TDG Banner

Asimov, Foundation, & Democracy

The only way I can explain the behavior of the Republican Party these days is that they see themselves as leading the USA into a one-party state—and they will be that one party. There will be a reordering of American society. So, today’s Republicans need to put their stakes in the ground before the transition takes place to secure a good spot in this new order.

How can a leading democracy—like the USA—come close to this possibility? Especially when it has taught the rest of the modern world about modern democracy?

Whenever I run into Medium articles talking about the decline of American democracy, I comment with a brief explanation of the “Asimov Prophecy.” Let me explain this prophecy in a longer way.

Isaac Asimov was becoming a well-known science fiction writer in the 1950s. He put together three “Foundation” novels which cemented his fame and fortune. Then in the 1980s, he wrote two prequels and two sequels to the first three Foundation novels. The list below gives the chronological order of his seven Foundation books, along with the year they were published:

Prelude to Foundation (1988)

Forward the Foundation (1993)

Foundation (1951)

Foundation and Empire (1952)

Second Foundation (1953)

Foundation’s Edge (1982)

Foundation and Earth (1986)

The premise of Foundation is the Galactic Empire is crumbling. A young mathematician, Hari Seldon, combines mathematics and history into a new science called “psychohistory.” Psychohistory supposedly can predict large scale changes in human organization. For example, it predicted that the Galactic Empire cannot be saved. Then it predicts that the demise of the Empire will mean a 30,000-year period of war and devastation for thousands of planets. Lots of pain and suffering for many average humans. But out of these ashes, a new Empire will arise to bring peace and tranquility.

However, psychohistory is not a science that just watches and predicts. It can also play a role in the reforming of the new Empire. Hari Seldon determines that, with the right nudges, the Second Galactic Empire can reform in 1,000 years, saving humanity from 29,000 years of misery. So, Hari Seldon is building the “Foundation” to bring about this new order quicker. But, for this Foundation to work, the real reason must be kept a secret.

I’m not going to give away much more of the plot here. But throughout these seven novels, Asimov takes us through many worlds, many sub-worlds, and many eras. I estimate about 40 different societies, each with a different social order that holds its people together. Foundation is a great story for budding sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists.

And yes, there are different political systems in Foundation. Nearly all of these political systems are similar to what we have concocted on Earth by the end of the 20th century. We have oligarchies like monarchies, military juntas, religious communes, one-party states, puppet leaders being pulled by nefarious forces behind the scenes, and more. These oligarchies are all controlled by a small group of elites, with the masses not having much influence in their society.

And Foundation also has democracies quite similar to our multi-party democracies of 20th century Earth.

I find it interesting at how science fiction writers can develop amazing new worlds, societies, and technologies. Yet they cannot envision a radically new kind of political system. Almost always, they revert to one of today’s known systems.

Asimov does take a little departure from the known ways. In Foundation Novel #6, Asimov introduces us to a world called Gaia. In this world, the people, fauna, flora, and minerals are somehow connected to one another. Everyone and everything seem to know what the collective decision will be. Other than this interconnectedness, Asimov really does not elaborate on this political structure very much. It seems to be just there, being peaceful and harmonious, without real leaders. And yet this system never moved off its home world onto other planets after thousands of years. Maybe that was Asimov’s way of telling us that utopias just won’t work. Or maybe writing about such a world won’t generate enough conflict to sell books.

Let’s get back to Asimov’s democracies. One common thread is that they don’t last long in Foundation. Every once in a while, a populist revolutionary movement topples an oligarchic order, and the new leaders give citizens more say in their society’s affairs. Democracy rules—and works well for a time. But eventually decay sets in. The democracy falls in on itself, and that society reverts to some version of oligarchy. The shelf life of a democracy, according to Asimov, is about two to three centuries.

Think about his prophecy. He wrote the first three Foundation novels in the 1950s, a time when the USA was at the top of the world. American democracy won World War 2. It was teaching its former adversaries about democracy. A new burgeoning middle class was forming, with new opportunities for more Americans. American democracy seemed so invincible. Yet Asimov was subtly warning us, at that time, that democracy is not forever. And when Asimov went back to writing his Foundation novels 30 years later, democracy still looked strong; academics were predicting a liberal democracy as the only possible way to govern as communism was falling. Yet the declining democracy theme still found its ways into Asimov’s later Foundation works.

Asimov died in 1992. If he were alive today, he might be smug with his prediction of the current state of American democracy. He told us about the decline 60 years before any of us could see it. Another part of his prophecy is that when these political orders decay to a certain point, their fate cannot be reversed.

The year 1992 was also a pivotal year for me. That was when I realized my participation in Canadian party politics was a futile cause in trying to make a better world. So I quit. But I did get insights into a new kind of democracy. I call this democracy “Tiered Democratic Governance” (TDG).

The TDG has these four salient features:

1. Tiered, indirect elections

2. Voting based on good character and capacity for governance

3. Decision making made by the process of consultation, where the knowledge, experience, and wisdom of the elected decision makers are combined into one voice

4. An advisory board to help the decision makers with governance.

Asimov’s Gaia also has its one voice, where everybody and everything somehow had a say. In contrast, the TDG is still very much a representative democracy, where the top-tier decision makers are working full time on governance. They have the bigger picture and have gained a broad experience. They will consider their role as a service to humanity, not a steppingstone for status, influence, and power. They will seek out perspectives from stakeholders and expertise from the experts. Somehow, they will find a blended solution that works better than most decisions from today’s western democracies.

And citizens will trust and respect TDG decisions. Even if citizens do not agree, they will be willing to allow these decisions to be tried, tested, and evaluated. If the decisions don’t work out, citizens will have the confidence that changes will be made.

We are clearly not ready for Gaia. But I would say that the TDG could be a steppingstone to Asimov’s Gaia. We have to learn a few new things to make the TDG work, but these things are within our reach. Too bad Mr. Asimov is not around to give us his thoughts on the TDG.

Asimov had the same message for oligarchies. They too do not last. The Foundation novels often have one oligarchy being replaced by another. This happened as Hari Seldon was building his Foundation. He had to change his tactics to working with the new rulers. So, if and when the Republicans do take over the USA, their regime will not last. In fact, I give them a decade before they are tossed aside. This new version of the Republican Party knows so little about governing; there will be lots of infighting at the top, and its base will turn on the party.

Hopefully the TDG will be ready to assume the responsibility of governance.

Published on Medium 2021

My Experience with Communism

Kaballah & the TDG