In the midst of the current battle between the “leftist” grassroots and the “moderate” DLC, this article interjects a missing link. Political leadership is not about mimicry of “tough” positions, nor is it about reactionary complaints and bomb-throwing. It is about the attitude of power.
The attitude of power has an evolutionary basis, one that is rooted in the signals of alpha masculinity, and it is sorely missing from both the Democratic establishment and the liberal rebels. This isn’t about policy positions or ideology. It’s about something more fundamental. It’s about biology.
Call it toughness or brashness, chutzpah or machismo, iron guts, brass balls or just plain alpha maleness. Whatever you want to call it, to paraphrase Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it, and you know when it’s not there. The time has never been more critical for liberals to defy expectations and show they’ve got it and attack conservatives for having none.
Since Election 2004, liberals have been agonizing over the shape of the Democratic Party and the fate of liberalism itself. Should they look for new policies or new personalities? Is the right demographic the “security moms” or the “values voters”? Is their salvation in the framing, in the heartland, or in the Bible?
For a moment, liberals may want to put aside all the abstract political analysis and poll-data parsing and consider something far simpler. A basic fact of nature gone underappreciated for a very long time. Something fundamentalist conservatives won’t believe and enlightened liberals don’t like to acknowledge.
People are animals.
All it takes is one Sunday morning recuperating with the Discovery Channel to learn that in every animal population, there is a hierarchy. At the top is the “Alpha,” who, among mammals in general and primates in particular, is usually the male. At the bottom, happy to get the scraps, are the “Omegas.”
Alpha males continually communicate their dominance to the Omegas: They grunt and growl; they pound their chests; they emit unpleasant yet dominating odors. Omegas routinely defer to the Alpha’s displays of dominance: They let the Alpha eat first; bow and cower before him; and flee from his potent stench.
This social structure helps animals build and maintain group strength. It’s time-tested, it’s hard-wired, and it works. Alphas are the leaders; Omegas are the followers.
And in between the two are the Democrats.
In the animal kingdom of American politics, there is one population that truly gets the Darwinian truth of human nature. Ironically, they are the same folks who want to ban it from schools and whose leader thinks “the jury is still out” on evolution. They are the conservatives.
Conservatives adhere to the atavistic organizational model – there are Alpha Cons and Omega Cons, and they all know their place. Alpha Cons lead through aggressive, dominant signals while Omega Cons support the Alphas with their votes, money, and dutiful recitation of talking points.
Liberals are of a different breed. Since the Enlightenment, their devotion to reason and intellect has helped the human species progress. But during the past two generations, they have over-learned their own lesson plan. Elevating intellect to new heights, liberals have lost touch with their instincts.
Now they meander around the middle, sandwiched between the leaders they hate – the Alpha Cons – and the homogeneous packs they disdain – the Omega Cons. Here roam the Lambda Libs.
A legacy of Lamdba Libs plagues the Democratic Party. Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis … Rational-thinking, peace-loving, sweater-wearing, tax-increase-disclosing, Kitty-Dukakis-non-avenging political also-rans.
To generations of liberals for whom “smart” and “open-minded” are the ultimate compliments, these warm, fuzzy eggheads were heroes. For the rest of America, they were weaklings who wouldn’t stand up and pound their chests.
Whether Alpha, Omega, or somewhere in between, no one wants a weakling as leader, because our genes tell us that he won’t be able to protect the tribe from marauding saber-toothed tigers. So, as Lambda Libs have been de-clawing themselves with rationality and civility, the voting public has learned to follow Alpha Cons, the only animals who display the instinctively-recognizable signals of leadership – the words, images, and attitude of the alpha male.
The Language Instinct
Everyone knows George W. Bush has a way with words. To liberals, Bush’s malapropisms prove he is “dumb,” “juvenile,” “inarticulate,” or “very dumb.” But there is a method to his mumbles. Bush understands that in the political jungle, the right (or wrong) words signal dominance.
Take then-Governor Bush’s identification of reporter Adam Clymer as the “major league asshole from the New York Times.” Bush didn’t say that just to get some yucks from Dick “Big Time” Cheney. Bush was using nasty language as a form of territorial pissing.
