impaler. He’s been likened to Satan and likened himself to George Washington, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. But he’s relatively infrequently been compared with the historical figure who in many ways is most like him, and whose story has much to teach us: Wilhelm II (1859-1941), King of Prussia and German Emperor (Kaiser).
The empire had been formed in 1870 on the initiative of Otto von Bismarck, minister-president (prime minister) of the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia was much the largest of several German Kingdoms and Bismarck engineered her rise to preeminence in Germany between 1862 and 1870, fomenting several wars to use as stepping stones. After the defeat of France in 1870 he employed cajolery, flattery, and jingoism, liberally seasoned with bribery and threats, to persuade the 25 other German kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free Hanseatic cities to agree to a treaty of union under Prussian leadership, Bismarck himself becoming imperial chancellor. The “Iron Chancellor,” as he was justly known, recognized that the new empire’s geographic position made her vulnerable to attack from three sides; he successfully sought to spin a web of alliances and agreements to enhance German security. The diplomatic roads of Europe all led to Berlin. Thus Germany was able to grow economically at high rates, untroubled by threats of war.
Wilhelm’s grandfather, the old kaiser, died early in 1888, and his father followed just a few months later. At age 29 Wilhelm was the monarch of Prussia and the German empire, with vast powers. Germans greeted their glamorous and dynamic young leader with adulation, but those who had close contact with him saw Wilhelm as remarkably impetuous and immature. He was extremely self-centered and thin-skinned, far, far beyond the norm even for brash young noblemen. He always had to be the center of attention and would throw a tantrum when he wasn’t. No one could tell him any bad news without severe consequences. So he always wound up reading it in the newspapers, prompting rages, sulks, and hasty and often counterproductive responses.
Although the empire and the Prussian kingdom both had constitutional governments, to Wilhelm they were his own personal domains, identified with him. In 1891, during an official visit to the city of Munich, he wrote in the city’s “Golden Book,” “Suprema lex regis voluntas” — “The will of the monarch is supreme law.” Appointments as ministers, officers, and officials went only to favorites; all of those at the highest levels were courtiers, obsequious toadies who took his degrading abuse and came back for more. In 1908 one of his top generals, a stout 56-year old, expired of a heart attack while prancing in a ballerina’s attire for his master’s amusement, an incident exceptional only for its fatal consequences.
Germany had become too large and complex a state to be ruled as a personal domain. There were many powerful men who had to be accommodated to one extent or another, and even the will of the people counted for a good deal. Though he despised and tried always to subvert Germany’s limited institutions of constitutional rule, Wilhelm sought relentlessly to manipulate and mobilize powerful factions and popular opinion. There was no Twitter then but he gave speeches at every opportunity and interviews with the press. Naturally he did not think it necessary to be guided by or even to seek the advice of relevant ministers or officials. He was intelligent, well educated by the standards of the day, and kept himself well informed by reading newspapers, dispatches, and intelligence reports; he felt fully confident in his own opinions.
Wilhelm was the first Prussian king in centuries not to have been raised in the army, not to have become a thoroughly competent soldier. His father, Frederich, had distinguished himself in high command in Bismarck’s wars. Although some of his ancestors had gone to war while still children, Wilhelm remained home in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, later serving briefly as a junior officer in a posh cavalry regiment. Yet no one ever put on a more ostentatiously military front. He was seldom seen out of uniform and surrounded himself with military men. Wilhelm was obsessed with military strength and always bellicose. He frequently threatened war, although when war loomed he invariably got cold feet, much to the dismay and and disgust of his more aggressive generals.
For Germany, his Germany, to depend on allies and accommodate herself to their needs was unworthy of her glory, and his, in Wilhelm’s view. Germany’s links to other nations were discarded or allowed to wither, retaining only the creaky Austro-Hungarian Empire which had nowhere else to turn. Wilhelm would steer his empire out boldly pursuing an independent and self-reliant course built on strength. Many of his actions and pronouncements alienated and alarmed others, but what of it?
Step by step Germany became diplomatically isolated, first mistrusted by all and then universally feared. Nations that had relied on Bismarck to resolve crises impartially and evenhandedly, grew mistrustful and formed alliances to defend against German aggression. As crises arose Wilhelm always played for near-term tactical advantage; nothing was ever resolved and each crisis left tensions higher than before. But Wilhelm remained supremely confident of his mastery of diplomatic dealing and ability to make settlements.
