I can see you scratching your head. You’re thinking that using my Norwegian ancestry as a campaign feature would be counterproductive to my campaign, but you’re wondering how it would counteract democracy. In my defense, let me note that there are about 4.5 million U.S. citizens that have significant Norwegian ancestry. They tend to be highly concentrated in certain geographical areas (the Dakotas, Minnesota, some parts of Utah, etc.) So, it is conceivable that in the right location, I could leverage my heritage to my benefit.
Of course, this all seems completely absurd. But stick with me through this thought exercise. Even in rural Minnesota, my Norsk-centric approach would likely alienate the Swedes living there. Thus, my focus on heritage would probably backfire. It would certainly backfire with a certain percentage of the population because it would be exclusive rather than inclusive. This is called an atavism, which in this case denotes a group identity. It denotes membership in a tribe. I would be appealing to those that shared my noted atavism; those that are members of my tribe. Others would necessarily be excluded. If you weren't born with Norwegian heritage, there's little you can do to change that fact now.
Why do I even present this silly idea? I do so because we have people in the current presidential campaign that are focusing on atavistic traits of some candidates. Both the MSM and the blogosphere have been enamored of the idea that this next presidential election might be the first time in history we elect as our Chief Executive a woman, an African American, or a Mormon. Is there anything wrong with noting this or discussing these matters? Not at all.
We appropriately hail positive cultural breakthroughs that diminish misguided prejudices that have been socially acceptable. For example, it was good when Jackie Robinson’s entry in to major league baseball “ended approximately eighty years of baseball segregation….” These types of events diminish the significance of atavisms — of tribalism. They cause our entire society to become more humane and to comprehend the humanity in each of us, regardless of our notable differences.
But there is a danger when we go too far and seek to use atavisms as platforms for getting gain; for accruing money or power, etc.
It is not possible, nor is it desirable, to completely disavow atavistic traits. We have seen the problems that have come to societies that have worked hard to suppress such. However, we have also seen the horrendous problems created when atavistic traits have been used to gain power. Throughout history, rights have often been suppressed based on atavisms. Some of the most obvious examples from relatively recent history include the Nazi Aryan Race program, black slavery, suppression of the rights of women to vote and to freely labor, and repression of Native Americans.
Four years ago during the last presidential campaign, Shelby Steele argued in this article that there is a fundamental conflict between atavisms and democracy.
“Embracing atavistic identities too strongly leads to three great sins: asserting the inherent superiority of one's group over others, excluding others as inferiors, and invoking an enemy to fight in the name of one's superiority. White racism, black separatism, Islamic extremism and Nazism are all atavistic identities gone too far, gone to where one's superiority is confirmed only by the denigration and even annihilation of an enemy. Whenever power is pursued in the name of an atavism--my blackness, your whiteness, his Catholicism, her gender--enemies arise and our democracy of individuals is injured. This is true even when oppressed minorities pursue power in the name of their atavism rather than in the name of freedom.”
It is fine to hail atavistic breakthroughs. When we elect a woman as president, we will rightly note that a previously accepted social prejudice has fallen. Likewise, when we elect a black or a Mormon as president. But it does not necessarily follow that those atavistic traits should be significant motivators for selecting leaders (or employees, etc.). This is illiberal. It is of a piece with segregation. It differs from Nazi racism and Jim Crow only by degree.
Steele notes that classical liberals reject “atavistic power as illegitimate because it always steps on individual freedom.” If I vote for Mitt Romney significantly based on our shared religion, or vote against Barack Obama significantly based on the fact that he and I have different skin color, or vote against Hillary Clinton partially because she is a woman, I have stepped over the line of democratic principle and have moved toward tribalism, which is the enemy of democracy.
Successful democratic societies must be based on pluralism. They must work to balance the maximization of individual freedom against the needs of society. When we assay to select a political leader based on atavisms, we are strengthening tribalism and working against democracy. We purposefully exclude the interests of those that are not members of our same tribe and either cannot join the tribe or could only do so through difficult means.
None of this is to imply that we need to ignore a candidate’s race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc. But it does mean that when we use those atavisms as a basis for gaining, awarding, or denying power, we are necessarily damaging the principles upon which our democratic republic is based.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This high ideal should be the basis of our selection of political leaders. Rather than casting our vote based on some atavistic trait or tribal membership, we should instead focus on the character of the candidates and vote accordingly. We should focus on whom we think will best serve our republic in the position at issue rather than on what ‘tribe’ a candidate belongs to.
This is how we go about selecting leaders that support the pluralism upon which our democratic republic is based. It is how we encourage power in the pursuit of freedom rather than power in the promotion of tribalism.