A century ago, the ranchers bordering Yellowstone National Park were up in arms over grey wolves killing their livestock. If they could have built a wall around Yellowstone to keep the wolves out, they would have. They killed those horrific monsters off to extinction instead. As far as they could tell, their livestock and bottom line both were better off. They assumed the wolves would not be missed inside Yellowstone Park.
If this was a story like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the grizzly bears, coyotes, otters, beavers, hawks, and ravens would have ganged up and killed off the ranchers. The ranchers’ diagnosis of their wolf problem was so short-sighted it only benefited the elk inside the park.
This is a different kind of allegory. Democracies are ecosystems of highly interdependent interest groups cooperating in ways that serve both selfish and mutual interests. None of the constituents of a democracy are “horrific monsters” but a few function as “perfect monsters”. Acting on their own short-sighted interests yields widespread and long term benefits for the entire ecosystem.
One century later, we now understand how wolves function as “perfect monsters” in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Their absence yielded horrific consequences. In hindsight, the ranchers were the “horrific monsters”. Their pointing a finger (and their rifles) at the wolves missed how they were being what they were seeing. They should have pointed some fingers back at themselves and questioned their flawed reasoning that put all the blame on the wolves.
When the wolves were exterminated, the elk were free to forage by river. They over-harvested the willow, aspen and berry bushes that grow by the water’s edge. The beavers no longer had food to eat or construction materials for dams. With no dams, the groundwater did not get recharged. Many of the fish and amphibians that thrive in and around ponds died off. The grizzly bears population declined. They missed the berries they fed upon to prepare for winter hibernation. The river banks became barren and eroded into the river when it rained or the snow melted. The water became very muddy, killing off the fish that otters thrive on. The absence of trees on the riverbanks meant many varieties of birds lost their perches, their tree bark teeming with nutritious insects and their lightweight twigs for building nests. The hawks and ravens were dying from starvation when the supply of fresh wolf-kills dwindled to nothing. The ecosystem could not have been more out of balance, but also more poised to equilibrate.
When the wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone, the river water cleared up. The groundwater got recharged. A wide variety of birds returned. The riverbanks became lush with aspen, willow and berry bushes. Eight beaver dams appeared on the Yellowstone River. The otter population staged a comeback as the fish were multiplying because the aquatic plants had revived. The coyotes, hawks and ravens found enough wolf-kills to scavenge and prosper. The return of berries increased the grisly bear population. The number of elk came down to a sustainable level, in part by their foraging far from the riverbanks for safety.
The wolves did not build a water treatment plant or restock the river with fish. They did not plant the willow, aspen and berry bushes on the riverbank. They did not re-introduce beavers, otters, ravens, hawks or other bird populations. All the wolves did was prey upon the oversupply of elk. Everything else fell into place. How perfect!
The wolves started what ecologists call a “trophic cascade”. Wolves can have these wide-ranging effects because they are one of the keystone species that impact so many other species. Beavers are another keystone specie. They destroy hundreds of young trees along a riverbank. Their short-sighted destruction benefits aquatic plants, fish, otters, beaver offspring, grisly bears, birds, water quality and ground water levels. What perfect monsters!
Democracies need short-sighted perfect monsters, just like other ecosystems. Voters can become disenchanted, disengaged or despondent. Communication flows can get blocked or distorted. Deliberations can become stagnant, stalemated or toxic. Representative bodies can lose essential components like creativity, statesmanship, diplomacy and bipartisan strategies. Leaders can become politically motivated instead of policy driven. The cost of political campaigns can skyrocket. Candidates for elected offices can become scarce. Commercial agendas can infect democratic processes where the electorate no longer respects politicians or trusts their campaign promises. Investigations of suspicious activities can overtake the formulation of new legislation, policy improvements and budgetary reformulations. Journalistic priorities can get turned upside down where small issues become enormous and critical issues become insignificant.
The Trump Administration has been profoundly destructive to complacency, apathy and disengagement at every conceivable level from citizens who did not vote to the legislators who only blocked legislation. Nothing can be taken for granted for now. Business as usual has been taken off the table. Everything is in jeopardy of getting changed somehow if people don’t speak up, show up and act up.
The US democratic ecosystem is currently brimming with vitality. Investigative journalists have a new mandate to uncover as many hidden truths as possible before we get blindsided by them. Press outlets are experiencing a surge of new subscribers, readers and viewers. Legislators seeking reelection are under new pressures to look beyond the interests of lobbyists and campaign funding sources to the voters who put them in office. Committees in the US Senate have become energized to do a thorough job of vetting the cabinet positions nominees and investigating Russian interference with our last election. Political parties have new priorities to emphasize their ground games and listen more closely to varied interest groups at the grassroots level. Citizens have started taking the classes, getting the signatures and running for elected office in their districts. Voters in town hall gatherings have new reasons to clarify the issues they’re focused on and to dismiss the label of “sore losers”. Voters marching in the streets have new motivation to protect consumers, minorities, refugees, educators, small investors, seniors, healthcare providers and the natural environment from the onslaught of cabinet appointments and executive orders aimed at dismantling those protections.
There’s no way these widespread improvements in our democracy could have happened by only preaching the importance of civic engagement, begging people to get involved or threatening citizens if they did take more initiative. Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid got people thinking about getting more involved. It took President Trump’s predatory behaviors to seal the deal. All these signs of revitalization could only happen with the arrival of a perfect monster. All these fixes for the broken system are simply falling into place thanks to the Trump Administration’s destructive effect on complacency. How perfect!