[For brief comment on the President’s second inaugural, click here.
The Burning Question
Alpha Males as Leaders
How the World is Changing
The Burning Question.
Are we apes or are we Man? Ever since Darwin proved who our ancestors were, that question has been burning. It still is.
There are differences between us and other primates. Some are visible and some are not. Two of the most important are individually invisible: they are social. We are monogamous; many other primates are not. We try to choose our leaders; most other primates follow the alpha male.
It’s funny when you think about it. We have so much history and so much “civilization.” But when you really look at how we live, you see lots of similarity to our ape ancestors.
Monogamy and marriage are the norm, worldwide. But there’s a substantial minority. Polygamy is still lawful in the Islamic world, nearly one-quarter of humanity. Although now unlawful, it still lives on the sly in Mormon Utah, in the isolated southwest corner of the state. African tribes still practice it.
Leadership is even more interesting. For most of human history, we “Men” followed the alpha male, in the form of a monarch or dictator. Who succeeded whom depended on private succession battles, with the victor’s heralds announcing to a hapless public, “The King is dead! Long live the King!”
Our most conspicuous differences from apes were two. First, our succession battles were deadly far more often than in the animal kingdom. (Biological evolution does not like the waste involved in liquidating dominant males. It harms the gene pool.)
Among us, the winning alpha male often killed the loser in battle or murdered him in his sleep, like Hamlet’s father. The human loser was not, like beta apes, left to slink around the outskirts of the clan and try again, perhaps when the alpha male got older and weaker.
Oddly, the ancient Greeks were more like apes but seemed more “civilized.” With ostracism and exile, they forced failed would-be alphas outside the tribe and let them try another day, just like our ape ancestors.
Alpha Males as Leaders.
But something new happened on the rocky road of history. The idea of democracy and social contract arose. It came from the parts of our brains that think, not our emotions. It had little to do with biological evolution and everything to do with social evolution, which works much faster but is less durable.
This new idea was something rarely seen in the animal kingdom. In principle, it was simple. Ordinary members of the clan, whose fate could turn on the alpha male’s leadership, would have a say in who he was. No herd of herbivores or clan of apes ever worked that way; it was a human invention.
The idea was brilliant and easy to implement. The lag from concept to implementation was near-instantaneous in evolutionary terms—just a few hundred years, maybe twenty generations.
The physical mechanism was simple. No alpha male, not matter how strong or sly, could best the strength of the clan. The birth of democracy at Runnymede was just another baby step: making a deal to avoid battle, rather than suffering the actual combat.
But biological evolution doesn’t cede ground so easily or so quickly. Like apes, we still yearn for the tribal comfort of a ruling alpha male. Because it’s our evolutionary heritage, it just “feels right.”
And so we Yanks had a second term of Dubya, whose stupidity nearly destroyed our society and our future. And so other nations followed alpha males
into the jaws of Hell, with Hitler, Stalin, and (in his later years) Mao.
How the World is Changing.
Today, our species is in transition. The world’s most populous nation (China) is far from democracy. But almost alone among the great powers, it’s equally far from alpha-male rule.
Notwithstanding all his Communist trappings, Mao was the last emperor of China in all but name. Today China has a Mandarin-style technocracy run by a small committee.
Who chooses that committee? Well, we don’t really know. The Chinese themselves haven’t formalized the process, as we have in our written Constitution. But we do know a little. Somehow, leaders like Xi Jingping emerge from a decades-long cooperative rivalry among the 80 million members of the misnamed “Communist” party. They arise from self-testing, self-vetting and self-selection, out of a process of actual governance, beginning in the regions and localities.
It’s quite possible that this system of rivalry and self-selection among knowledgeable equals creates the world’s most perfect meritocracy today. Certainly no one like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich could ever rise to the ruling committee in China. China’s vetting and selection process would make short work of even a relatively intelligent but inexperienced salesman like Mitt Romney. (Compare the rapid and decisive fate of Bo Xilai.)
At very least, China’s evolving system is the ultimate in peer selection: an “election” among rival alpha males and the occasional female.
China’s system also has certain succession advantages
. Its top leaders all have served at least five-year terms on the ruling central committee. That means the leaders who help make a mess have to clean it up, unlike Dubya. In contrast, only one of our last three presidents had any national experience at all before assuming the presidency (Obama led with just four years
in the US Senate).
“Democracy” is in the eye of the beholder. Even the Kims’ tyranny in North Korea calls itself a “Democratic People’s Republic.” In fact, it’s an absolute hereditary monarchy—a rare thing our modern world. Kim Jong-un is the young King of North Korea, in the old sense of absolute sovereign.