When Serbian state-sponsored terrorists assassinated the heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, Wilhelm encouraged Vienna to deal harshly with Serbia without thinking through the consequences and how to deal with them. As the chain of alliances, agreements, and narrowly-conceived interests dragged state after state into the abyss Wilhelm struggled with increasing desperation to find a way out. But in the Europe he had done so much to form, all exits were sealed.
Obviously there are many fundamental differences between Wilhelm von Preussen and Donald Trump, and between Wilhelm’s age and ours. Yet there are few historical figures closer in character to Trump and I believe that there is something to be learned from Wilhelm’s example. It is often contended that Wilhelm willed and caused the First World War, but it’s very difficult to make a convincing case. What he clearly did do, however, was to help greatly to set in motion the fragmentation, fear, and mutual suspicion that did so much to make war possible if not altogether inevitable. If every state had to look out for its own interests, if no one could count on the fairness and good-will of others, then who could afford to be the last to take up arms? It’s very much the Trump-Bannon spirit.
It’s also clear that Trump and Wilhelm converge in their views on power. “Suprema lex regis voluntas” is no doubt a motto that would serve Trump’s ends very well indeed. Wilhelm consistently used his power to keep the institutions of the state weak, and particularly its civil institutions, with the result that there was little check on his destructive and lawless impulses.
Germans had very few defenses for themselves and their state. We have many, but it is up to us to use them.
* * *
While I have read a great deal about Wilhelm for my research my overall portrait of him and his influence is drawn most from Clark, Christopher M., Kaiser Wilhelm II (London: Longman, 2000) as well as Röhl, John C. G., The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Röhl, John C. G., Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). For better and worse Bismark utterly reshaped Europe in its politics in the late 19th century; the best summary is Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Googling for “Trump and Wilhelm II” will lead to various other comparisons between the two.
In many circles it is a truism that President Donald Trump is an authoritarian whose electoral appeal was largely founded in ethnocentrism. It is also contended that some of the rising right-wing leaders in Europe are authoritarians appealing to ethnocentrism, like Trump. What we are to make of these characterizations must depend at least in part on just what the terms “authoritarian” and “ethnocentrism” are to be taken to mean.
As is usually the case, understanding the history is clarifying.
The term “authoritarian” is of 19th century origin but came into currency in connection with the rise of fascist régimes in Europe in the 1920s and the simultaneous emergence of the Bolshevik régime in the Soviet Union. It was not intended as a compliment.
(Those who wanted to emphasize their hostility as much as possible called them “totalitarian,” however.)
The horrors of World War II and the discovery of the soulless atrocities committed by the fascists and especially the Nazis extinguished any vestige of sympathy there might have been for authoritarianism. Social scientists eager to understand how the monstrous blight of fascism and communism could have arisen called their subject of study “authoritarianism,” and in doing so announced their lack of sympathy for those exhibiting it. It wasn’t quite the equivalent of setting out to study the origins of utter depravity or ultimate evil, but it came pretty close.
In the late 1940s, when the search began, it seemed natural to expect to find an authoritarian personality type at the root of authoritarianism, and the evidence at that time suggested that personality was largely formed in childhood and solidified in early adulthood. The Wikipedia article on authoritarian personality gives a reasonably good short summary of the early research, up to the 1990s. It’s fair to say that these efforts left many critical issues very unclear.
More recent efforts, however, have produced insights of not only theoretical but immediately practical importance with critical implications for politics. They are most clearly and forcefully presented in two books:
(Note that Stenner wrote first; Kinder & Kam make a good deal of use of her work while she was largely unaware of theirs when she wrote.)
Briefly, Stenner substantially modifies and greatly clarifies the notion of authoritarianism as a social-psychology phenomenon, while drawing out important political implications. Kinder & Kam (“K&K” for short) introduce a related but (as they show) separate quality of ethnocentrism and discuss its (and authoritarianism’s) political implications in greater depth. Together the books explore a grave challenge to liberal democracy and to American democracy in particular, and demonstrate that the remedies usually talked about are unlikely to be effective—and may even make the problem worse.
