The evolutionary biologist wants to abolish the two-party system to save the republic from its discontents.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
ur national conversation has become a battleground where clashing worldviews, frustrations, and experiences collide. For Bret Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist who came to national attention during the protests at Evergreen State College protests in 2017, the two-party system shoulders the bulk of the blame. He recently launched Unity 2020, a proposal to free the republic from the grip of what he calls our “political duopoly.”
Below is National Review’s conversation with Mr. Weinstein, which has been edited.
Mathis Bitton: Let us begin with an elevator pitch of the “Unity 2020” ticket. What is it, why do we need it, and why we do we need it now?
Bret Weinstein: Here is an outline. Most of us have noticed that our republic is in jeopardy. Our parties have failed us, pervasive corruption has permeated our political system, and the American public has been frozen out of the productivity and prosperity that they have created through their labor. This state of affairs has generated a sense of disenchantment, which we see materialize in our streets. People are angry — and rightly so. Unfortunately, large-scale protests may reveal the depth of public frustrations, but unstructured outpourings of genuine anger are all too easily co-opted by careless politicians. Instead of shining a light on root causes, they can divert our attention away from them. The protests could result in disastrous, extreme proposals with which both parties are toying. In the face of this situation, the Republicans have delivered us Donald Trump, and the Democrats Joe Biden. If one of these two men is elected, will we feel like the future of the nation is in capable hands?
The Unity ticket is meant to provide an alternative. The proposal proceeds as follows. We draft two candidates: one from the center-left, one from the center-right. They agree to govern as a team — all decisions and appointments are made jointly, in the interests of the American public. Only when a decision does not allow for consultation does the president decide independently. A coin flip determines which candidate runs at the top of the ticket. If elected, this shared mode of governance goes on for four years; afterward, the two candidates reverse positions (i.e., the second candidate gets to be at the top of the ticket), and this cycle continues until one of them becomes ineligible. As for the candidates themselves, they must possess at least three central characteristics: They must be patriotic, courageous, and highly competent. My suggested names would be Andrew Yang for the center-left, and Admiral William McRaven for the center-right — because these two men are “above politics,” I think that they embody the kind of leadership that the Unity ticket requires.
To anticipate a question we have gotten time and again: The Unity ticket would not be an “election spoiler,” for at least two reasons. First, we have conducted surveys among the volunteers who have joined us so far, and they come from the Left and the Right in equal numbers — by bridging the center-left and the center-right, the Unity ticket disempowers both major parties rather than empowering one or the other. Second, and most important, the plan includes a fail-safe: If, at a carefully chosen point prior to the general election, the Unity Ticket has no viable path to the White House, the candidacy will be suspended.
MB: I am sure most Americans would agree, at least to some extent, that Republicans and Democrats are “corrupt” insofar as they are disproportionally influenced by a select pack of interest groups. But I am wondering why you think that the two-party system is responsible for this state of affairs. In appearance at least, multiparty systems in Europe and elsewhere do not seem somehow shielded from the grip of bureaucracy and special interests. Could it not be that, as Lord Acton put it, “power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?
BW: First, the “game theory” argument against those who want to challenge the two-party system is the same every single election cycle. We are told that “now is not the time to start doing things differently” because rebelling against this binary choice will benefit the more dreadful candidate of the two — whoever that happens to be. This logic keeps us from ever accomplishing anything; it provides an insurmountable but artificial protection for the political duopoly we are supposed to accept.
The problem with having a system where two parties are guaranteed to be the only alternatives is threefold. First, special interests have a robust guarantee that controlling at least one of the two sides will result in considerable — and long-lasting — influence. In countries with coalition governments, interest groups might cancel each other out to a certain extent. Second, the two-party system has facilitated the rise of coalition politics, which is dangerous in and of itself. Instead of providing a philosophically coherent, data-driven plan at the service of the American people, parties simply have to put together a list of measures to please monolithic voting groups somehow aggregated in large coalitions. This practice makes nationwide compromises impossible. Third, the persistence of binary thinking has incentivized the development of political polarization. Trapped in their coalitions, the supporters of both parties are encouraged to buy the incoherent package of policies that their party’s national committee has put together for electoral purposes; from that point onward, everything is done to make them believe that the other side is morally reprehensible for holding differing views, even if a majority of Americans tend agree with one another on central questions — as the “Hidden Tribes Report” pointed out.