But if we widen our gaze and free ourselves of abused language, we can see a global leadership revolution in progress. The poles are not “democracy” and “despotism” or “totalitarianism.” The poles are selection by trial (or battle) among two alpha males, or among a broader class of “electors.”
To understand the difference, you have to go back to our evolutionary ancestors. The battle for supremacy between alpha males was personal and individual. The rest of the clan did not even participate. They just watched.
Does this remind you of our recent presidential election? It’s impossible to make sense of that travesty as a rational discussion of policy options. But as a verbal joust between alpha males, egged on by their retainers, it makes perfect evolutionary sense. (If you used your imagination, you could picture Sir Barack and Sir Mitt with raised lances during the debates.)
The big change came when ordinary humans, the rank and file, began to participate in the leadership struggle. It came long before Magna Carta, and even long before ancient Greece and Rome. It came when, in a dispute, ordinary soldiers decided whom to back. They “voted” with their feet and arms, literally.
Read the history of England, and you find this happening with amazing regularity. The uniqueness of Magna Carta lay in King John’s decision to make a deal rather than force the battle to its bloody conclusion.
This transition owed nothing to “democracy.” It owed little to legal formalities like our Yankee written Constitution. It was part of our human social and cultural evolution. It developed by fits and starts.
The process is still ongoing. Its developing culture endures and grows in what you might call human “race memory”—a complex amalgam of history, tradition, custom, and habit, of which law is only a part.
The most rapid cultural changes came during the last century. World wars started and run by alpha males nearly destroyed Europe and then, in 1962, our entire species
. Perhaps startled by near self-extinction, our species began to wise up. We Yanks style ourselves leaders in the process, but it was and is global and universal.
It happened when Britain acceded to the non-violent leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and let India go free. It happened—perhaps most importantly—when the Red Army refused to support the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev and let so-called “liberalization” in Russia take its messy course. In the past few decades it has happened, more or less peacefully, throughout Eastern Europe (beginning with Poland), in the Philippines, in the Ukraine, and most recently in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The same process is playing out today, much more violently, in Syria.
It helps to see this slow change for what it is: a messy, trial-and-error process of social evolution, with all the false starts, backsliding and waste that process implies.
We Yanks see Russia today as growing more authoritarian. But it’s better than czarism and infinitely better than Stalin’s tyranny. And we have yet to see whether Russia’s duovirate (Putin and Medvedyev) will mature or morph into something durable.
Most important of all, we Yanks can’t seem to see, let alone understand, how much China has changed, and how rapidly it is still changing. Despite its size and two-century slump (from which it is now emerging), China may yet produce the most effective form of government the world has ever known—a strong central government ruled by a meritocratic Mandarin technocracy, coupled with limited democracy and accountability at the local level.
At least China now appears to be stumbling toward that end. With its collective leadership committee, China also may be closest of any major power to shucking off the ape-like rule of alpha males that is our common evolutionary heritage. A ruling committee not only has no individual ego, to make war out of misplaced pride. It also has intrinsic checks and balances and reflects the truism that multiple heads are better than one.
In the West, “elections” increasingly resemble battles of ignorant armies supporting rival alpha males, but without the blood. Rank and file members of political parties derive their ideologies and motivation largely from habit, patronage, and blind loyalty. Then they line up in ranks behind the alpha males, where a combination of numbers and enthusiasm picks the winner, just as in battle. The otherwise inexplicable avalanche of negative trash ads is just a less bloody means of doing battle—a sort of modern “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V
In contrast, China picks its supreme leaders in a closed process of deliberation among the people who know the government and the candidates best. The “electors” are leaders’ own colleagues, who have known them, grown with them, fought with them and worked with them for decades.
If you ask which system ought to be more stable and effective in the abstract, the answer is obvious. Then ask yourself a simple question. Could anyone—including the most grizzled, savvy back-room pol in the nation—have foreseen the presidencies of Bill, Dubya, Barack or even Jimmy even two years before they happened? Yet in China, savvy people could have foreseen the accession of present leaders (by groups, not individually) at least one five-year plan in advance.
One last observation about our species’ stumbling social evolution is worth making. Our (biological) evolutionary nature still yearns for—and still fears—the alpha male.
That ambivalence explains a lot. It explains religious folks’ overwhelming preference for Mohamed Morsi to replace strongman Hosni Mubarak. And it explains secular folks’ overwhelming revulsion. Yet Egypt may be stumbling into the same sort of “solution” as China: rule by an individual leader checked by a committee, in Egypt’s case the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that ultimately forced Mubarak’s abdication.