It’s not accidental or incidental that these books have arrived only recently, for they are both built very largely on one of the quite recent accomplishments of social science, the building of an extensive data base of public opinion research. Public opinion research began in the 1930s but it’s really only in the past few decades that social scientists have developed the resources to probe public attitudes and beliefs in a consistent, rigorous fashion on a broad scale. These authors depend on these accumulated data to a great extent, analyzing them statistically. Their predominant method is ordinary least squares multilinear regression (OLS/MLR) analysis. This is no longer a “cutting edge” technique, but I believe it is well suited to their purposes and the nature of the data. Readers who are not knowledgeable about statistics can relax, for Stenner as well as K&K do a competent job of statistical analysis and interpret their findings accurately in clear language.
(One caveat is that Stenner appears to forget that age and epoch are confounded in the data—if an effect seems to be due to age it might also be due to the different environments in which people of different ages were reared. I cannot see any place that she tests for this.)
The early assumption that authoritarianism must be a fixed personality trait implied that it was always active, always guiding the authoritarian’s thoughts and actions in most if not all circumstances. But as means to measure authoritarianism were developed and applied to large aggregations of people they showed authoritarianism waxing and waning in irregular cycles over time. This seemed to cast the measures themselves into question.
A Canadian professor, Bob Altemeyer, devoted a great deal of effort to refining a survey questionnaire to measure authoritarianism. By the mid-1980s his “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” (RWA) scale had become the widely-accepted standard for studies of authoritarianism. Altemeyer had thoroughly scrubbed it of the various statistical flaws that had clouded earlier scales, and it passed most statistical quality tests, but still the results varied considerably from time to time. It was also quite restrictive, depending on many specific contemporary American cultural references, and thus of limited value in studying authoritarianism elsewhere. (An abbreviated sample version of the RWA questionnaire may be found here.)
As a graduate student Karen Stenner, with the support and stimulus of her thesis advisor, Stanley Feldman, progressively recast the notion of authoritarianism in a wholly new mold. She came to see it not as a fixed, constant aspect of personality but as a latent underlying predisposition which is activated and takes effect in behavior only as it is engaged by specific stimuli. As these stimuli wax and wane, she hypothesizes, so do outward manifestations of authoritarianism. At least in principle this solves one of the greatest problems of earlier conceptualizations such as Altemeyer’s. However, she does not propose or track specific measures of activation stimuli to show that time-varying fluctuations in levels of authoritarianism follow them.
Stenner’s concept of authoritarianism has everything to do with social groups. Humans are deeply and innately social, and automatically form groups with which we identify profoundly. As very small, preverbal children we are aware of others as being in or out of our ingroup, and we take this identification as natural. As K&K say (p. 33)
Early on, children display an inclination to parse the social world into “natural kinds.” They believe that race and sex and ethnicity belong to the living world, and that differences between races or sexes or ethnicities are rooted in biology, or blood, or some such underlying essence. Such differences encompass inner qualities—temperament, intellect, character—as well as outward, physical ones. Children come to these beliefs on their own. They do not need to be taught that race and sex and ethnicity are natural kinds; they know these things themselves. Children are ready, one might say, for ethnocentrism.
As we mature we become more sophisticated and discerning about matters of group identity, yet very, very few of us ever entirely cast off our sense of belonging to and depending upon our ingroup; the group is a critical part of our sense of who we are.
Acute sensitivity to threats to the integrity, uniformity and conformity of the ingroup lies at the heart of authoritarianism, as Stenner conceives it. Intrusion of individuals who do not conform to the ingroup standards, behaviors or attitudes that deviate from strong ingroup norms, or leaders who hesitate to use strong measures against threats to group integrity or conformity are examples of what Stenner terms “normative threats,” sure to excite authoritarian responses among those so predisposed.
In such matters even the best of theories is of little value unless it can be validated through real-world data, and Stenner devoted a great deal of effort to this. Altemeyer’s RWA scale was of very limited value for her purposes. Not only was it specific to Americans of a certain era but it largely depended on asking direct questions about the kinds of attitudes she wanted to be able to predict on the basis of her concept of authoritarian predisposition. She needed an index of the predisposition itself. What she devised is breathtakingly simple and subtle. Stenner’s scale of authoritarian predisposition derives from just four related expressions of values in childrearing. Here is the question she asks:
Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have:
- Independence, or Respect for elders
- Curiosity, or Good manners
- Obedience, or Self-reliance
- Being considerate, or Well-behaved?
