Essay derived from a speech in City Journal
December 17, 2017
Here is an excerpt:
When we look back at the ways our ancestors lived, there’s no getting around it: we are tribal primates. We are exquisitely designed and adapted by evolution for life in small societies with intense, animistic religion and violent intergroup conflict over territory. We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs, and tattoos. Tribalism is in our hearts and minds. We’ll never stamp it out entirely, but we can minimize its effects because we are a behaviorally flexible species. We can live in many different ways, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups of 50 individuals to feudal hierarchies binding together millions. And in the last two centuries, a lot of us have lived in large, multi-ethnic secular liberal democracies. So clearly that is possible. But how much margin of error do we have in such societies?
Here is the fine-tuned liberal democracy hypothesis: as tribal primates, human beings are unsuited for life in large, diverse secular democracies, unless you get certain settings finely adjusted to make possible the development of stable political life. This seems to be what the Founding Fathers believed. Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of those eighteenth-century deists clearly did think that designing a constitution was like designing a giant clock, a clock that might run forever if they chose the right springs and gears.
Thankfully, our Founders were good psychologists. They knew that we are not angels; they knew that we are tribal creatures. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10: “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Our Founders were also good historians; they were well aware of Plato’s belief that democracy is the second worst form of government because it inevitably decays into tyranny. Madison wrote in Federalist 10 about pure or direct democracies, which he said are quickly consumed by the passions of the majority: “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention . . . and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
So what did the Founders do? They built in safeguards against runaway factionalism, such as the division of powers among the three branches, and an elaborate series of checks and balances. But they also knew that they had to train future generations of clock mechanics. They were creating a new kind of republic, which would demand far more maturity from its citizens than was needed in nations ruled by a king or other Leviathan.
The full speech is here.