Hierarchism – A Foundation of Discrimination

Hierarchism – Keen awareness and importance of social hierarchies, such as status, wealth, and power.

Hierarchist – One who gives high priority and importance to social hierarchies.  This may manifest in (1) intense motivation to get to the top, in (2) feeling threatened by and in competition with those perceived as below them, (3) an interest to distinguish themselves from other groups and degrade their standing, and (4) in the envy and reverence of those above them or at the top with whom they identify.


This article introduces the concept of hierarchism as an overarching characteristic that manifests discrimination of all types.  

Today’s society is battling racism, homophobia, misogyny, patriarchy, transphobia, anti-Semitism, police brutality, anti-Muslim, anti-science, anti-press, anti-government, anti-environmentalism, and fascism, to name a few.  These are antisocial ideologies that result in social unrest, individual oppression and harm, and environmental degradation. We find many of these discriminatory ideas perpetuated by the same people.  A racist will commonly also be homophobic and anti-government, for example.  As such, racism may be a phenomenon of a higher order than just enmity toward people of color.  This article suggests that hierarchism is a root characteristic that motivates and energizes all these types of discrimination. 

To be clear, this article is not suggesting that all types of discrimination are a product of hierarchism.  Nor is there any intent to reduce or deflect attention from these individual discriminations and the battles to eliminate them individually.  They each have their own sources, causes, and solutions, and must be addressed accordingly. This article is meant to further deconstruct the root causes of discrimination, colonization, with an antiracist purpose.

Note that this author is a 62-year old white male that has not experienced discrimination, has little expertise in this field beyond reading a few books on the matter, but hopes that this brings value to the antiracist movement.

This concept is also being introduced because it applies to the author’s focal topic of transportation injustice.  Hierarchism applies to our societal and institutional preference for cars over transit, biking, and walking, which currently have a stigma of inferiority. However, this is a topic for another article. 


Hierarchies exist in everything.  In our society, we give power to politicians, envy the wealthy, praise religious leaders, celebrate winning teams, rank military leadership, and create top-down power structures in every corporation and organization.   Outside these formal structures, people may express their perceived or desired status via an opulent home, a wealthy neighborhood, a nice car, a gorgeous spouse, a chiseled body, high fashion, the country club or restaurants they patronize, and the box seats at the game.   Even in grade school and high school, one’s popularity and place in the hierarchy might be based on looks, athleticism, confidence, or just plain meanness.

We are aware of these hierarchies at a young age and each of us are influenced differently.  Our family and social communities also recognize and chase hierarchies at different levels which influence the value we give them and our motivation to chase them. 


We are significantly influenced by the hierarchism in our family.  What is the power structure in our family between our parents, their parents, the kids, and where do our parents feel they stand in their social communities and how important is that to them?  

How influential are our neighbors, our classmates, our coaches, our government leaders, our religious leaders in cultivating our awareness and importance of hierarchies by their words and deeds?  Competitive environments contribute to hierarchies and develop the character of hierarchism.  In these environments, winning and losing can become much more important than right and wrong.  Life is viewed as a set of competitions rather than a set of cooperative relationships.  The question then becomes — who is on our team and who is against us?

In almost all cults, the leader creates a competitive ladder to which its members attempt to climb and compete for top spots, always leaving another rung to chase to maintain member loyalty, dedication, and subordinate obedience. In these environments, members can lose their empathy for others. Not coincidentally, cults tend to attract and keep people that have a history and mindset of hierarchism.


My first real epiphany on hierarchism was the GOP’s effort to repeal Obamacare.  I simply could not imagine why anyone would want to take health insurance away from people, let alone the most disadvantaged people in our country — the poor, the sick, the underemployed.  I remember Paul Ryan bragging about his religious faith and moral compass but yet making the repeal a constant top priority.  

Who does that? Not to mention an entire political party supporting this repeal?!