One beauty of this is that it does not depend on time or place. People have been rearing children to live in society time out of mind. You could expect to get a meaningful answer from virtually any human who has lived since the development of languages complex enough to permit the question to be expressed, anywhere in the world.
Moreover, this question (or questions very close to it) has actually been asked in a variety of social-science oriented surveys fielded over the past few decades, all over the world, so that a great deal of data is potentially available for analysis.
(And I observe that when you know someone reasonably well it is frequently possible to make a pretty good estimate of where the person’s priorities would lie, even if circumstances do not permit asking directly.)
On page 128 of her book Stenner asks, “[I]s it generally true that intolerance of difference is better explained by authoritarianism than by any other variable?” Drawing on the multiyear global data of the World Values Survey she comes to an unambiguous answer (page 133): “[A]uthoritarianism is the primary determinant of general intolerance of difference worldwide.” This is pretty sweeping, but it is consistent with the conclusions of many predecessors for decades before.
Stenner essentially is saying that ethnocentrism and racism are simply particular effects of authoritarianism. Kinder and Kam, however, disagree respectfully but strongly. Ethnocentrism, they believe, is a predisposition that is related to authoritarianism, but largely distinct from it. (pp. 225-27.)
K&K see two components to ethnocentrism. First is ingroup favoritism. This is a low bar; most of us have some feelings of comradeship and affection toward members of our ingroup. At the national level it’s expressed as moderate loyalty and patriotism. It’s also seen in attachment to sports teams, almae maters, home towns, etc.
Ethnocentrism becomes problematic when it extends to outgroup hostility. Ethnocentrism per se involves more or less evenhanded hostility toward all outgroups.
Racism, of course, is virulent hostility toward one or more particular outgroups, defined in terms of perceived racial difference. (Note that real anti-Semites regard Jews as somehow “racially” defined, and similarly with anti-Muslims. At one time the Irish were held to be “racially” different from Scots, which is a good illustration of the ultimate absurdity of racial distinctions.) In practice, K&K find (pp. 206-15), essentially all racists are ethnocentric, but the reverse does not always hold.
To test and support these theories K&K have devised a measure of ethnocentrism, or rather two families of measures. The primary measure is based on unfounded pejorative stereotyping of outgroups, such as notions that blacks are “sneaky,” Jews are “pushy,” etc. (Of course there are some stereotypes that are not inherently negative and for which there is at least some real basis, such as the idea that blacks have dark complexions or Asians have epicanthic folds, but this is not what K&K mean, even when the evidence-based stereotypes are not actually as universal as many may imagine.)
Their secondary measure is negative reported feeling tone regarding outgroups. A main attraction of both these measures is again that they can be calculated from answers to widely-used social science opinion research surveys.
A very important question regarding both authoritarianism and ethnocentrism is where do they come from. Is it the case, as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote ironically in his hit South Pacific song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” that
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate
That’s more or less what social scientists assumed until relatively recently; while there was disagreement on details, ethnocentrism and authoritarianism were generally seen as learned traits. But Stenner, Kinder and Kam all argue persuasively that this isn’t so, that these predispositions are very largely genetic. If children tend to follow their parents in these matters it’s at least as much because of genetic inheritance as it is from learning. K&K rely heavily on twin studies—the gold standard for establishing genetic heritability. Stenner depends on more indirect measures but compiles enough of them to make a good case. It’s all quite consistent with a range of recent findings that stable personality-related characteristics are substantially genetic—not in any rigidly deterministic sense but as a strong tendency (see K&K 254n52). In roughly half of cases the child inherits the parents’ levels of ethnocentrism and authoritarianism or very nearly so even if separated from the family at birth. “[T]he transmission of ethnocentrism from one generation to the next would seem to have more to do with genetic inheritance than with social learning.” (K&K 63-64). And pari passu, it would seem, probably for authoritarianism as well.
Because Stenner and K&K both have good statistical measures of their subjects, K&K (writing later) are able to show that ethnocentrism and authoritarianism are not the same thing. They are related, “congenial,” and somewhat correlated, but distinct. (pp. 64, 86-87, 225-27) This has to be borne in mind when reading some of Stenner’s results; she is not separately controlling for ethnocentrism (for which she had no separate measure) and thus finds it easy to misinterpret her results as showing that it’s an aspect of authoritarianism, or largely so, just as many social scientists had long (but incorrectly) believed. The two predispositions often act in parallel (and perhaps mutually reinforcing) ways, but sometimes pull in different directions.
