(Please read Part 1 and Part 2 first)

To see how Trump’s success can be explained by how he is leveraging the Spiral, we need to look at some of the dominant memes in American political culture:  Red, Blue, Orange, and Green.


Red:  Power


The Red meme is egocentric.  Historically, it emerged during hunter-gatherer times, when tribes came into conflict or needed to bind together in order to survive and were united by strong, powerful leaders who instilled fear, garnered respect, and got people to do their bidding.  Red seeks control through the exercise of power, often through force or intimidation.  It is what comes out when we get into a fight with our partner and say things we later regret or “didn’t mean”; it is the raw expression of anger, frustration at “not getting my way.”  In disputes, Red seeks not just to win–to be on top–but to conquer–to put others down.  When wronged, it seeks not justice, but revenge.  In fact, Red does not think there is any justice in the world; people are inherently self interested, and social order is maintained only through the fear of punishment.  Red sees the world as dog eat dog, “red in tooth and claw”; the only way to get ahead in life is through force and fraud.  Only suckers play by the rules.

Key values are control, strength, power.

Examples:  the terrible twos, the schoolyard bully, Achilles, prima donna athletes, Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, horrible bosses, the Joker, most of the characters on Game of Thrones, and of course, Donald Trump.

The world is divided into the strong and the weak.

Blue:  Traditional


Blue is ethnocentric.  It sees the social world as a hierarchy of clearly prescribed roles governed by rigid rules.  Here, the individual’s identity is determined by his or her social role and membership in the community.  This is a corrective to Red:  the dangerous desires of the individual must be checked and harnessed for social good; a classic example is the medieval knight of courtly romance, whose destructive potential must be sublimated in the service of society.  For Blue, the cosmos is regarded as the ordered plan of a personal God who determines good and evil.  Blues tend to see the world in black and white, us vs. them, absolutistic terms.  Blue is the platform for patriotism and nationalism; “protecting the homeland” is Blue language, and it is no accident it became prevalent after 9-11, when Red Islamic Terrorism struck at the heart of the country.

Key values are loyalty, humility, sacrifice, and a strong emphasis on law and order.

Examples:  the military, the police, social conservatives, the Catholic church.

The world is divided into saints and sinners.

Orange:  Modern 


Orange is world-centric and holds a cosmopolitan outlook.  People find their identity as free and equal human beings, first and foremost, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sex, ability or nationality.  Orange tends to see the world as a free market of individuals using their talents and labor to compete and engage in exchange for mutual benefit to attain the most optimal distribution of resources.  When Margaret Thatcher said “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals,” she was speaking Orange.  Where Blue is aristocratic–social rank is determined by birth, tradition, and rules of inheritance–Orange is meritocratic.  Orange tends to prefer limited government:  the sole job of the government is to protect individuals rights, particularly their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as defined by the individual–not the State, the Church, or any other external authority.  Orange tends to be materialistic rather than moralistic:  it does not place as much emphasis on character formation as Blue; what matters is that one shouldn’t physically harm others.  Orange is thus the father of classical liberalism, the political DNA of modern societies.  Likewise, Orange is the home of empiricism and the scientific method,  basing knowledge on experience, not tradition; it is thus skeptical of religious authorities.  It cares about what works.  It prioritizes progress, particularly scientific and technological progress.  Orange “thinks for itself.”

Key values are freedom, independence, adaptability, innovation, experimentation, conscientiousness.

Examples:  businessmen, scientists, Ayn Rand, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Donald Trump.

The world is divided into winners and losers.