The same ambivalence also explains what is happening in Syria. The butchery of alpha male Assad has gone far beyond the bounds of human toleration. But there is yet no single alpha male to replace him, or to organize the opposition. Syria lacks a Nelson Mandela—someone whose wisdom, sense of justice and intelligence are so obviously attractive as to calm hatreds and soothe old wounds.
So a committee may have to do. Committees are working for China and may be working for Egypt.
Maybe—just maybe—the process of picking single alpha males by “free” elections, so influenced by money and demagoguery, is just another step in our species’ stumbling, halting and messy social evolution. That substitute for public battle may not be the final or decisive step. As Chou En-Lai was reported to have said about the French Revolution, its success and durability are still too early to tell.
The President’s Second Inaugural
I could not let this day go by without brief comment on the President’s second inaugural. It’s fitting that he renew his oath of office on the day dedicated to the memory of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Without Dr. King’s hard work and martyrdom, a mixed-race man in the White House would be inconceivable. We might be left without the brains and skill of the best president since JFK, maybe since FDR.
So we owe a lot to Dr. King. He’s not just our chief national saint and martyr, far surpassing Nathan Hale. He was our own Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He showed us how intelligent, moral and peaceful change can improve the lives of oppressed minorities and, in so doing, all of us.
But my mood this day is far removed from the euphoria and hope I felt in 2008
. Then I was on the Mall, along with two million others, celebrating what I hoped would be the beginning national renewal. Today, I will be at home, nursing a bad cold, but I’ll be with the President and his supporters in spirit.
It’s not just the cold that makes my mood different. It’s also a more realistic view of the challenges facing the country I love.
In 2008, it was possible to believe in the competence, or at least the common sense, of the “loyal opposition.” Weren’t Dubya’s failings as a leader self-evident? Didn’t he not only fail to get bin Laden but also start two interminable wars (one on false pretenses) with no results? Didn’t he balloon the deficit by putting both wars on our credit card and handing out tax cuts, including to the rich? Didn’t the worst financial crash since 1929 occur on his watch? And weren’t his errors of judgment and simplistic ideology as clear as day to anyone who can think?
You would think that at least of few more rational GOP members would work to correct the disastrous mistakes that their man made. I thought then, somewhat naively, that a handful of GOP leaders would put politics aside and try to dig our nation out of the deep hole that Dubya had dug for us.
But that’s not what happened. Within days of the President’s first inauguration, the GOP fixed on a strategy of scorched-earth opposition
. They didn’t even vote for the stimulus plan that helped save the nation from a second Great Depression, although the President had larded it with tax cuts that Republicans are supposed to love.
Worse yet was their attitude. You can only describe them as trying to haze
the duly elected President of the United States.
Not only did they fail to accord him the respect his office deserves. They took every opportunity to belittle and tar him with ridiculous lies. They called this cautious, centrist leader everything from a socialist to a Nazi. They failed to correct their own extremists, who called him a terrorist and enemy alien. And they failed to upbraid Joe Wilson, who called out “You Lie!” while the President addressed a joint session of Congress.
And so the mindless Southern “no” chorus began. Not just Boehner and McConnell, but a whole phalanx of southern senators began continual hazing. The culprits include Kyle, Cornyn, Graham, Saxbe, Shelby, and even McCain.
This was not business as usual. It was extreme partisanship that overstepped all bounds of civility and common sense. It made rational government impossible. If the President saw it was sunny outside, these nay-sayers would deny it, curse him, and open their umbrellas on a clear sunny day.
John Boehner, in particular, was and is an economic illiterate
. He keeps repeating the mantra “job-killing taxes,” as if there were some sense in it. But there isn’t.
Taxes don’t kill jobs. They create them. If the taxes go for Social Security, Medicare or welfare, they increase spending on private business. Most recipients of these benefits are not rich. They don’t hoard; they spend.
If the taxes go to the Pentagon, they create military jobs or defense contracts. And if they go to the states, in block grants or other federal support, they create jobs for police, clinic doctors, fire fighters and teachers. Many residents of GOP-dominated states discovered this fact belatedly, to their dismay, when their friends and neighbors lost their jobs, their kids lost educational opportunities, it became harder to find available doctors, and the police and fire fighters took longer to arrive in an emergency.
The GOP approach made and makes no sense. It had no plan or agenda, except to drown government in a bathtub. It was opposition for opposition’s sake. It relied on fuzzy concepts like “small government” and “liberty.” But its driving force was fear and hate
, of minorities, immigrants, foreigners, gays, and government itself.
