Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 September 2008

That Old Alpha Thing, or Why Obama Might Lose

This general election is a gigantic experiment, testing the theory of evolution. It is not about who is the better candidate, based on judgment and reason. It is not about who has the better character. It is not even about race, although race may be a factor.

Karl Rove’s disciples, who now work for John McCain, have bet his campaign on a single, simple premise. They believe that undecided voters, who control this election, will pick the alpha male.

They have lots of evidence to support their hypothesis. Take the election of 2000. How did a man whom everyone recognized as a “dim bulb” (Dubya) come close enough to a far more intelligent and experienced candidate (Al Gore) to let the Supreme Court decide the election? Dubya had had the least relevant experience of any postwar presidential candidate, but no one seemed to notice.

The 2004 election was similar. Saddam Hussein had been captured almost eleven months before. Iraq had not yet exploded into chaos. But anyone who followed the news and can reason could see what was coming. That Idiot Rumsfeld’s grotesque mismanagement of the war was self-evident at the time. John McCain saw it early, although he loyally kept his warnings secret until the current campaign. The collapses of Enron and Worldcom, and the culture of greed and irresponsibility that they reflected, were already well-publicized history.

The seeds of the military and economic destruction sowed by Dubya’s weak intellect, cartoonish ideology and inability to recognize, appoint or manage smarter people than himself were in the ground and growing visibly. So was Dick Cheney’s malign influence. It was clear to anyone with the slightest analytical and predictive ability that Dubya was already a catastrophic failure, and that the results of his failure would soon become apparent to the dimmest bulbs in the nation. Yet again Dubya won.

Today we have another puzzle. Dubya’s sorry reign has left failure on every front. Even his best initiative—No Child Left Behind—has foundered for lack of money, attention and the sort of intelligent adjustment that any competent leader would already have made. We are self-evidently at the end of an era of cartoonish right-wing ideology. Pundits and politicians of all stripes know it, and many say it.

Normally, when leaders of one party and one ideology create such colossal disasters, the voters “throw the bastards out.” The last instance of comparable misfeasance and malfeasance occurred at the onset of the Great Depression. FDR won decisively. Yet polls report John McCain and Barack Obama running nearly neck and neck. Why?

Many think it’s a matter of race. But that simply doesn’t compute. Barack Obama won the Democratic primaries despite his race. He won although his chief opponent deliberately played on racism and may have exacerbated it. His campaign attracted independent and non-aligned voters by the legion. His brilliant, inspiring words drowned out the discordant music of racism, even when played by the most politically skillful performing couple since John and Abigail Adams.

Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry faced issues of race. They didn’t even face an underground racist smear like the one leveled against John McCain in 2000: that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. Yet they lost, too.

To understand these puzzling phenomena, you have to look beyond mere tribal identification, of which race is the most extreme example. Jack Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, broke a lesser tribal barrier as long ago as 1960. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, almost did it again in the Republican primaries, despite his utterly repugnant persona. To see what has been going on, you have to look at something much deeper, something hard-wired into our psychology over millions of years of evolution.

Rove and his disciples know what that something is. That’s how they won two elections for a moron. That’s how they still may win a third for an aged, deeply flawed candidate—an erratic fighter pilot with an explosive temper.

If you want to see precisely how, go back and look at the 2000 debates. There was Dubya, a man who can barely speak English, let alone calculate, accusing Al Gore of distortion using “fuzzy math.” Dubya’s tone was aggressive and self-righteous, on the edge of anger. He never made the simplest numerical comparison. He never even mentioned a number. He gave viewers nothing of analytical substance for their powers of Reason to act upon. But he made the accusation in the tone and with the mien and stance of a dominant male.

Dubya took the same approach throughout the debate. Al Gore sighed like an impatient teacher or a beaten man. So Dubya emerged the alpha male.

Now fast-forward eight years to Friday night’s debate. It’s hard for a 72-year-old man who can’t raise his hands above his head to maintain the same image of physical dominance that Dubya could in his mid-forties, in the prime of health. But McCain did his best. He never looked at his opponent. He called his opponent “naïve” and “dangerous” and accused him repeatedly of not understanding vital issues. He chided Obama with frat-boy chops. In one of them, he erroneously assumed that Obama, as president, would meet with President Ahmadinejad of Iran utterly alone, without preconditions, without preparatory lower-level meetings, and without aides.