Ultimately, the system is a self-reinforcing cycle. As we leave more power in the hands of the two-party system, coalition politics reinforces its grip; polarization ensues, which further strengthens the influence of the two parties. In the meantime, special interests see that the system is well conceived to perpetuate itself; they can invest in lobbying, reassured that their needs are taken care of. This state of affairs has resulted in the de-politicization of large sways of the American electorate. In the U.S., more than 40 percent of voters self-identify as “independent,” having already rejected the hegemony of the major parties.
Only 17 percent of people trust the government to “do what is right” most of the time. Eight-eight percent of Americans say that our current political leaders are not “up to the challenge” of addressing the crises we face. Eighty-nine percent of voters say that “political corruption” is either a “significant problem” or a “crisis.” We are starved for leadership, and the failure of the parties is palpable. Yet 84 percent of Americans believe it is still possible to “improve the level of confidence we have in government.” If they had a ticket that spoke to their interests as American citizens, they would be the largest voting bloc in the country. Many citizens who have given up on voting would be likely to vote if they had a reason to do so. The Unity 2020 ticket is an attempt to give them one.
MB: Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote about the perils of tyranny while serving the murderous regime of Emperor Domitian, once explained that intellectuals can choose between two paths when faced with flawed political regimes. Like Seneca, they can become insiders and try to temper the excesses of the system — the path of “responsibility.” Alternatively, they can use their platform to expose hidden truths and change politics from the outside — the path of “resistance.” You seem to have espoused “resistance.” Why? Would someone like Andrew Yang not be better off as an influential Democratic insider? Have we reached the point where incrementalism is no longer an option?
BW: I do think that our times demand radical changes. When I call the Unity ticket “centrist,” I certainly do not mean it in the conventional sense. While our objective is to make Americans realize their commonalities and reject the polarizing influence of the two-party system, the changes a victorious Unity ticket would bring to the White House are by no means “moderate.” Now, problems such as corruption certainly began decades ago, but I do believe that we have reached a tipping point. The frequency of legislative stalemate is at an all-time high, and the election of Donald Trump has made the two dominant political parties more partisan than ever. They care increasingly little about serious solutions to an ever-expanding list of problems they had a powerful hand in creating; worse still, the tools given to us by our founding documents — in which the two parties are never mentioned — are seldom used with the appropriate amount of care.
Why should we not act “within the system”? Because everything within both parties is done to stop outsiders who want to change the rules of the game. Consider the way in which Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang have been treated by the Democrats and the mainstream media at-large. We need not agree with them to realize that they represent something that the establishment does not want, and against which it is ready to impose every possible barrier. Frankly, no matter how unlikely a third-party victory may seem, the probability of seeing tangible change within parties whose national committees, leaders, and lobbyists have every interest to maintain the system in place is even smaller.
As for why now, I believe that we are navigating uncharted territory as a nation. Beyond the partisan gridlock and the perverse incentives imposed by the political duopoly, we seem unable to agree about basic facts — in fact, our collective sense-making seems to have vanished. We have already seen impeachment, pandemic, widespread violence, and calls to abolish the police. Domestically, our country is on the brink of economic catastrophe and we are hobbled by our dependence on an outsourced manufacturing base. Internationally, the world is losing confidence in America’s capacity to provide sober leadership, even as Chinese geopolitical power expands. Meanwhile, we are trapped in a culture war that encourages mutual demonization — despite the fact that, again, Americans actually agree on most issues. Each of these challenges is daunting. Taken together, and mismanaged by a dysfunctional political system, they threaten national stability. We are in urgent need of a credible national leader to steer us toward calmer waters. Look, I am first and foremost an evolutionary biologist who has studied systems. If the right person emerges at the right time, we can alter the rules — but only if we impose another kind of thinking that cannot be defended within the parties themselves.
MB: I am wondering when you think the two-party system became dysfunctional. Since you cite the founding and the Constitution as blueprints to be followed, I am assuming that you do not see our present moment as the logical continuation of centuries-old trends. When were the parties led astray, and by whom? Does the rise and growth of the administrative state have a role to play in the challenges that America faces?
