Trump Cards: Why the Donald is Winning, and Why That’s a Good Thing (Part 2)


(Please read Part 1 first)

So why is Trump winning?


One way to understand precisely how he is doing it is with the help of a little-known theory called Spiral Dynamics.  Spiral Dynamics is a theory of cultural development pioneered by psychologist Clare Graves in the 1970s, developed and applied by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in the 80s in apartheid in South Africa, and adapted by Ken Wilber in his Integral Theory in the 2000s.  And just to reassure you that I am not pulling this out of left field:  when Al Gore was asked to name his favorite philosopher during the 2000 campaign, his answer was “Ken Wilber” (Bush’s was “Jesus”), and Clinton has quoted Wilber’s work at Davos.  Many politicians at the highest levels know about and use these frameworks.

The atomic unit of the theory is the “meme.”  The theory holds that throughout history, human beings have responded to the challenges of surviving and living together by evolving different memes–forms of consciousness and culture.  Each meme is a creative response to life conditions, an organizing structure that helps people make sense of themselves, their place within the social order, and humanity’s place within the natural world.  In short:  a meme is a worldview–a vision of the way the world is–and a value system–a vision of the way the world should be.  It is a mental and moral matrix that shapes consciousness and culture.

8 Different Views of Life

The notion of memes–ideas that are rapidly transmitted from individual to individual, like a virus replicating itself–has become a mainstay of cultural theory and pop sociology, but Spiral Dynamics applies the concept in developmental terms.  Memes unfold in a predictable and developmental fashion; they are like waves or stages in the evolution of consciousness and culture.  A meme emerges because it solves certain problems, performs critical functions, and fills certain needs for individuals and cultures within a particular historical, environmental, economic, and technological context–for awhile.

But when conditions change and new problems of living arise, a new worldview and value system emerges in order to make sense of the new world order, and the old one is displaced.  The latter does not disappear; it continues to play an important part in the life of the individual and the culture, and it is recruited and activated at key times, but it is no longer the “center of gravity.”  An analogy to the Spiral is Maslow’s needs hierarchy; the rungs on the bottom levels don’t disappear once moves to a new one–you still need to eat!–but they are no longer the main goal of life.

This is the Spiral:


A few things are worth pointing out.

First, there is nothing essential about the colors (though some of them are obviously intuitively appropriate:  Red is prone to impulsive rage, and Green is a lover of Nature).

Second, these are not types of people; they are types in people.  Every person–like every culture–is a unique mosaic of multiple memes that ebb and flow.  But people do tend to have a center of gravity that acts as their default setting.  Different situations call forth different elements.

Third, no meme is inherently good or bad:  each has healthy and pathological expressions.  Though, as I explain below, the fuel of the culture wars is the friction between the memes; in general, a new meme tends to demonize the one before it, highlighting its weaknesses while ignoring its strengths (while also being blind to its own weaknesses).

Fourth, no meme is “better” than another in an absolute sense; each has a unique and necessary role to play.  However, problems arise when one meme attempts to dominate at the expense of others and deny them their relative truth and proper place in life.  Hence, Spiral Dynamics holds that there is a kind of evolutionary progress:  perspectives that include and integrate more perspectives are better–they acknowledge and encompass more of reality.  Only in that qualified sense can one perspective be said to be “better” than another.

Finally, the memes track both individual and cultural development.  In the Middle Ages, for instance, the center of gravity was Blue, but each individual had to go through all the stages; e.g., no one gets to skip the “terrible twos” (Red).

In Part 3, I sketch the contours of four of them since they help explain our political culture in general and Trump’s rise in particular:  Red, Blue, Orange, and Green.

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