Obama countered with substance. He repeatedly emphasized the nonsense of McCain’s position. He reasoned that meetings without preconditions do not mean meetings without preparation, without expert aides, and without thought. He was, of course, right on the substance. And he had tapped into a rich vein of disgust with Dubya’s and Cheney’s horrendously counterproductive unilateral foreign policies.

Obama’s response struck a chord in me. No doubt it did among other people who heard and understood the words. But what about those who only listen to the music?

Undecided voters rule this election. After well over a year of campaigning, in the most important election in half a century, what kind of voter is still undecided? The least well informed, least educated, least interested, and least decisive among us will pick our next president.

In order to understand this point’s electoral significance, you have to know about some obscure but vitally important psychological research. In his must-read book True Enough, reporter Farhad Manjoo describes an interesting experiment. A research project secretly hired an actor with no training, experience or expertise in psychology to speak before university experts in that field. The actor was instructed to make up the content of his talk out of whole cloth, in other words, to speak nonsense. But he was also told to impersonate a warm and engaging speaker, to fill his talk with jokes, homey references and plenty of smiles, and to make copious eye contact with his audience. At the end of his talk, the experts in his audience rated him a brilliant and effective speaker, although the substance of his talk was—and was intended to be—complete nonsense.

The subjects in this experiment were experts in the field. Yet in evaluating the speaker they let the pleasant music overwhelm the meaningless words. How much stronger might that effect be when the subjects are not experts, but people so uninterested and uninformed that they have no opinion after a year of well-publicized campaigning? And how much stronger might that effect be when the “music” is not just a pleasing style of delivery, but the struggle for dominance among alpha males that we see daily in our office or fraternity, and that appears more starkly in every TV show about Nature?

There is no question that playing that that sort of music is what the disciples of Rove who run McCain’s campaign have in mind. That old alpha thing is most—if not all—of what motivated choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate, despite the fact that she is self-evidently unqualified to be president. It was also highly prominent in John McCain’s performance in the debate just concluded. I noticed it, and so did David Broder, one of the most astute and cautious of political commentators. Apparently John McCain was carefully coached in playing the alpha male, down to head movements, tone of voice, and avoiding eye contact.

Barack Obama is ill equipped to play on this field. Despite his unusual peripatetic background, he is heir to the New England culture of John Adams and John Kerry. In that culture, you simply don’t talk about yourself, period. You never praise yourself. And you never, ever badmouth other people.

Folks raised in that culture are constitutionally incapable of calling an opponent “naïve,” “dangerous,” or weak in understanding, as McCain repeatedly did Obama in the debate just concluded. And as an African-American, Obama has the additional disadvantage of having trained himself from childhood to (as he put it in his autobiography) make “no sudden moves.”

So Obama is unlikely to yield to increasingly strident calls among his supporters for a more aggressive “alpha” stance. That’s simply not who he is or how he was raised. He can no more play the alpha male with frat-boy one liners and insult his opponent than John Kerry, smeared by the Swift Boaters, could stand up and say, “You lie. I am a real hero.” McCain and Rove’s disciples are counting on Obama staying true to form. Jujitsu-like, they are counting on using his own good character against him.

Thus the stage is set for a great experiment. Never in my lifetime has there been such a stark difference between candidates and parties. John McCain is impulsive, explosive and erratic. Obama is steady, calm, prudent and cool. He never loses perspective. Over and over again, he has demonstrated better analytical intelligence, judgment, and the ability to predict—on Iraq, Al Qaeda, Pakistan, and the economy. The only arguable counterexample is his belated recognition of the “success” of the “surge.” But that success in truth owed more to General Petraeus’ brilliant change in strategy and the Sunni Awakening than to any increase in troop levels.

Republicans today are the party of the past. Their simplistic ideology—which McCain followed religiously all his life until this general election campaign— is outmoded. Their policies have failed in every way. The vast majority of Americans, over 80%, say they want change; only the Democrats and Barack Obama really promise it.

If Obama loses despite all of this, it will mean only one thing. It will mean that primate dominance rituals matter more than substance, that evolution trumps Reason every time.

Already that phenomenon has occurred three times in my lifetime—five times if you include the 2000 and 2004 elections. More thoughtful, more intelligent men have met defeat at the hands of alpha males in 1952 (Adlai Stevenson by General Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower), 1968 (Hubert Humphrey by Richard Nixon), and 1984 (Walter Mondale by Ronald Reagan). It could happen again, despite unprecedented differences between the candidates in character, intelligence, judgment, party philosophy and recent record.