Both authoritarianism and ethnocentrism seem to be pretty widely viewed as distinctly conservative or right-wing traits. The title Altemeyer gave to his widely-used index, “Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” speaks for itself. Where this leaves Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro is a bit of a mystery to me and indeed I’ve known people who were generally identified as “liberals” by themselves and others who to me seemed distinctly authoritarianism. Nor is there much question that many of the laboring left have been pretty hostile to immigrants. And a liberal icon, President Woodrow Wilson, was a notable racist and segregationist.
Taking the question from the other end, Stenner argues that authoritarianism is only one of three main strands of conservativism. In addition to presenting her case at length in her book, she has published a separate article,
She opens the article by stating,
When people use the terms conservative or rightwing they typically mean one (or problematically, more) of the following: an enduring inclination to favor stability and preservation of the status quo over social change (what I call “status quo conservatism”); a persistent preference for a free market and limited government intervention in the economy (“laissez-faire conservatism”); or an enduring predisposition, in all matters political and social, to favor obedience and conformity (oneness and sameness) over freedom and difference.
The last predisposition, for oneness and sameness, is of course what she calls authoritarianism (although in an aside she remarks that she would be content to call it simply “difference-ism,” if this would suffice to drop the burden of historical and ideological baggage associated with “authoritarianism”). She sees authoritarianism’s traits as “obedience to authority, moral absolutism, intolerance and punitiveness toward dissidents and deviants” (but would continue on to include the “racial and ethnic prejudice” that K&K show to be more the province of ethnocentrism).
(Interestingly, K&K find, on pp. 59-60, that “Americans who think of themselves as conservative are a bit more ethnocentric, on average, than are those who think of themselves as liberal—though the difference is tiny.”)
Stenner argues that these three kinds of “conservatism” do not form a psychological unit but rather are “packaged” together by political and media opinion elites in response to their own functional as well as psychological imperative to array political views on linear left-right scale. She sees no deeper forces joining these three: “neither aversion to social change nor rejection of market intervention implies, necessitates, or tends to produce generalized intolerance of different races, beliefs, and behaviors.”
That is to say that in Stenner’s scheme of things it is open to other opinion elites to pry apart the three (or four) components of “conservatism” to repackage them in alternative arrangements.
It’s likely, I would take it, that most liberals would much prefer not to try to reharness authoritarianism or ethnocentrism to other ends but to diminish them, persuading those affected (or afflicted) by them of the virtues of moderation and inclusiveness. Superficially Stenner offers some hope along these lines, as do Kinder and Kam (pp. 65-66), with their findings that authoritarianism and ethnocentrism are negatively associated with education: the more educated tend to be less authoritarian and ethnocentric.
But the effects of education seem quite limited at best, and may be largely illusory. There appear to be good reasons to believe that the correlation of education with lower scores on authoritarianism and ethnocentrism may have considerably more to do with the kinds of people who seek and accept education than with the effects of the educative process. Moreover, the data offer no guidance regarding what kinds of education might have the desired effect. Does engineering or medical or military or physical education serve? Or must we insist that everyone study social science? (It might be a good thing in some ways, but I cannot envision it as a practical program.)
Given these questions and the underlying genetic heritability of these predispositions, it seems to me that there can be no alternative but to accept them as latent, at least at some level, in substantial portions of our population—conceivably even in ourselves. (Kinder and Kam dampen expectations regarding “reform” of ethnocentrism on pp. 227-28.) If so the implication is clear that those who aspire to political leadership must either build the strength to meet and defeat authoritarianism and ethnocentrism in direct power contests or else find means to keep ethnocentric and authoritarian concerns within limits that our democracy can tolerate. It is important in this regard to remember that these are by no means fixed and eternally active traits but rather predispositions can remain passive and latent as long as they are not activated by perceptions of threat. As Kinder & Kam observe (p. 201), “Without a clear and demonizable adversary, ethnocentrism never becomes engaged.” (Also see K&K 96, 163-79 regarding activation.)