This continued throughout the campaign and the presidency. The verbal pee lines were everywhere. He doled out knuckle-headed nicknames to a fawning press corps hungry for access to his infrequent conferences. He delivered “tough” admonitions to reporters who were “tough” on him. Later, he paid members of the media to say supportive words for his policies.
During the Bush years, the press has come to understand its place. It is no longer above politics, as it once haughtily believed. It is part of a PR game, a popularity contest between schoolyard bullies and pencil-necked geeks. And, like jock-sniffing high school underclassmen, the media recognizes if it kisses up to the Alpha Cons and kicks down on the Lamdba Libs, it can climb to a respectable place in between the two – the Beta Press.
Lambda Libs, who traditionally try to curry media favor, missed Bush’s paradigm shift completely. Take Gore spokesman Chris Lehane’s response to the Clymer comment:
We hold virtually all members of the Fourth Estate in the highest regard and we believe they should be part of the democratic process day in and day out.
Was this a joke? Lehane continued:
It’s the second time in less than a week that the governor has broken his promise to `change the tone’ of the campaign. First, he used an ad to attack the vice-president in a very nasty and personal way, now he’s used an expletive to attack a member of the working press.
To the Gore camp and the Lambda Libs, Bush had been “very nasty”; he had broken a “promise”; he had attacked the “Fourth Estate.” To the rest of America, Bush just called some pointy-headed four-eyes an “asshole.” And in the meantime, Bush-Cheney 2000 cemented a new hierarchy – Alpha Cons-Beta Press-Lambda Libs – all with a few “nasty” words.
Liberals have a pathological aversion to “nasty” words. They can’t take the heat, so they’ve developed a new vocabulary for protection, promulgating “speech codes” and mumbo-jumbo like “alternatively-abled.” This lexical silliness has done more than fuel the petty persecution complexes of college Republicans who graduate to the National Review Online.
The PC movement has made liberals look like a bunch of “pussies.”
This isn’t to say swearing a blue streak is the key to the White House, but imbuing language with more instinct and less intellect can unshackle the hairy ape within. Conservatives, for all their holy-rolling, allow themselves to think “nasty,” politically incorrect thoughts – and they occasionally let “nasty” words slip as a consequence. See e.g., “Bring `em on,” “this crusade,” or “Go fuck yourself, Senator Leahy.” Even more measured Alpha Con utterances have a vitality that seems to spring from animal instinct, rather than the cautious, clinical intellect of the Lambda Lib. Compare “pro-life,” “ownership society,” and “war on terror” with “reproductive rights,” “public protection attorneys,” and a “more sensitive war.”
Plainly put, Alpha Cons more consistently and spontaneously communicate in a way that conveys a willingness and ability to throw down and control the pecking order. But it’s not all talk.
Missing in Action
When Bush flew shotgun onto the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln for his “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, the pictures bewitched the Beta Press, who mocked liberals for not measuring up.
Members of CNN’s Capital Gang praised Bush and derided Joe Lieberman, who apparently wouldn’t look as studly in a flightsuit. On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer swooned, recalling the comparative absurdity of Michael Dukakis’s tank ride. Perhaps MSNBC’s Chris Matthews summed up the Beta Press’s alpha envy best: “We like having a hero as our President.”
In this action movie, video game era, images not only speak louder than words when it comes to signaling alpha masculinity. They also speak louder than truth.
John Kerry was a genuine war hero, but he couldn’t play one on TV. His swift boat landing and awkward salute at the Democratic National Convention made him look desperate for alpha cred – unsure if he belonged in the company of his aging “band of brothers” – and the Swift Boat Veterans exploited the doubts that desperation created. Kerry’s failure to confidently and completely tell the story of his unconventional life allowed the Bush team to write the missing chapters. Images of Kerry the peacenik, Kerry the Boston Brahmin, and Kerry the flip-flopping sailboarder from Nantucket created cognitive dissonance, and, with the Swifties shoveling their dirt, the campaign became a full-frontal assault on Kerry’s courage and, in turn, his masculinity.
