Wednesday, May 17, 2023

An evolutionary psychology perspective on the politics of leadership

Thomas Edsall does another of his scholarly analyses, this time putting Trump as the wannabe alpha male in a larger evolutionary context. I started this post with a number of clips from Edsall's text, but then decided to have another go at asking ChatGPT 4 to do a summary for me. In response to my request "Please condense and summarize the following essay by Thomas Edsall" it did a quite credible job, and I'm going to be lazy and pass on what the bot did!

Thomas Edsall's essay discusses how Donald Trump's alpha-male image conflicts with the barrage of criminal investigations and civil suits he faces, threatening his self-portrayal and traditional leadership standards. Trump's bid for dominance never garnered majority support, yet he still poses a serious threat to American democracy.

The essay delves into the evolutionary and neuroendocrine foundations of human aggression, highlighting the crucial role of coalition formation in overcoming coercive alpha males. Early sub-elite males formed coalitions to overthrow alpha males who violated social norms, paving the way for a more egalitarian society. This development has been traced to the roots of democracy, as it eventually led to the state's acquisition of police power and the legal use of force to enforce norms and laws.

The criminal investigations and civil suits against Trump represent America's democratic system of government, attempting to constrain a deregulated alpha-male wannabe. Over time, complex systems have evolved to limit the power of leaders, like coalitions, power-sharing agreements, parliaments, and constitutions. However, the dynamic of dominance persists, as voters often favor taller candidates and crave strong leaders.

Prof. Rose McDermott explains the process of self-domestication in human societies, where beta and gamma males work together to unseat coercive alpha males who exploit the community, leading to more egalitarian dynamics. McDermott views former President Trump as an example of a coercive alpha male, and suggests that the polarization in the U.S. has prevented the formation of coalitions strong enough to oppose him.

Some academics disagree with this biological explanation for modern social behavior, such as Prof. John Horgan, who finds it deterministic and promoting fatalism, and Prof. R. Brian Ferguson, who disputes the idea of alphas facing death due to sub-alpha elite coalitions. On the other hand, Prof. Dan McAdams argues that Trump's personality and authoritarian dynamic align with an older, evolutionarily-driven paradigm of dominance.

Prof. Kevin Smith attributes the rise of coercive alpha males and other unprincipled personalities in politics to the weakening of democratic norms, pointing out that these norms are difficult to institutionalize and easy to destroy. Once gone, they may be difficult to re-establish, leaving the political system vulnerable to demagogues and tyrants.

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