But what about demagogues? No matter what, some will object, a charismatic demagogue can always stride to the stage and conjure threats to activate ethnocentric and authoritarian fears. This is not a concern lightly to be dismissed, surely. But it’s hard to see how we can outlaw demagoguery without summoning even greater threats to our political order.
The founders of the American political order did an amazing job of understanding the threats, based on nothing but study of history and their own experience, and on that foundation installed mechanisms of defense that continue to serve us very well. But in our far larger and more complex polity today we need to harness the insights and tools of modern social science on a much greater and more intensive scale to understand the real nature of all the predispositions and traits that can influence political action and also to understand the various political vulnerabilities they introduce and what further means can be used to limit and constrain them when they threaten to unbalance or overwhelm our democratic institutions.
In earlier posts I’ve mentioned the book,
Because I believe the book is so important and valuable, however, I want to devote this entire post to it. This is adapted from the text of the review I posted on Amazon.com:
* * *
This is a book with a complex context, and it is best to understand something of that context in order to get a clear view of the book. Briefly, Bowles and Gintis have set themselves to resolve one of the most vexing issues in evolutionary theory, that of whether the widespread human trait of altruism toward those who are not close kin can have arisen through natural selection, and if so just how. To do so they must wage war on some views that approach dogma, and they gird and armor themselves with mathematics and factual detail. All this does not make for easy reading, but it is very worth the effort. And it is not necessary to trace all of the details to get a great deal out of it.
In the popular view, the theory of natural selection implies that nice guys always finish last, that it is the strong and ruthless who are fittest, not the cooperative and altruistic. The hyperaggressive Wall St. sociopath is seen as evolution’s ideal type. It would seem to follow that altruism cannot be the product of evolution, and thus that natural selection cannot entirely account for the nature of humankind.
Darwin understood all this quite clearly and it troubled him not a little. In a famous passage in The Descent of Man he acknowledged, “It is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents belonging to the same tribe. He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature. The bravest men, who were always willing to come to the front in war, and who freely risked their lives for others, would on an average perish in larger numbers than other men.”
Darwin argued, however, that the contribution made by the “sympathetic and benevolent” to the survival and success of the group would outweigh the individual advantages of the “selfish and treacherous” : “Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be…. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.” Thus was born the concept of group selection.
(Inter alia, it is worth noting Darwin’s use of value-laden terms, such as “sympathetic,” “benevolent,” “selfish,” and “treacherous,” standing in testimony of the underlying strength of our inbred biases. Attempts to erase or reverse these polarities, such as that undertaken by the Nazis, have met with notably little success.)
But nearly four decades ago, group selection died a messy and protracted death, a victim of mathematical analysis of natural selection’s mechanisms, the then-new understanding of the molecular basis for transmission of the traits on which natural selection acts, and deeper understanding of the heredity of social insects. I’ve heard more than one biologist or mathematical biologist say flatly that “group selection is all rubbish.” (For a summary and scorecard see Mark E. Borrello, “The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Group Selection,” Endeavour 29, No. 1 (Mar 2005): 43-47.)
In reality, however, it never was that absolute. As the great mathematical biologist John Maynard Smith put it, “The terms group selection should be confined to cases in which the group … is the unit of selection. This requires that groups be able to ‘reproduce,’ … and that groups should go extinct. … Group selection can maintain ‘altruistic’ alleles—i.e., alleles which reduce individual fitness but increase the fitness of groups carrying them. The conditions under which this can happen are stringent, so that the main debate concerns whether the process has had evolutionarily important consequences.” [“Group Selection,” Quarterly Review of Biology 51, No. 2 (Jun 1976): 277-83.]
Bowles and Gintis now return to this debate fortified both with new models and new knowledge of the biology and behaviors of our ancestors. The increased puissance of the models derives both from several decades more thought by mathematical biologists armed with the insights provided by extensive computationally-intensive simulation of a kind not feasible in the 1970s. The knowledge of human descent has been augmented by extensive archaeological discoveries, elucidated by powerful technologies for exploiting them, together with the entirely new study of human and animal genomes. The book provides a very extensive tour of all of this.
For all our gains in knowledge, there remain huge gaps in our picture of our ancestors and their lives. We still must rely a great deal on inferences that seem plausible in terms of the available evidence but could very well be wrong. It is not possible to say with certainty whether Maynard Smith’s stringent conditions were in fact met in the course of human prehistory. Nevertheless, Bowles and Gintis make out a very colorable case that they were met, and that group selection thus endowed our species with its remarkable altruistic and cooperative tendencies. (They prefer to call it multi-level selection; while this seems more precise and descriptive I am not optimistic that it will become standard.)