Kerry never countered this challenge with direct attacks of his own on the dubious manhood of George W. Bush, a pampered son of privilege who continually, and sometimes literally, has let other men fight his battles for him. Instead, the Kerry team and most other liberals criticized Bush’s intelligence, callousness, arrogance, and incompetence. And in the end, a wastrel who once actively avoided combat could don a fighter costume and be hailed as a hero, while a decorated veteran could be effectively ridiculed as an indecisive waffler in a windsurfing wetsuit.
Living in their “reality-based community,” liberals get bent out of shape about this disconnect. Bush’s carrier landing, his Thanksgiving turkey trot to the soldiers in Iraq, his cowboy hat at the ranch, even his exaggerated John Wayne swagger. Being rational folks, liberals believe the public will (or should) look through the alpha posturing of nasty words and hard guy images and see a person for who he really is.
But that’s not how nature works – or at least the “virtual nature” of modern life. In the political jungle, where physical confrontation is not an option, voters must watch verbal and non-verbal cues for evidence of alpha power. Consequently, a 98-pound chimp can pretend to be the 800-pound gorilla, and the rest of the tribe will suspend disbelief – provided the chimp grunts and thumps with great ape attitude.
The Belly of the Beast
George Bush was once asked to identify his biggest mistake since 9/11, and here’s what he came up with:
I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way or that way … I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer. But it hasn’t yet.
George Bush knows that apologies will be made and mistakes will be noted … eventually … by others. But not by him. He wouldn’t even know where to look. Right or wrong, George Bush will never apologize for being a gorilla … or pretending to be one. He has an attitude problem, and it helps him win.
That’s a problem no liberal has. The willingness to explain positions and then back off them never abates in the Democratic Party. Just ask Dick Durbin.
In June 2005, after Durbin noted that the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is what you might expect from the Nazis or Soviets, the conservative chorus for a mea culpa was relentless. And then, after Durbin apologized and cried on the floor of the Senate, the GOP pressure was … still relentless. You’d think Durbin’s public atonement would have been enough, but the right was unappeased. In fact, just days after the apology, Karl Rove used Durbin’s “controversial” comment to disparage all liberals as traitors who want American troops to die.
And was Rove asked to apologize? Yes. By the Democrats, of course. And did he? Of course not.
If you are offended by something a reasonable, civilized person has done or said, asking for an apology makes sense. And if you are convinced you have done something wrong, apologizing is reasonable and civilized.
But Alpha Cons are neither reasonable nor civilized. So when Democrats heed conservative calls for an apology, they do more than admit ineptitude and express remorse; they also place their fate and moral worth to the hands of their enemies – will they or won’t they forgive? And when Dems demand an apology from an Alpha Con, they do more than show they were offended (and thus thin-skinned); they imply that the offending party knew better. They also give him a chance – which the Alpha Con naturally takes – to reject the demand and show his strength of will.
Thus, when Durbin apologized, he showed he lacked the courage of his convictions. In addition, he allowed his enemies (namely Karl Rove), to reject the apology and leverage it against him. It also didn’t help that he cried.
When the Democrats in turn asked Rove to apologize for his recriminating slander against Durbin and liberals in general, the implication was that Rove knew better and that he only need correct the record to make amends. Democrats gave him an out.
And when Rove refused to apologize, he showed the strength of his will. Moreover, when Bush and other Republicans supported Rove, together they proved what we knew all along – the Democrats have no real power to change the pecking order, gain alpha status, and lead the pack.
The Alpha Cons’ historical backbone and the Lambda Libs’ self-perpetuating spinelessness create expectations about attitude that are not easily altered. Liberals are expected to be far down on the food chain – lame wildebeests pothering on about apologies and “fair play.” Conservatives are expected to be silverback gorillas, growling nastily and emitting a dominant, hungry stink.
Given expectations, people aren’t surprised when a gorilla does something tough or mean. That is consonant with his nature. (Which is why the Beta Press, on its own, would never ask Tom DeLay to apologize for his vicious eruptions and why Bush isn’t asked to denounce them.) Were the ape to exhibit even a modicum of kindness, people would be relieved, maybe even a bit awed. (Which is why the Beta Press are so impressed with Bush’s pretensions of compassion.)
