What’s the Matter with America? The Breakdown of Love, Strength & Intelligence

The following guest blog post is by Dr. Sally Goerner, Capital Institute’s Science Advisor.


Why have millions of American voters selected Donald Trump, a narcissistic, neo-fascist salesman whose policies run from irrational to dangerous? There are, of course, many facets to this conundrum. Here, I explore its deeper psychological underpinnings in hopes that our leaders might better understand its causes and cures. In particular, I’m going to use the Triune Brain[1] understanding of human nature to explain why this neo-fascist upsurge is a classic consequence of the breakdown of the bonds of love, strength, and intelligence that hold a society together and why rebuilding these bonds is critical to our survival.

Brain research suggests the behavior patterns of love, strength and intelligence are hardwired into the human brain because they support three critical social functions: community, power, and learning, respectively. Love supports community, allowing diverse individuals to work together for common-cause, be it a family, a business, or a nation. Strength is central to authority, the social power used to coordinate communities and maintain order and defense in large groups. Intelligence enhances learning of course, but thinking is swayed by the two lower brains because they get information first, and pass it along with distinct emotional hues.


While all three brain functions operate in most every individual, one or the other of them often dominates in particular individuals and groups – a situation that can be seen in today’s Right-Left divide. The Right emphasizes strength: rugged individualism, self-reliance, and traditional order. The Left emphasizes caring: partnership, community, and openness to non-traditional alternatives.

While such emphases help unify groups, love, strength, and intelligence actually only work well when they work together for the good of the whole. For example, intelligence without love is evil, and love without strength of character is impotent. Most importantly, in healthy societies, power and authority are positions of responsibility, which are only honorable and functional when they serve community.

The catch is that the golden three only work when they are connected, but the bonds holding them together tend to fray as social groups grow larger and power becomes more concentrated. So, where leaders in small, well-knit societies (e.g., Native Americans or early Scottish clans) tend to honor their responsibilities to serve community, the bigger a society becomes the more elites grow apart from their people, and the fewer feedback mechanisms such as shame, religion, and even law serve to check abuse.

As distance and unaccountability grow, community leaders become unresponsive “elites,” and power is increasingly turned toward elite self-service, with less and less regard to the harm done to society as a whole. Soon the striving for superiority and winning, which are natural ambitions of strength, becomes the pathological pursuit of power. Today’s pathological power systems include bankers who crash economies with predatory loans and toxic financial instruments; tobacco companies that hide the evidence that their product is killing people; a military-industrial complex that promotes endless war for corporate gain; and a whole raft of corporations that poison people and planet – all to make more money for elites.

So, where public servants like President Eisenhower once warned us of a corrupt military-industrial complex, today’s isolated and uncaring elites are blithely destroying civilization by killing the planet, eviscerating economies, and corrupting political systems. Think water systems in Flint, Michigan. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, much of the public has been slow to see the problem because they: 1) trust authority; 2) are hyped up on fear and xenophobia; and 3) are constantly told the current system is natural, necessary, and/or best. Concerned reformers raise red flags, but the mainstream public has been taught to see reformers as dangerous radicals and crazy conspiracy theorists – and the behavior of some extremists confirms these fears.

Elite dysfunction eventually becomes so blatant that bonds of trust and belief disintegrate. As trust crumbles, the society Balkanizes into smaller, polarized, power groups, each defending some cherished cause from the conservative community to environmental preservation. As faith in establishment systems dissolves, a power vacuum opens, and regressive and progressive leaders like Trump and Sanders spring up to answer the public’s call for change. Certain individuals and groups gravitate toward neo-fascists like Trump because:

  • Fear and frustration drive them towards strength, regardless of intelligence, and Trump exudes “in-your-face” muscle; and
  • Establishment elites have so corrupted politics, economics, and the media that few people trust them and trustworthy information is hard to find.

Today’s power systems have become so sociopathic that our survival is now in question. How do we reverse this suicidal trend? There are no pat answers, but understanding how the brain works suggests one thing we need to do is reintegrate love, strength, and intelligence in service to the health of the whole community.

The first step in this reintegration is to re-empower the public. This is where grassroots reform movements come in; they create a countervailing community force that pathological power must reckon with. At the same time, contrary to Occupy-Wall-Street assumptions, countervailing movements need leadership, power, and authority as much as they need grassroots reformers.

Bernie Sanders shows how strong leadership can mobilize a deeply concerned public toward much needed political change funded from the bottom up, but the Koch brothers and Donald Trump show that the devil is in the leadership details. Many people were also afraid to elect Sanders because one guy is not enough. We actually need legions of responsible power-players to develop strong, intelligent, community-serving systems capable of both halting socio-economic destruction, and mobilizing resources to build a truly healthy civilization for all. We need to cultivate such leaders from the bottom up with empowering education. We also need to encourage existing leaders to reclaim their traditional role in service to civilization. We need to organize these power-mobilizers with consciousness-raising and community-building for leaders such as that emerging around socially-responsible business.

Restoring our shattered communities also requires we restore civil discourse by building a conservative-progressive alliance around the values that bind us together – justice, fairness, integrity, community commitment, intelligence, and honorable strength. Societal learning requires both diversity of opinion and the ability to come to agreements about how to proceed for the health of the whole. Our ability to come together has been curtailed by oligarchs spending billions to divide us, but polls show unity is still lurking within, with huge majorities of Americans agreeing on many of the core problems and cures, particularly those relating to abusive power. For example, both sides agree on the need for effective constraints on abusive power including:

  • Anti-corruption constraints in government: e.g., get the money out of politics; require conflict of interest recusal in all sectors of government and judiciary; eliminate revolving doors between public and private service.
  • Legal constraints on private power, e.g., expand and enforce antitrust laws, especially in media and politics; make violating health, safety, and fraud laws too expensive to continue.

I believe reintegration will also require a clear vision of a positive future, one that reconnects power, community, and learning in pursuit of well-being for all. We must learn to build strong individuals, strong bonds, and freely flowing intelligence by investing in our human and social capital as well as our material and financial systems. We must find a way to build a vibrant civilization with ample opportunities for everyone to live full and meaningful lives, safe from the depredations of uncaring power.

This is what I see as regenerative civilization. It is not as impossible as one might think.

[1] Maclean, Paul D. (1969). The Triune Brain. New York: Plenum.