BW: I would claim that this trend goes back to a shift in the Democratic Party during the Clinton administration. During the Clinton years, the Democrats took up what had been the business model of the Republicans; they moved away from defending the interests of common people as their primary reason for gaining power. That shift created a problem: We saw the end of the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), we saw the adoption of NAFTA, and we saw a veritable abandonment of the raison d’être of the Democratic Party. At that point, the Republicans were the “party of business,” which is to say the party of well-established, big businesses. The Democrats not only took up this model but embraced influence-peddling. They became the party of other businesses, just as large. Now the two parties merely defend competing sets of economic interests corresponding to their respective donors, which excludes the interests of regular folks — who have been unrepresented ever since. No wonder there is a widespread perception that the system is rigged against everyday people and certain groups in particular — it is. But not in the way in which radicals may think. It has little to do with racism being ubiquitous in every white person’s head, and very much to do with the properties of our system.
There is a well-known cybernetic principle that states that the purpose of a system is what it does — i.e., if you want to know what a system is built to do, look at what it accomplishes, not what its representatives tell you it is meant to accomplish. Our system has two things that it accomplishes. First, it keeps real change from happening in the sense that those who are winning at present will continue to win, and they would lose if the system were altered. This incentive to stay at the top creates a form of “built-in organic conservatism,” not in the political sense but in the literal one: People who benefit (i.e., are in power) have every interest to keep malfunctions in place. Second, our system reproduces present patterns of distribution into the future. It is one thing to say that systemic racism may not exist as it does in the minds of certain radicals; it is another to refuse to acknowledge that there are certain neighborhoods in America where opportunities are more than scarce. There is nothing personal about it; the system merely reproduces its own patterns. As for the administrative state, it forms an integral part of this built-in organic conservatism, a sort of backbone structure for the worst of politics to perpetuate itself.
MB: One of the things that worries me about this parallel with biological systems, though, is that it evacuates the question of ideology. To some degree, you provide an exclusively materialist, if not evolutionary, account of the nation’s problems: People came to embrace radical theories on both sides because of economic precarity and system-wide malfunctions. Even your solutions are data-driven, i.e., deliberately a-ideological and apolitical. Of course, this de-politicization need not disqualify your account in the least; in fact, I am sure many will find this approach attractive. But others may argue that ideology is inescapable — if not in theory, at least in practice. Do you not think that the success of President Trump and Senator Sanders can also be explained by immaterial factors? If not, are science and data enough to formulate a comprehensive political proposition?
BW: Well, there are certainly multiple factors at play, but the question is which weight should we give to each of these factors. My claim is simple: Opportunity is being hoarded, i.e., concentrated at the top of the economic ladder. Worse still, not only is there significantly less opportunity at the bottom, but as you go down, the risk and probability increases that, if you do rise, you will fall back to zero. In communities where being stuck at zero is the norm, we should not be surprised that people resort to crime. In fact, the data clearly indicate that when people do have better options, they rarely turn to criminal behavior. Now, this need not absolve anyone of responsibility. But at a societal level, one of our political goals should be to understand our system, its features, its limitations, and act on them accordingly.
Consider the problems facing the African-American community as an example. Evidently, the origin story (i.e., slavery) has a role to play, but not the one we might think. Slavery has a special interaction with the normal structures of being a human being. At heart, human beings are what we may call “generalists,” who have the ability to adapt their internal “software programs” to different habitats or situations. Slavery methodically erased all the programs of enslaved Africans who came to the U.S. and rendered them dysfunctional. There was a systematic breaking of the original African culture, and the substitution of another culture that was less dangerous for slaveholders. When slavery was abolished, we did not even have the tools to talk about this problem; we simply knew too little about the human mind and its relationship to the body.
The problem is that both from a material and from a cultural perspective, we have still not managed to “update” this broken software. And the issue of a powerful few imposing cultural-political norms on a powerless many now transcends racial lines; again, the political system perpetuates itself in a way that is undesirable to American folks by and large. In fact, we can explain a lot of contemporary problems through the lens of an elite afraid of revolution. The most obvious example is widespread incarceration, which is — among other things, to be sure — a way to silence people who would otherwise reveal the malfunctions of the system, and to do so without addressing them.
But here is something we do not talk about. Because a large proportion of incarcerated people in the U.S. are from certain communities, and because they are almost all men, those communities find themselves dealing with a shortage of men. The remaining few are thus in higher sexual demand, which, as is widely documented, makes it harder for them to settle down. And so it is no wonder that the traditional family model has been destroyed in these communities where single-parent households abound. In addition, because it is harder for single parents to raise kids as well as two-parent families do (all other things being equal), this dynamic creates a vicious cycle in which the children are trapped right from the start. Now, what traditional politicians and ideologues on both sides tell you about this sort of problem is that it has everything to do with being black, but if we consider the underpinning evolutionary and demographic mechanisms, we realize that the answer may well be elsewhere.