If it does happen again, it will have profound implications for American democracy. We won’t have good leadership again unless and until our candidates have not only superior intellect, judgment and character, but also the souls and mien of prize fighters (or the ability to simulate them with good acting).

Leaders of less democratic societies, such as Russia and China, have to show their mettle through a Darwinian struggle up the chain of command. The struggle usually takes decades. It involves every phase of governance: local, regional and national. The leaders that emerge must earn the respect or (in Stalin’s and Mao’s cases) the fear of their peers at every level. In contrast, leaders like Dubya, and perhaps McCain, can grab the reins of ultimate power by convincing indifferent, undecided voters—over the course of a few hours of stage acting on TV—that they are alpha males.

Which system do you think is more likely, in the long run and on the average, to produce better leaders? Is it any wonder that large democratic empires like ours are the exception, not the rule, in human history? We should ponder these questions long and deeply, before our democracy, the “last, best hope of Earth,” goes the way of ancient Rome, the British Empire and the dodo.


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  • At Sun Sep 28, 09:03:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Nancy M. said…

    Jay, I have only posted on your site once before, and that was months ago when you wrote about women and Hillary Clinton. I greatly respect your work, and most of the time I think you make terrific sense. How rude of me to only post when I disagree with you!

    This time, though I kind of agree with your premise, I completely disagree with your assessment of Barack Obama. I believe that anyone who has been in the same room with Barack would instantly recognize Barack as the alpha male. It has occurred to me in the past that this must be how all the animals know who the alpha male is - the instant recognition of immense power in another animal of your species.

    I am curious - have you ever been in a room with Barack Obama? At a rally? Anywhere?

    Interestingly enough, I interpreted McCain's inability to look at Barack as submissive, not powerful. We will soon know the outcome of this election. God help us all if McCain and Palin are elected - I believe it would be the end of the world as we know it.

  • At Tue Sep 30, 11:22:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Nancy M.,

    Your post is welcome and heart-warming. It gives me hope that my fears are unfounded.

    Yes, I’ve been in a room with Barack Obama. It was at a contributors’ luncheon before the real campaign began. I’ve supported him for well over eighteen months—even before we learned that race would not be a decisive factor. From the very beginning, I saw him as the best candidate in the entire field (in both parties).

    That luncheon impressed me greatly. Obama was informal, thoughtful, incisive, empathetic, at times humorous and at times brilliant. His more “private” persona was about the same as his public one, but less formal. He gave us some feel for how his mind works and how he solves problems, and his extraordinary talent was self-evident.

    That said, I wouldn’t describe him, then or now, as an alpha male. For me the term “alpha male” is not a term of approbation. It is a reference to an aspect of our evolution as social animals that we must leave behind if we are to move forward. It reflects our tendency to follow the (male) leader, even when he is a bully like Dubya or Cheney or a butcher/madman like Hitler, Mao, Saddam, Stalin or Pol Pot.

    We (and I mean the whole human race) desperately need wise, prudent collective governance, lest we fail to overcome our many evolutionary limitations, or perhaps (due to global warming or a nuclear holocaust) fail to survive as a species. As I’ve outlined in another post, the jury is still out on whether popular democracy can deliver that sort of leadership better than an enlightened, top-down bureaucratic state like today’s China.

    I support Obama precisely because his style is inclusive, collaborative, thoughful and empathetic, and not based on alpha male dominance. Males like me follow him with their Reason, not their evolutionary impulses. I have complete confidence that his administration will include the greatest flowering of collective expertise in our land since FDR’s “brain trust.” Insofar as decision making is concerned, there is no one in public life today whose judgment I trust more.

    At the risk of stereotyping, I would like to suggest that a gender difference may be at work here. Democrats generally, and Obama in particular, do much better among women than among men. The latest poll figure I saw was 69/31 in favor of Obama among women in Florida. If those numbers are correct, then women’s suffrage, although it didn’t elect Hillary, may help us overcome our evolutionary limitations and save us from ourselves.
    That’s why it’s so important that every woman vote.


    P.S. I agree with your last paragraph. If Sarah Palin ever becomes president, I believe that our chances of morphing into empire, just like ancient Rome, would be better than fifty-fifty. We could probably survive four years of McCain, but things would only get worse, perhaps much worse.


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