Can Diversity Save our Democracy?

Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago, IL

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard there are serious challenges to the status quo in United States politics and the social fabric of our country. In the abstract, this is, of course, a disruption to a system (a topic I’m always interested in!). The clear million-dollar question at the moment is whether not only our system of democracy, but also our cultural norms of decency, can withstand the assault. The U.S. is an incredible experiment in human diversity coming together under one roof, and while some people fear diversity will tear us apart, lessons from biology tell us that diversity is critical for system resilience. Can our diversity actually save us?

My high-level foray into understanding how diversity plays a role in system resilience leaves me unsure but hopeful that the foundation of diversity to increase resilience is there. Can we harness it?

Our Age of (Increasing) Diversity

The context of the slew of offensive rhetoric directed at an incredible swath of the American public that has surrounded the ascension of Trump to the presidency of the United States, and Trump’s fascist and authoritarian style, have drawn comparisons of Trump to Hitler. There are dire warnings about the threat to our democracy should no one hold Trump accountable under the law, and should the Republicans, holding majorities in both the House and Senate, be complicit in letting Trump run roughshod over the rights of U.S. citizens. These warnings often come with a reminder of the slippery slope towards a state of affairs similar to that of Nazi Germany.

This comparison raises questions for me about the realities of today versus the realities of Germany in the 1930s. There are obviously many, many factors that shape a system, but the one I keep thinking about is the diversity of our population. In the 1930s, Jews made up less than one percent of Germany’s population – this translates to just over 500,000 people in a population of about 67,000,000. As far as I can find through online research, the populations of other targeted groups were also small in comparison to the total population. Thus the racial and ethnic diversity of populations in Germany was relatively low compared to that of the United States in 2017 – at least 36 percent of our population identifies itself as not white (including Hispanics or Latinos). That is over 115,000,000 people! And that block of people is made up of citizens from an incredible variety of backgrounds and religions and languages. (It’s also fascinating to look at the diversity of voters that make up political parties in the U.S. In 2016, whites made up only 57 percent of the Democratic party, compared to 86 percent of the Republican party.)

Diversity in our population isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact by the 2040s, it’s estimated that “minority populations” combined will make up a larger percentage of the U.S. population than whites. Fear about this change from some portions of our populace seems to engender fierce resistance in some people (check out this 2013 graph “Composite index of openness to diversity” here – it’s like reading the tea leaves for Trump’s election).  

So if the diversity of our country is decidedly different than the last time someone like Trump came to power, my question then is, how will the striking diversity of our population shape our system’s response to this disruption? Does it make our democracy more resilient? Is it sufficiently diverse to create a buffer? What can we learn from the lessons of diversity in nature (non-human systems)? I thought I’d look up how biodiversity increases the resilience of ecosystems, and if there might be lessons learned that can help us understand how our diversity might help us through this current disruption. Here are my initial thoughts, which give me both hope and a reality check – a diverse population is only half the story.

How does diversity translate to resilience?

Being “resilient” is another way of saying that you have systems in place that allow you to recover after a disruption (whether that disruption is sudden or chronic) to a state similar, if not better, to that you were experiencing before the change. Diversity is an important component to resilience. High diversity in natural systems, whether with respect to species, ecosystems, genetics or functions, provides a kind of insurance against disruption.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) identifies two critical elements that diversity brings to a system. Functional redundancy is “the presence of multiple components that can perform the same function” – if one component of the system fails, another that performs the same function will fill the void. They liken it to the common phrase, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

The second element is response diversity. Response diversity is the range of reactions to a disturbance among species that provide the same function within a system but at different scales or sizes. In other words, a disturbance might pose a risk to one group of species performing a function while not affecting another – their responses to the disturbance are different.  SRC uses the example of seed dispersal – small mammals such as mice might be impacted by small local disturbances, while chimpanzees may be unaffected and continue to perform the function of seed dispersal. If both chimps and mice (and all other mammals in between) were equally negatively affected by a disturbance, seed dispersal would no longer take place and the ecosystem would start to degrade if sustained over time.

Another factor I came across is functional diversity. Essentially, this refers to the the diversity of functions between species within a system. Say you have 20 species on a savanna. If they are all grazers of grass the ecosystem would look very different than if there were 10 grazers that eat grass, 5 grazers that eat tree leaves and 5 predators, with additional variations between those groups that affect different parts of the ecosystem.

In biomimicry, diversity is addressed in Life’s Principles as:

  • Incorporate diversity – include multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need. (functional redundancy)
  • Embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization – maintain function following disturbance by incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together. (response and functional diversity)

What this all boils down to is that diversity has the greatest impact on system resilience when:

  1. You have different components (i.e., species…or ethnicities, races, religions, sexes, political parties, you name it) each fulfilling different functions (i.e., seed dispersal, fertilization, decomposition, and carbon sequestration…or get out the vote, calling representatives, protesting, running for office, etc.) in the system.
  2. For each function, you have a high number of different kinds of components (i.e., many different species…or many political groups, many get out the vote campaigns, etc.) that can perform the same function.
  3. Each of these components that perform the same function do so in a different way and maybe in a different place in the system, so that in the event of a disturbance, some may be affected and go away, but others not affected will still perform the same function, allowing the system to continue generally how it was (which is resilience).

Are we diverse enough?  A focus on function

Based on the information I provided above about demographics, it appears that we have great diversity in our population – a large number of different “components” in the system. But what I’ve learned from natural models is that it’s not just the number of components, it’s also what they are doing (their function) that matters. For example, if we have great diversity of people but they all serve the function of “non-registered (or purged!) voter”, then that diversity contributes little to the resilience of our political system.

So how can we leverage our incredible diversity – of all kinds including race, ethnicity, religion, political ideas, class, etc. – to shore up our democracy? If we are to learn and benefit from the lessons of nature (non-human) systems, it might be that the focus of those who want to defeat this potential threat to our democracy need to at a minimum:

  1. Determine what functions are critical to the survival of the U.S. democracy at all scales while making sure that the functions identified are diverse (they don’t just address limited parts of the system): i.e., come into alignment on what makes for a strong well-rounded democracy. Important to note here that “function” is not synonymous with pushing a political ideology – rather just the “verbs” of democracy – what people need to actually do to make it work – such as vote, communicate, educate, etc.
  2. For each function identify multiple existing, and develop new where necessary, components that perform each function to create redundancy at all levels of the system (be sure to identify areas without redundancy and address them by adding components that also perform the same function!). (Planned Parenthood comes to mind here – while not political, it is politicized and the fact that there are few if any organizations that can fill the void for the function of providing affordable, accessible medical care to women that would exist should Planned Parenthood not receive federal reimbursements for services rendered means that this aspect of the healthcare industry is not resilient.)
  3. For each function, make sure that all the components performing that function are not all subject to the same risks (so they don’t all fail at the same time, undermining the system).

Applications of these lessons can be applied to all levels of our political system, no matter how big or small. All you political experts out there, how does our system of democracy and our political parties stack up with respect to these system design principles? Are these questions already being asked and addressed? Will we be resilient in the face of this challenge to our democracy? What are our strengths and weaknesses? Can we harness our diversity to write a new ending to this story? Biologists, what more do we need to know about diversity and system resilience? Let’s see where we can go from here.

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