Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Chimpanzee Politics of the Debate--Hillary Clinton, Bonobo Alpha Female



So what really happened in the Presidential Debate Monday night?  The previously alpha male chimpanzee was defeated by the alpha female bonobo.  Everyone who watched the debate knew this as soon as they saw Clinton's shimmy.

After a lengthy comment, Trump concluded: "I have much better judgment than she has.  There's no question about that.  I also have a much better temperament than she does."

Clinton's response: "Whoo!" she said. "OK."  She then shimmied her shoulders while smiling broadly.  The audience laughed.  She was having fun. Trump was not.

I have written a previous post on Trump's "chimpanzee fascism."  The only way to explain Trump's success is to see that he is showing the chimpanzee politics of an ambitious male seeking alpha dominance through charging displays of bluffing intimidation. Just like the Gombe chimp Mike discovered that making lots of noise with empty kerosene cans could intimidate the high-ranking males, Trump has discovered that loudly yelling insults at anyone who challenges him is so shocking and flamboyant that he becomes the center of attention for voters, and his competitors are thrown into stunned confusion.  This shows us that much of political competition has less to do with intellectual debates over public policy and more to do with gut-feelings about who looks dominant and who looks subordinate, gut-feelings rooted in our evolved primate political psychology.

One way that social scientists have studied this is to have people judge political candidates through their nonverbal displays.  Some years ago, Jim Schubert, a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University, did a study in which he asked people in Europe and in the United States to watch videos of political candidates running for office in Romania and then to rate them for "electability."  With the sound turned off, they saw only the bodily and facial displays.  Remarkably, their rankings corresponded closely with the electoral outcomes.

Similarly, Jonathan Mahler has written an article for the New York Times on his experience in watching the Clinton/Trump debate with the sound off and with no other information about the debate.  His assignment from his editor was to test the idea that nonverbal displays in debates can determine winners and losers.  And, indeed, he knew that Clinton had won the debate when he saw the restless anxiety and frustration of Trump's displays and the confident serenity and humor of Clinton's displays.  That shimmy of her shoulders and her big grin were enough to show that Clinton was the alpha female.

If Trump has been trying to show that he's the alpha male chimpanzee, Clinton has shown that she can be the alpha female bonobo.  In chimpanzee communities, there are both male and female dominance hierarchies, but the alpha male is clearly superior to the alpha female. In bonobo communities, as I have indicated in some posts, the alpha female seems to be dominant over the alpha male, although some primatologists think there is actually codominance shared by the alpha male and alpha female. 

Since chimps and bonobos are the closest living evolutionary relatives of the human species, we might expect that we combine chimp and bonobo traits, as Frans de Waal argues.  In all human societies, even in egalitarian foraging societies, men tend on average to hold more dominant positions than do women.  There has never been a true matriarchy in human history.  But even so, some women have the ambitious temperament that inclines them to seek dominance, and obviously Hillary Clinton is one of those.  In fact, this became an explicit topic for the debate--whether she had the "temperament" or "stamina" to be President.

Bonobo males are physically bigger and stronger than bonobo females, but when bonobo females form alliances with one another, they can dominate over the males.  Similarly, Clinton in the debate indicated that she was leading a female alliance against Trump's attempts at subordinating and denigrating women.  Clinton spoke about the case of Alicia Machado, who was crowned Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump ran the Miss Universe contest.  When Machado began to gain some weight, Trump ridiculed her as "Miss Piggy."  He also called her "Miss Housekeeping," an insulting reference to her Latina ethnicity as a Venezuelan woman.  Now Machado is a U.S. citizen, Clinton indicated.  So in supporting her against Trump's insults, Clinton was appealing to both women and Latino immigrants.

What this shows is that the rhetoric of dominance displays is not mindlessly irrational, because it does have some rational content insofar as it's connected with policy issues--in this case, questions about immigration, the social status of women, and the leadership style of those competing for dominance.

As Gary Johnson argues in his op-ed article for the New York Times, he offers a third way between Clinton and Trump--fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.  If he is allowed onto the debate stage, he will have to display the dominance style of a classical liberal.


Xenophon said...

Gary Johnson a viable alternative? Get real. Have to agree with Gail Collins of NY Times on this point: "Earlier in the year, Johnson looked like a conceivable Republican cop-out....But recently, people have begun to give Johnson the attention he’s been demanding incessantly for the last year, and it turns out — he’s an idiot. We’ve all heard that he responded to a question about the Syrian crisis with “And what is Aleppo?” He had the same look of wonderment when he was asked about his international role models. “Who’s my favorite foreign leader?” he responded blankly, as if Chris Matthews had demanded that he name his favorite Fiery Furnaces song..."

Larry Arnhart said...

In my posts on May 18 and 30, I offered my assessment of Johnson. Despite my concerns about Johnson's rhetorical skills, the intellectual level of the debates among the libertarian candidates has been much deeper than any of the debates among the Republicans and the Democrats. Johnson is the only presidential candidate who has any intellectual principles and who is talking about the most important issues (such as the 20 trillion dollar federal debt).

Kent Guida said...

Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign and its media allies seem to have concluded Johnson would take more votes from Clinton than from Trump, especially from the crucial under-3O block. They won't be giving him any positive coverage from here on out.

The only Johnson stories we'll see from now on are the ones Xenophon cites, along with many "don't waste your vote" editorials.

If Johnson can somehow keep a big share of the Millennial vote, he could torpedo Clinton. The Clinton campaign could get very creative on that front in the stretch drive.

Xenophon said...

So a potential commander-in-chief can have abstract "principles" but be completely ignorant of rudimentary facts about world politics? Mr. Guida implies that it is some kind of media conspiracy that gives the impression that Johnson is an incompetent, not that he is convicted out of his own mouth. ("What is Aleppo?")

As for the federal debt, interest payments on national debt as a percentage of GDP are at the lowest level since 1973, lower as a percentage of GDP than they were in 1960:
(This could change, of course, if interest rates rise but could also improve if there is slightly better growth in GDP for a few years). In any case,whatever one's view on this, Johnson is as incompetent to deal with either foreign or domestic issues: what is needed is phronesis, not abstract principles.

CJColucci said...

But Xenophon, if you have the right principles, you don't have to know much because your government won't do much. At least that seems to be the theory.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree with this reaction from Matt Welch of Reason magazine: "If you don't like or can't answer a question in a live broadcast situation, don't answer the damned question. The English language is filled with little sidestepping phrases like, "Well, the most important thing is," or "When you step back and take the broader view...." Also available are the Pushback ("Chris, I'm not playing your foreign policy trivia game"), the Shutdown ("It's not appropriate for a presidential aspirant to pre-emptively name international favorites"), and the Redirect ("I'm more focused on rolling back our friendship with dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia!"). Not a viable option for a potential commander in chief? Stammering out loud about your own inability to answer a question."

Johnson is either unable or unwilling to employ such rhetorical maneuvers. This is part of the weakness in his rhetorical style that has bothered me since he won the Libertarian Party nomination.

Xenophon said...

So are you bothered because Johnson hasn't mastered the various rhetorical tricks to sidestep or redirect the question on live TV? Or that he is so ignorant of world politics that he simply can't answer the question?

For example, from today's news (Oct 3 '16): "The United States formally suspended talks with Russia about the protracted Syria conflict on Monday because of the Russian military’s role in the assault on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo."
Johnson: "And what is Aleppo?"