Green:  Postmodern


The Green sensibility came on the scene in the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s.  Green has a deep distrust of any kind of centralized authority, institutional hierarchy, or mainstream establishment.  It tends to see these as power structures created to oppress people, e.g., “the Man”  Mindful that history is often written by the winners, Green rejects “Master Narratives” in favor of “Slave Narratives”; one example is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which overturns the Founding Fathers-as-demigods story and points out how the country was built on the slaughter of native Americas.  In general, Greens tend to be highly critical of the United States, particularly the military and big business.  It seeks community as a reaction to the alienation brought on by Orange individualism, and has a deep yearning for existential meaning as a reaction to Orange materialism.  The phrase “identity politics” is a Green phenomenon:  it means that individuals see themselves first as members of a particular group–women, gays, Christians–rather than as individual citizens.  Green sees modernity as an artificial environment that has removed us from–and despoiled–Mother Nature.  It wants to go back to the land and live organically:  When Joni Mitchell sings, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot,” that is a Green lyric.  Green prioritizes cultural sensitivity and the inclusion of marginalized groups:  gays, racial minorities, Muslims, etc.  It also goes beyond Orange in extending the circle of moral concern to nonhuman animals and the environment.  It thinks from a global and ecological perspective, tending to focus on what is wrong with the world, and prefers international over national solutions to global problems.  “Think globally, act locally” is a Green slogan.

Key values are tolerance, inclusivity, equality, sensitivity.

Examples:  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, hippies, environmentalists, New Agers, Occupy Wall Street.

The world is divided into oppressors and oppressed.

So how do these memes help us understand the culture wars, presidential politics and, ultimately, Trump’s success?

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(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.


The question on everyone’s mind is this:  How is Donald Trump winning?  Why is he winning?  And how long is he going to keep on winning?  What few people–other than his supporters–seem to be considering is how this might be a good thing.

Despite a history of derogatory public remarks towards and about women–in an age when one tone-deaf Tweet can destroy a political career–he polls well with them.

Despite a coordinated attempt to sink his candidacy in the first debate by Fox News–the visible hand of conservative voters’ thinking–his support has only grown stronger.

Despite the conventional wisdom that the GOP needs to court Hispanic voters, he promises to build “the greatest wall you’ve ever seen” to keep out Mexican “murderers, drugs, and rapists.”

Despite Lord Reagan’s “11th Commandment” that thou shall not speak ill of another another Republican, he declares that senior statesman, former GOP presidential nominee, and Vietnam veteran and torture victim John McCain is “not a war hero.”

Despite being previously pro-choice, twice divorced, and the overseer of an empire of sin, he glides through the moral gauntlet.

Despite having funded liberal candidates and causes–at a time when ideological purity tests have become the norm in conservative politics–he keeps on attracting conservatives.

Despite an almost total lack of policy positions on his website or in his speeches, people are flocking to him.

Despite all this, he keeps on winning.

Of course, he hasn’t actually won anything yet, and despite his incessant boasting, he does not win all the time.  A number of explanations have been given for Trump’s temporary triumph:  he is entertaining, he is blunt, he tells the truth, he is not a politician, he’s a successful businessman, he is who he is, he dishes out populist pablum aplenty, and more.  I don’t think any of these are wrong, but I think there is a more elegant, satisfying, and comprehensive explanation for why he striking such a chord with so many people.

Put simply, Trump is speaking to people on multiple levels simultaneously in a way none of the other candidates are.  Just as the greatest gift the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest gift a politician can every pull is to talk down to voters while making them think he’s not; to make everyone think he is taking directly to them, personally, at the same time he talking to everyone else; to make them feel empowered even when he knows they are going to get screwed.  Call it inspiring condescension, call it parallel processing, call it what you want:  whether by instinct or design, Trump has assembled the perfect rhetorical ingredients to win the ears of a stunning swath of voters.  Trump may not be a “career politician,” and he has convinced voters he is not a politician, but he is a gifted politician.

But what exactly are those ingredients, and why are they the right ones?  To answer those questions, we need to look at a little-known but, in political circles, widely used theory of cultural development called Spiral Dynamics.  Check out Part 2 to find out what it is and how Trump is leveraging it.