As an aside, I should remark that this is a field whose terms, such as “altruism” and “strong reciprocity,” have an unfortunate tendency to launch some people into hyperbolic rhetorical orbits, as we see in some of the reviews here. But this is really a book about behaviors and mechanisms, leaving us free to take our own views on values.
Bowles and Gintis, together and separately, have published many papers on the subjects treated in the book but so far as I can see the book very largely subsumes all their published work.
While I rather imagine that Bowles and Gintis have more than once felt lonely in their efforts, the question of group selection and its influence on the development of altruism has become quite a hot topic, with those taking the positive view having the wind at their back on the whole, at least for now. The evidence for this includes several other books that bear mention. Edward O. Wilson, who was one of those who argued most effectively against group selection from the biological perspective four decades ago, now has published The Social Conquest of Earth, which many of his sometime admirers see as shocking apostasy. Wilson goes briefly over the same ground as Bowles and Gintis but concentrates much of his attention on the case of social insects, his area of deepest expertise.
Wilson’s book was preceded by a widely noted and very controversial paper which he co-authored with a prominent younger mathematical biologist, Martin Nowak, who now (with a co-author) has published SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. This is a non-mathematical exploration of the insights from the mathematical modeling, with references to correlated biology.
Finally, I should mention Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Boehm is a social anthropologist, not a biologist at all, who takes up another argument offered by Darwin, that peer pressure and reputation played a decisive role in the evolution of altruism. Boehm does not offer any of the formal game-theoretic models that Bowles and Gintis use (and that underlie Nowak’s book), and Bowles and Gintis do seek to use models to deny reputation a place in altruism’s evolution. I do not see them as having entirely undermined Boehm’s points and I suggest we will see more on the subject.
No doubt we will see much more on the whole issue of altruism’s evolution. Surely we have yet to hear the last of the anti-group selection camp, and there is ample room in any event for further discoveries and resulting arguments. But this book seems bound to have continuing importance. It certainly is true that the book is anything but light reading. It’s a deep, dense book, but it well repays the effort involved.
* * *
There have been times and cultures which exalted the belligerent side of our natures; my Celtic and Nordic ancestors among them. Today, however, the majority of us likely would prefer to imagine that we embody the altruistic side without the belligerent. I believe, however, that a close examination of ourselves and others will reveal that the berserker is there, asleep perhaps, but ready to answer the bloody call.
It was a sunny day in early spring when I visited Robert in his home. We are old friends but as often with friendships we had our disagreements. He kept four cats and required scarcely anything of them. I had tried to convince him that he was undermining their moral fibre by allowing them to sponge off him, but he in his amiable way simply turned aside my admonitions. I said nothing of it as he greeted me and led me to his living room, with its glass doors opening out onto an expansive lawn running down to the edge of the woods.
Then the cats filed in, one by one: little Jemima, amiable Munkstrap, placid Jennyanydots, and finally the dignified Bustopher Jones.
I saw a flash of orange at the woods’ edge. Jennyanydots sprang to unaccustomed alertness. “Look, look!,” she hissed in agitation. “There he is again!”
(I must explain here that I am condensing the narrative a bit. Lacking Robert’s fluency in Catalogue, I rely on his translation from the cat speech. And as I discovered, in reality cats are as prone to talking over one another as we.)
“Oh, the poor thing,” Jemima said.
“Disgusting!” Bustopher Jones yelped. “Something should be done.”
An orange cat emerged from the woods, looked about, and started toward us across the lawn.
Plainly alarmed, Jennyanydots yowled, “He’s heading toward us! What shall we do?”
“Now, now,” Munkstrap purred soothingly, “there’s no need to panic.”
“He just wants a little milk and some company,” Jemima said. “I feel it.”
“I know this cat,” Bustopher responded sternly. “An illegal, criminal cat probably from Caxico, or perhaps Cata Rica, or even Catzil. Someplace with awful, disgusting habits where they have no decent behavior. Look: you can see he has no idea how to lick himself properly. Disgusting!” he repeated.
The orange cat certainly did look rather ragged, and distinctly lean.