And if you want visible evidence, just look at the photos of Boehner and McConnell meeting with the President, aired on the recent travesty of news analysis
, last week’s “Frontline” show on the President’s first term. Fear and hate are written on their faces as clear as day. They are, after all, the sum and substance of the GOP’s program now—a culmination of Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the machinations of college dropout Karl Rove
So no, Dan Balz, the President is not a “polarizing figure,” as the producers of the “Frontline” show had you saying twice. The polarizing figures are Boehner and McConnell and the rest of the mindless Southern “no” chorus. They have no plan or agenda for the country besides starving government and opposing every action of a mixed-race president, no matter how sensible or centrist. And they have treated the president of the United States in a way we used to call treason.
These men (they are all
men) are standing in the way of national renewal. They are using Senate holds to thin the halls of the Executive and keep the President from picking his own team. They are using filibusters at 142 times the historical norm
. In the process they are leaving unaddressed, let alone unresolved, ten grave national problems
that long antedate the President’s entry into politics.
Like many Americans, I admire the President’s skill, grace, caution, care, and empathy. I am grateful for his service and immensely relieved that enough voters appreciated his work to re-elect him. And I am amazed that he has accomplished so much despite the “loyal opposition’s” refusal to be either loyal or sensible.
But on this day, my mood is one of grim determination. In the coming years, I will contribute and do whatever I can to cast Boehner and the Southern “no” chorus into the dustbin of history, where they belong. It is the least any expert—the President’s natural constituency
—can do. I expect the process of trashing the virulent fools to gather steam in the midterm elections of 2014, and I will work as hard as I can toward that end.
Update: The Pomp and the Speeches
The actual inauguration seemed to mirror my own mood. Perhaps belatedly, the President recognized that he cannot rise above partisanship when the opposition is so intransigently partisan as to reject deals on its own terms just because the President proposed them.
David Brooks saw the President’s speech as a full-throated defense of liberalism. I saw it differently. I saw it as the beginning of the end of the “me” generation that Reagan bequeathed us Baby Boomers.
The President’s speech made an invitation to begin a new “we” generation. The invitation is entirely appropriate for Millennials, who are skilled at teamwork, if not necessarily at expressing coherent thoughts.
Many wondered why the president spent so much time and words on global warming. He has not been much of a leader on that subject. No doubt he sees it as a long-term effort, on which little progress can be made at home, let alone globally, in even two presidential terms.
So why did he start off with that subject and devote more time to it than to any other? I think he wanted to reacquaint the public with the notions of consequences, cause and effect. He is, after all, a professor.
Bad policies have bad consequences. One bad policy is the attempt to ignore and deny fossil-fueled global warming. The consequences are increasingly obvious: extreme weather that disrupts our food supply, our commerce and (in Katrina and Sandy) our daily lives. For House Republicans, who often seem to consider money the only reality, the big bill they just signed (under political duress) for cleaning up Sandy may be instructive.
Another bad policy
is the saturation of our lives with firearms, with increasingly more murderous power in increasingly less reliable hands. Few people are experts in the oft-manipulated statistics of gun violence. But everyone can see that the extreme policies we have followed for a generation led to the mass slaughter of toddlers in Newtown. The President referred to the issue only obliquely, but his inaugural poet gave it full-throated literary flair.
Ideological debates often proceed in the absence of facts and reasoning, by “narrative.” (How I hate that word!) They frequently resemble discussions of medieval scholars over such things as how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
Many are the unanchored abstractions, the vague and squishy phrases like “small government,” “free enterprise,” and “liberty.” Few are accurate recitals of facts and consequences. So the “conclusions” are broad generalities that would embarrass any serious scholar, let alone a scientist. While honest and moderate, David Brooks is a principal offender in this regard.
So as I saw it, the themes of the President’s speech were two. First, after two centuries of progress in freedom and equality, it’s time to consolidate our gains by thinking about the “we,” not the “me.” The era of unfettered selfishness and greed is limping to a close. The iPod and iPolitics are on the wane. Social media are in.
Second—and far more important—the world is too complex to solve policy problems with abstract ideological prescriptions, reasoning a priori
like the ancient Greek philosophers. You have to doff your ideological blinders and look at facts and consequences unafraid.
If you do that with global warming and with gun violence, you come to the forced conclusion that the policies we have followed for a generation are doing us harm. If the President-professor can put across that simple lesson, the Inaugural’s vast expense and long toil (building a huge guest platform for a single day) will have been well spent.