(photos courtesy of, and flickr,


In the wake of the recent waves of news regarding the recent EPA regulations and the National Climate Assessment report, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change and American politics, and yesterday, a crazy idea popped into my head.  I googled “Gore 2016” and, lo and behold, found that Mark Halperin, of Game Change fame, had recently floated the idea on “Morning Joe” a few weeks ago:

When you start to really think about it, it makes a whole hell of a lot of sense.  

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Over at, a sort of fun interactive infographic with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” decision tree to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school:

The question of graduate school isn’t really one question, since grad school is said in many ways:  there are worlds of difference between grad school in the humanities, in law, and in business, for instance.  In contrast to the infographic, I am going to talk here exclusively about grad school in the humanities.

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Young people who go into lucrative professions scorned as bereft of moral scruples rather than choosing a noble profession helping others are often regarded as “selling out.”  But Jason Trigg, a recent MIT graduate, “sells in“:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn….  he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary…

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

His inspiration?  The moral philosophy of Peter Singer:

While some of his peers have shunned Wall Street as the land of the morally bankrupt, Trigg’s moral code steered him there. And he’s not alone. To an emerging class of young professionals in America and Britain, making gobs of money is the surest way to save the world. When you ask Trigg where he got the idea, his answer is a common refrain among this crowd: “I feel like I’d read stuff by Peter Singer.”

Singer’s influence notwithstanding, we can also see Trigg as trodding the path of the Bodhisattva…

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Should philosophers focus less on Value Theory, and more on Value Added?

Over at Salon, a plea for philosophers to swallow their pride and get on with selling themselves and their profession:

if philosophy is so important, then selling itself to the culture at large is important too. So it’s time for philosophers to put their clothespins on their noses, wade into the stench of real-world commerce, and ask some of those tanned and toned marketing majors who skipped out on Philosophy 101 for some help.

Philosophy, in short, needs a Marketing Makeover.

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Over at Adjunct Rebellion, a scathing assessment of MOOCs:

While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one.  The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material.  It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities.  And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?

This is an example of the rhetoric of crisis I discussed earlier, and let me be clear that I don’t always think that’s a bad or un-useful thing–it just depends on what your goals are.  If your goal is to wallow, then it works great.  If your goal is to get tenure, you’re barking up the wrong tree (these two goals, incidentally, are espoused by the folks over at the Philosophy Smoker Blog, a nest of nattering nabobs of negativism, which openly admits that its focus is to “bitch about” trying to make it in academic philosophy).  If your goal is to make a living, then just quit and do something else (and you CAN do something else).

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Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke, has a great idea:

In January 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I’d like to turn the class’ weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative, constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future.

A MOOC about MOOCs seems to make a great deal of sense for a few reasons.

For one, it provides a forum for investigating just what a MOOC is, what it can and cannot be, whether and to what extent it does indeed enhance learning, and whether and to what extent and in what ways this can be measured.  If it turns out that such an experiment yields a more nuanced and useful picture of the ontology and application of the MOOC, then this itself would be evidence that the MOOC is a sound design and delivery mechanism.

Second, as Cathy notes,

In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education?

Crisis rhetoric is seductive but does not have a great signal-to-noise ratio.  A MOOC that took a, well, academic approach to MOOCs might help to dispel the fervor over the MOOC-ment and help people think clearly about just what it is and what it means.

Third and related, much of the chatter about MOOCs is so focused on the “disruption” of the status quo, but sometimes the storied history of that status quo is not sufficiently excavated.  An inquiry into MOOCs in the context of the history of higher ed might help us see that the notion of Higher Education enshrined in our social imaginary is a historical anomaly made possible by a set of specific events, notably World War II and the G.I. Bill.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed just ran a piece along these lines (though it is paywalled).

I have finally decided to take the plunge:  I have signed up for Coursera’s “Internet History, Technology, and Security” course.  It’s not quite Christopher Hitchens voluntary trying out water boarding in order to do his subject justice, but I figure it only makes sense to walk the walk.  Reports forthcoming.