The wildebeest, however, is expected to lie down and die. And if he does something alpha-like, he is deemed aberrational – unnatural, unauthentic, or “unhinged.” (Which explains the Beta Press reaction to Howard Dean’s very existence.) People know he can be cowed into contrition and that, eventually, he will calm down and wait to be eaten.
This abject lack of attitude has not only made Lambda Lib ascendance to alpha status a far-fetched proposition. Now, after years of living apologetically, liberals have placed themselves on the endangered species list.
Survival of the Leftist
Out in the wilderness, the faint cries of the strident liberal activist and the careful Democratic centrist echo, trying to convince someone, anyone, of their alpha readiness. But it’s not there.
Along the far left, the rhetoric is too shrill in tone and anti-authoritarian in attitude to signal fitness for any kind of leadership. These are the howls of the malcontented, the powerless, the wounded animals flailing for attention.
In the hallowed center of the Democratic Party, self-styled moderates merely ape Alpha Con policy positions – offering slightly modified talking points on the Iraq War or the latest video-game ban. Such creatures confuse mimicry with toughness, and remain dependent on the leadership of others.
The alpha of the group can never be defensive or reactionary. He must always be actively on the attack. When the opposition poses a threat, he can’t afford to become embittered; he needs to get tough. He must assume power instead of shrilly complaining about another’s abuse of it. And he can never follow.
Can such a breed evolve from the Democratic Party? Will there ever be a grunting and thumping ape on the left? A genuine Alpha Lib?
Occasional sightings of aspirants have recently been reported. Out of the deserts of the West, former boxer Harry Reid has shown alpha strength in opposing Bush’s Social Security privatization plan – he’s kept unity and hierarchy, ridiculed Bush, and ignored Beta Press calls for “compromise.” Along the Atlantic coast, Hillary Clinton has laid into the Beta Press for a pathetic inability to “stand their ground,” telling them to “get some spine.” And then, wandering about nomadically, there’s the ostensible leader himself.
After Howard Dean commented about “Confederate flags” and “pick-ups” in the 2003 Democratic Primary, he was cowed into an apology by his own party’s shame merchants. But in early 2005, when he made some “nasty” remarks about Republicans having “never made an honest living” and being “pretty much a white Christian party,” he gave no apologies, no tortuous explanations, no tears. Despite the disapproval of the Beta Press and a circular firing squad of Lambda Libs, Dean stood his ground.
Nevertheless, liberals should ask themselves why Dean had to fight back against his own party at all. It’s become a chronic problem. For every half-step forward from a potential Alpha Lib, Lambda Libs force a ten-pace retreat. Reid holds the line; the “moderate Senators” compromise on the filibuster. Clinton talks tough; Durbin cries like a baby. Dean pounds his chest; his own party runs for cover.
Clearly, liberals are not used to alpha signaling. Perhaps they are waiting for the public to smarten up or for Republicans to overreach and defeat themselves. After all, polls since the last election have shown that the public’s confidence in Bush has slipped, and a shadow of scandal has been cast on the White House. That should be enough to bring down the entire conservative movement. Right?
Well, we’ve been there before, and none of it mattered. And it will continue not to matter – not until there is an alternative to the Alpha Con. Not until the Alpha Lib crawls out of the primordial political soup with attitude and without apology.
The failure of the Lambda Lib in America has proven that people are relatively ambivalent about a leader’s intelligence, his eloquence, and even his competence. But there is one quality they can never find lacking. Americans, especially in this post-9/11 era, must see signs that their leader, if necessary, can kick some ass and protect them in an increasingly hostile world, one that doesn’t always respond to reason or civility.
Call it toughness or brashness, chutzpah or machismo, iron guts, brass balls or just plain alpha maleness. Whatever you want to call it, to paraphrase Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it, and you know when it’s not there. The time has never been more critical for liberals to defy expectations and – through rhetoric, imagery, and attitude – show they’ve got it and attack conservatives for having none.
Of course, electoral success has many components. Winning in politics isn’t simply a matter of saying “fuck you very much,” riding tall in the saddle, and never apologizing. But for the Democrats, who have convinced everyone ad nauseam of their “nurturing parent” abilities, more than a little shot of “strict father” testosterone is in order. Only then can the evolution begin.
By Trained Ape