Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Ethology of Politics

Interesting article by Thomas Edsall about the political gender gap in America, which right now is historically very large. Conservative Alex Castellanos and liberal Steven Pinker have the same take on Trump's basic appeal. Castellanos:
We are in the middle of an unprecedented political and cultural gender war. On one side of this war, we have Trump, alpha males and the women who love them. On the other side are beta males and the women who want to be them. . . . [the Trump side] flies the flag of manliness and strength which it sees as necessary to hold the world together and keep it from continuing to unravel in uncertain and perilous times. It is fighting to preserve not just manly strength but gender itself, the cultural differences between male and female. The other side is seeking to overthrow the patriarchal hierarchy that has run the world since we lived in caves. It seeks to create a sexually egalitarian world by extinguishing gender and its differences.

Trump is the last hope of those, like me, who would preserve the old patriarchal hierarchy. That’s why white college educated suburban women hate him: he is the political embodiment of the regressive threat to the evolution of postmodern female identity. Simply put, Trump’s alpha dog manliness and strength are a threat to the evolving independence and power of women. He “would take women back.” He represents the world as it was, where women were kept “in their place.”
Trump is almost a caricature of a contestant to be Alpha baboon: aggressive, hypersensitive to perceived threats to his dominance, boastful of his status and physical attributes (including his genitals), even the physical display of colorful big hair and a phallic red tie. Men may identify with such displays. . . .

The latest battle of the sexes has the media, educational, and workplace establishments sympathizing with women and demonizing men. Much of this is justified and long overdue, given how women are exploited and discriminated against, but it may leave some men feeling defensive, belittled, and eager for a champion. This may especially affect lower-status men. High-status women may justifiably protest their treatment at the hands of high-status men, but lower-status men may feel less sympathy for them, particularly if they feel demeaned and disenfranchised.
Edsall concludes:
Men’s commitment to protecting their status — their dominant position in the social order — cannot be counted out in 2018 or 2020. Elections have become a sexualized battlefield, and men have repeatedly demonstrated their determination to win no matter the social cost. The outcome of the next two elections will show whether women are equally determined to fight tooth and nail.
I would add that one does not have to see this as naked self-interest in men; many Trump voters have equal marriages on the modern model and they may be perfectly happy with that. What drives much of our politics is a desire to make the world feel right. Trump taps into a sense that the world runs better with aggressive manly men in charge; he fits a mental template of the strong leader that goes far back in mammalian evolution. People who have no clue about foreign policy admire Trump's approach because it is all about projecting strength, after interminable, unwinnable wars have sapped our sense that America is strong.

One of the deep problems with the modern world is that most of us feel powerless and ignored. Trump, by acting out ancient images of power, gives his followers a vicarious sense of strength; and by speaking directly to them in language they relate to, he makes them feel that someone understands. Those are powerful political weapons, and it remains to be seen if the Democrats have anything to offer with the same appeal.


Anonymous said...

It's odd to me that anyone would consider Trump a model of patriarchal authority, at all. His way of being is that of a badly-raised infant, pure untrammeled id, not a masculine leader. In a traditional tale he would be the berserk or boorish knight upon whom the hero demonstrates his prowess. In the Bible, he would be one of the Rephaim, a "giant" like Og King of Bashan, to be pushed out of the way by the Mighty Arm of the Lord; or he would be a foreign bully like Holophernes, slain in the night by the wit of the protectress Judith.

Whatever happened to a model of leadership characterized by disciplined self-control, wisdom, and devotion to the common good? That was Obama to me. In the current situation, it is a wonder to me that so many so-called conservatives of the self-consciously responsible sort still look down on Obama, which I can only conclude must reflect a combination of racial prejudice and heeding too much their own inner infant (which wants a leader like Cheney, I suppose: self-control in the service better bullying).

Anonymous said...

To put it in terms of ethology, it is clear that in many, perhaps most, ways humans are only primates, shrieking and throwing our dung at one another. I think of this more and more in the current American context. But maybe somewhere we are still, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, "trying to have a civilization here."

I say this with the greatest respect for primates, who probably spend less time throwing their dung than we do. It is our pretensions that make us ridiculous. And maybe, still, worth carrying on for, just a bit?

Shadow said...

You mean temper tantrums are not model behavior for alpha males?

Exactly. We don't want an alpha male; we want a big baby who won't stop crying until he gets what he wants. Like I said once before, Trump is Billy Mumy playing Anthony Fremont in the Twilight Zone episode It's a Good Life

G. Verloren said...


Hey, now. The comparison to the character of Anthony Fremont is fitting, but don't compare Trump to a decent man like Bill Mumy.

G. Verloren said...


"In a traditional tale he would be the berserk or boorish knight upon whom the hero demonstrates his prowess. In the Bible, he would be one of the Rephaim, a "giant" like Og King of Bashan, to be pushed out of the way by the Mighty Arm of the Lord; or he would be a foreign bully like Holophernes, slain in the night by the wit of the protectress Judith."

The thing is, none of his supporters have even the slightest familiarity with those traditional tales. They don't actually READ the Bible, they just imagine they know what it says, and that it justifies all their preconceptions. And they certainly don't read tales of heroic knights and chivalry!

The problem is that what defines "a model of patriarchal authority" is totally arbitrary and subjective, and varies wildly from culture to culture, and even between subscultures within the same society.

Even within the Bible itself, you see wildly different depictions of "masculine" virtues. The ancient Hebrews celebrated both the mighty and hulking Samson, and the less physically imposing but far cleverer David. One was a mighty warrior, the other a wise ruler, but both were potrayed as paragons of Hebrew masculine virtue. And, of course, both these depictions get thrown out the window when you get to the New Testament, and the pacifist and egalitarian Jesus takes their place as the ideal male figure - neither warrior nor king, yet greater than both.

What was the model of "patriarchal authority" a mere generation ago need not have any bearing on what the model has become in the present. And what one group or subculture values as a "masculine" ideal, another group might reject entirely, and supplant with something completely different.

John said...

@David - We have, I think, several different models of the alpha male leader. One is the stoic tough guy who walks softly and carries a big stick. But his opposite, the man who indulges all his appetites to the limit, is also ancient. Think of leaders famous for towering rages or the number of their wives. I agree with you in that I find Trump to be all surface, with none of the iron core needed to actually accomplish anything. He absolutely will not reverse the progress of female equality, or racial equality, and he will not save American manufacturing jobs. I think some of his followers tolerate his tantrums because they are also in the mood for a tantrum.

Anonymous said...

@John--There are historical examples of leaders who have towering rages, but are their positive literary models of patriarchy in this vein? Rustam and William of Orange have towering, destructive rages in Shahnama and Crowning of Louis respectively--but in both cases they are ambivalent figures, and, perhaps most important, neither is the actual leader.

I suspect the key is that all the sources I'm looking at are, one way or another, fundamentally aristocratic and subject to a prolonged process of socialization. Trump's model of patriarchy, on the other hand, is vulgar, low, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and lumpen. It's the kind of thing that, to me, civilization exists to repress and that democracy, to survive, must finesse.

It may well be that Trump will be unable to reverse female equality or racial equality in a statistical sense, but to me he's succeeding in something arguably worse: he's destroying what remained of our political and cultural comity. The wounds were already there, but he's ripping them open and now they're touching the organs that enable us to hold together.

I don't think his followers were just "in the mood for a tantrum." It's much more fundamental than that.