One of the things that has struck me about the coverage of the debates—not so much the debates themselves, but the way they have been covered by the punditry—has been the remarkable amount of apparent outrage at, yet significant focus on, the harsh tone and macho behavior that has been evident in both debates, but was particularly obvious last night.
What has struck me is what I have to believe is merely faux shock expressed about such behavior.
I mean: let’s be serious. Politics is in significant part a profession in which some one or group forces another person or group to comply with one’s will. Moreover, at the top levels politics involves people who have gotten to the top only because they have been exceptionally skilled at getting people around them to bend to their will. They are the active definition of alphas. In fact, they are the alphaest alphas of them all.
Put another way, presidential elections are inevitably contests among alphas seeking dominance in their communities. Alphas, unsurprisingly, behave as alphas do, using threats of aggression, displays of strength and intelligence, and flashing just enough temper to make it clear that there is a real risk in challenging the dominant actor of the moment.
Indeed, if you think about much of the criticism of President Obama’s performance in the first debate was informed by the notion that he was too passive, too deferential, too cool … that he wasn’t enough of an alpha. (If anything, the criticism of Vice President Biden’s debate performance last week insisted that he was too alpha.) We want our presidents to be the top shark in an ocean filled only with other sharks, and Obama didn’t seem to meet the test.
So of course Obama and Romney circled each other last night, interrupted each other, bared their teeth and used humor and sarcasm to undercut the other guy. They’re engaged in an all-or-nothing, zero sum, winner-take-all contest for the supreme symbol of cultural dominance: the presidency of the United States. They did what alphas do.
And please note that while such behavior is typically associated with males, it doesn’t necessarily only involve males. Just as we don’t actually let our alpha personalities engage in physical combat on stage to establish true dominance, we don’t exclude women from the mix. There is no question, however, that the notion — and expectation — that political leaders will act like alphas has hindered women’s progress in politics: the gendered notion of an “alpha” has worked to undermine our ability to perceive of women in those kinds of leadership roles.
If you want presidents to act like hosts of a party, well, throw a party. But if you’re going to select only one person as President of the United States, only once every four years, through democratic elections involving one on one confrontations between the people contesting for the job, you have to expect fur and feathers to fly. It’s what alphas do.