“Simply because he’s here uninvited doesn’t mean he’s a criminal,” Munkstrap remonstrated.
“He’s here to intrude and disrupt our family, and that’s criminal enough for me,” Bustopher shot back.
“I agree with Bustopher,” Jennyanydots said. “He should be put over the border into Caxico.”
“We don’t know that he’s really from Caxico,” Jemima objected.
“It’s where he belongs anyway,” was Jennyanydots’ scornful reply. “Certainly not here.”
“But look at him,” cried Jemima. “See how forlorn he is. Is he not one of Bast’s kits, just as we are? Is he not as deserving of her bounty as we?”
“Do you want him lapping from your milk dish?” the larger female shot back.
“Don’t worry about milk,” Robert put in. “I just got more and plenty of cat food and litter as well.”
Bustopher Jones snorted and Jennyanydots sniffed. “It’s our house and family,” they chorused. “Not his.”
“Oh come now,” I said. I had not meant to intervene, but felt driven to. “It’s Robert’s to decide, after all. It was his grandfather who built the house that shelters you and his mother who started the business that pays the milk bills. You are but guests here.”
Jennyanydots snarled, a shocking sound from her, and bared her teeth at me. She looked rather ridiculous, to tell the truth.
Bustopher Jones drew himself up and shot out his chest. “The milk is not the issue, nor the food. Worthy as he may be in Bast’s eyes and much as we no doubt owe to Robert and his ancestors, it really is our family and our house, just as Jennyanydots says, just as much as it’s Robert’s. Have we not remained on the alert all these many years, prowling the house constantly to patrol for intruders? Have we not stood always ready to ward off mice, rats, dogs, and even more fearsome beasts like werewolves and unicorns? Who could be more faithful? What does the orange one know of all this?”
“Oh, Bustopher,” Jemima chuckled, “You haven’t caught a mouse in years.”
“The mice aren’t the issue,” Jennyanydots snorted. “It’s the community.”
The orange one had by now reached the door and stood with his nose practically pressed against the glass, looking in at the elysian world within.
“Think what he might be able to bring,” Munkstrap entreated. “A whole new world of experiences and ideas, refreshing and reinvigorating.”
Jennyanydots was having none of it. “Disgusting and corrupting, more like.”
“You watch,” Bustopher Jones admonished, “A horde of others just like him would soon follow. There’s never just one. They will descend on us with their raucous, uncouth behavior and bizarre, filthy habits. They will want to take over the house and the patrolling of it for themselves and displace us. They know nothing of us and our community and will show us no respect.”
“He would learn our ways, surely,” Munkstrap responded.
“Let him learn our ways first,” Jennyanydots shot back.
“Can we not have some compassion?” Jemima pleaded. “We have so much and he so little.”
“And what of all the others?” Bustopher demanded. “If we somehow are obliged to open our doors to one why not to a dozen, or a score? We should be submerged!”
“I just want to keep my home,” Jennyanydots wailed. “Is that so much to ask?”
The hall clock struck the hour. I drew my watch from its pocket and found that the time had quite gotten away from me.
“Oh, dear,” I said. “I must run. I shall be late.”
I took my leave of the cats as I rose. Robert accompanied me to the door. I glanced back to see the orange cat, now on his haunches, still peering in.
“I’m very sorry to leave you at such a moment,” I told him.
“It’s very vexing, very much so.”
“What shall you do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I cannot impose a solution. That would be wrong, and leave much ill-feeling. We must come to a common view.”
I did my best to give him encouragement, but my heart was heavy with foreboding.
Like everyone else who values our democratic institutions I am eager for strong measures to prevent Russian intervention in our elections. (It is reported that many people, most of whom identify as Republicans, express indifference concerning Russian meddling, but I find it hard to believe that this is literally so.) And I feel Putin’s brutal aggression against neighbors and the domestic opposition to be alarming and threatening.
But the awfulness of the current régime aside, I wish only the best for Russia and her people, and I see this as no more than sensible. There truly is no essential reason for conflict between the United States and Russia and a prosperous and stable Russia is really in our interest. This article’s further confirmation that Russia is caught in an economic trap she shows no signs of getting out of is anything but good news.
None of the preceding four U.S. administrations has done well on policy toward Russia, and I feel a lot of anxiety about what this one is likely to do.