Secondly, came the unbelievable rise, support, and cult-following of Donald Trump who epitomizes hierarchism.  He awakened and emboldened the hierarchists of the nation who bonded with this colonizer/supremacist ideology.

Thirdly, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to be an Antiracist, helped me understand the root causes by nicely breaks down racism to its core parts: 

  • It is borne not from ignorance and hate, but from self-interest.  
  • Racist ideas are used to generate and defend inequitable policies.
  • This self-interest craves the power to shape policy by any means necessary.

Hierarchism is simply the use of any and all discrimination for the reasons Dr. Kendi provides.  Hierarchists seek and benefit from inequitable policies, and identify groups to vilify, blame, defame, and dehumanize in order to move themselves up the hierarchy.  


Hierarchists seek an uneven playing field as it provides a hierarchy.  They want to keep down those people they see as below them.  They revere people of their identity group who are in power and gaining power.  As a result, hierarchists even at the bottom of the economic seesaw support the policies of wealthy hierarchists, even when it is at their own expense.

A hierarchist’s interest is also to increase the slope of the playing field.   Imagine the threat hierarchists feel from those interested in leveling the playing field.  It is the antithesis of their personal and social ideology.  The thought of expanded social programs, socialism, creating a just justice system that treats everyone the same no matter their social status is a serious threat to the ideology of hierarchists.  

As the Democratic Party promotes a platform to level the playing field by both raising the disadvantaged and taxing the wealthy, this poses a great threat to the hierarchists’ concept of what is good for them. 

It also makes sense that a wealthy white male narcissist is the perfect leader for hierarchists. Trump was and is very skilled at identifying and denigrating others.  Immigrants, Muslims, Chinese, transgender people, DACA, police-reform protesters, journalists, scientists, the poor, and many of his critics were targets of his vitriolic talent to divide and conquer. Of course, this is exactly what a narcissist seeks — massive reverence, power, wealth.

The intersection of Narcissism & Hierarchism: 

Narcissists are the extreme case of self-interest and hierarchism.  Smart and driven narcissists pursue and achieve these top positions of power and wealth.  Other people with hierarchistic ideals and backgrounds find common ground with the hierarchism of narcissists.  Although narcissists are by definition purely self-interested and may not see themselves in the same club as their followers, if the followers see these leaders as a member of their club, they believe these leaders will maintain and extend the uneven playing field in their favor.  The followers will vote for them, praise them, be loyal to them, and become cult followers of them.  

Hitler, Trump, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Keith Raniere are just a few of these ‘smart’ narcissists.  These relationships become dictatorships and often end horrifically for everyone, not just the followers. 

The intersection of Racism and Hierarchism:

Racism is the simplest discriminatory target for white hierarchists to exploit, and likely why it is so prevalent. The color of one’s skin is not something people can change or hide; it is immediately recognized, unlike other targeted groups like LGBT.  Racism requires no skills or effort on the part of the hierarchist, unlike earning wealth and political positions.  They know if they can continue to vilify, incarcerate, economically disadvantage, segregate themselves from POC, and pass this ideology to their children and community as it has likely been passed to them, their hierarchical position will stay intact.  Racism is low-hanging fruit on the discrimination tree.   

The intersection of Capitalism and Hierarchism:

While capitalism is fully institutionalized in the U.S., in its unregulated form it is extreme in its result of creating a hierarchy — the very rich and the very poor. Right now is an unusually high point in wealth disparity not seen since the 1920s. Hierarchists usually see this as good, especially the rich. Any policy that moves toward a more even playing field threatens hierarchists’ current position.  As such, there is a continued mantra of the love of capitalism, a demand for a small government, deregulation, the evils of socialism, “commie” name calling, and the corporate and patriotic claim of America as the greatest nation on earth. These are propaganda talking points led by the rich and propagated by their followers to maintain and continue to skew this hierarchical system.