Why are we not having this conversation? Because it would require us to think about systems, their malfunctions, and the solutions to these malfunctions. When I talk about “apolitical” or “nonpartisan” change, I mean first and foremost exploring root causes with due seriousness and at least agreeing on what they are.
MB: In War and Peace and War, Peter Turchin claims that elite overproduction plays a central role in the development of revolutionary movements; as one part of the elite becomes resentful of another part’s success, the dissatisfied middle to upper middle class uses popular disenchantment to revolt against the existing order, just as the high bourgeoisie did against the ancien régime in 1789. You seem to diagnose a series of deep-rooted, system-wide problems. Is elite overproduction among them, and, if so, are we on the brink of revolution?
BW: I do think there is some merit to Turchin’s thesis. Perhaps the best example, and one that I have witnessed for years, is academia. Since universities are funded in large parts by grants that depend on costly research, they have every incentive to free professors from their teaching duties as much as possible — as do the professors themselves, who tend to be recruited and promoted primarily based on research output. Naturally, someone still has to do the teaching work, so they bring in disproportionate quantities of graduate students and pay them ridiculous wages since they are technically “students.” They do most of teaching, are paid incredibly low amounts of money, and live under terrible conditions. Of course, it still makes sense at the individual level, because people are “paid” with degrees and chose to go to graduate school. But at the systemic level, it means that we are seriously overproducing PhDs, particularly given that an increasing number of graduate students come from abroad. We have created an academic job market that produces disenchanted PhDs en masse, and this phenomenon definitely has fueled a pernicious kind of resentment. An analogous situation is happening on college campuses with the student-debt crisis; for many, it is no longer worth it to go to college, and for those who do, it is incredibly difficult to get a good start in life with such high levels of debt, particularly in the current job market. Overall, I find the factors I have cited above more useful to explain America’s present problems; but disenchantment among college and graduate school students may well have a role to play.
The problem, though, is that we cannot afford a revolution. We have become so interconnected that the world will not withstand a temporary collapse of the U.S. — economically and/or politically — and neither will we. Our networks of commerce, power, and communications are becoming as richly interdependent as ecologies and nervous systems. We are all brought together by networked flows of freight and fuel and finance, by information and ideas. In this sense, it is only natural that the system’s organic conservatism fights back against change — if change does not come peacefully, and if we wait too long before more-radical outcomes are preferred, the consequences for the nation and the world could be unpredictable and dangerous.
MB: Last question: How do you find a balance between your “centrist,” data-driven approach and the kind of populist rhetoric you will need to get your voice heard on the campaign trail?
BW: This question has been central for us. We do recognize that abstract technocratic promises do not capture the public’s imagination; we need a narrative, and we are building one. I think that unification and de-polarization are powerful messages to run on, as is the idea that more data in politics would not hurt. Andrew Yang’s campaign almost found the right balance by the end; he was focused on precise policy proposals, he did not demonize his opponents, but he also came up with a certain vision of America’s future that could galvanize the public. Now, I think that an uncompromising critique of the two-party system is much needed, and this critique does have a “populist,” “drain-the-swamp” bent. We also need to insist on the urgency of acting now, and this implies making enough noise to reach mainstream — and non-mainstream — media outlets. The line I would not want us to cross, however, is that of intellectual dishonesty. It is fair to say that the political duopoly we are forced to accept creates a set of problems that threaten the survival of the nation, problems that we need to fix with system-wide changes. It is also fair to say that the anger we are witnessing in the streets, the rise of economic precarity, and the lack of American leadership abroad need appropriate responses now. In this sense, a strong rhetoric on the system’s failures is required, natural, and justified. But hyperbole should never play a role in policy design — let alone policymaking. The solutions have to be laser-focused; the way to defend them in public, however, is to combine them all within a coherent narrative, a cohesive vision around which people can congregate without knowing the details of every plan. You’re right to say that we will need both the data-driven solutions and the rhetoric to uplift them.
MB: Mr. Weinstein, thank you very much.
BW: Thank you.
Mathis Bitton is an editorial intern at National Review.