The Hierarchism Game:

One of the key ingredients in maintaining the hierarch is threat and violence, which have always been a part of the culture and practice of colonization. Hierarchism and colonization go hand in hand with threat and violence as part of the western culture that cultivated it. Violence in hierarchies are seen in domestic violence, sexual predation, racial harassment, family and church disavowment, shunning, police brutality, incarceration, insurrection, open-carry events, but the internet has opened up a new avenue of promotion on a larger platform.  

The game to maintain and extend an uneven playing field is to (1) continue to describe and define ‘other’ identity groups, (2) vilify, blame, defame, dehumanize, and promote the claims of their inferiority, (3) use threat and violence, untruths, doubt, misinformation, fear mongering and excuses, and (4) use government as necessary. Social media has made many of these easy to do anonymously and ubiquitously.  

As noted, hierarchists have supported policies that place their rivals at a disadvantage by restricting access to healthcare, voting, contraception, abortion, quality education and public resources.

Unfortunately, narcissism, arrogance, and hierarchism do not appear to be isolated to any particular people, race, or land, although it is obvious western culture championed and expanded it via colonization.   Hierarchists will apply all the discrimination, threats, violence, and disadvantages to their rivals ‘by any means necessary,’ and this has led to many horrific dictatorships, a direction the Trump GOP is taking us.

Albeit, there are hierarchists in the Democratic Party as well, and they commonly are the electeds since hierarchists chase hierarchies.  Although they may have a much higher public interest than those in the Trump GOP, they often will not risk their positions of power or their wealth if they believe leveling the playing field will do that.  They’ll come up with a polite excuse not to do it, delay it eternally, or find a scapegoat to blame their inaction on.  We need to hold everyone accountable.


There are many people that have grown up in or been recruited into high-control communities that have deconstructed out of these hierarchical communities. My brother is one of them. These members are not arrogant or ignorant, but fully immersed and trapped with their social support system who are also immersed and trapped. There is currently a large departure from these high-control groups, some of which are affiliated with religion, as the selfishness of their leaders are exposed — as the silent part is spoken out loud.

Likewise, there are many cultures that do not contain the evils of colonization that must be at the table and raised up. I do not know the extent of the tensions necessary to get there, but they are serious and will require continuous civil disobedience and vigilant action. I hope the concept of hierarchism will help in the deconstruction of colonization culture.

Some history on the term “Hierarchism”: 

I do not claim to be the first to come up with the term hierarchist.  This was introduced in academia in the 1980s and has evolved under “cultural theory” where hierarchism is described as 1 of 4 characteristics of a social structure with high and low “group” affinity and “grid” affinity. “Grid” refers to the degree to which individuals’ choices are circumscribed by their position in society, AND “group” refers to the degree of solidarity among members of the society.  Dr. Mary Douglas initially described this in a book from 1982 called “Risk and Culture” the four categories of Egalitarian, Individualist, Hierarchist, and Fatalist.  Hierarchism refers to the characteristic that is high in both grid and group, meaning a group of people with high solidarity (high “group”) and hierarchical (high “grid”) in their social structure.  This use of the term is very similar to this article.

Transportation Hierarchies

This brings this article around to the topic of Transportation Injustice.  As noted, hierarchies are in everything, and they certainly are in transportation and transportation law and institutions.  Over the last 100 years and currently, the motor vehicle is at the top of the transportation hierarchy and that has resulted in polluting the air, road violence, wars, and permanent damage to the planet.  

This hierarchy needs to be turned on its head, and that will require a fight with hierarchists of every stripe.  In the U.S., they all drive.  We will need to prioritize bikes, walking, and mass transit over motor vehicles.  Who will be pushing back on the alt-transportation advocates?   Nearly everyone.

Author: Buff

Middle-aged white guy with a few degrees and 20 years in the transportation planning industry in Midwest and Northwest US cities. Email Comments To: Transportationjusticeblog@gmail.com

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