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How Politicians Leverage Our Survival Instincts to Influence Our Votes

Psychologist and author Hector Garcia explains the roots of our political divide—and how the Trump administration embodies "the worst aspects of male psychology."
President Donald Trump attends a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11th, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.

President Donald Trump attends a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11th, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.

The term "tribalism" has become ubiquitous in discussions of modern-day political conflicts. It's a useful metaphor because it's grounded in historical fact. For most of our species' history, humans lived in tribes, and there's evidence that these groups sometimes battled for scarce resources.

This ongoing struggle shaped our primitive brains, implanting impulses that still guide us today when we talk about issues ranging from immigration to abortion. At least, that's the argument evolutionary psychologist Hector Garcia makes in his new book, Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide.

"Political orientations are just the surface," he says"There are a myriad of psychological traits on top of which modern-day policy preferences tend to operate. These traits were forged by the pressures of our ancestral past. There's a mountain of archaeological evidence suggesting those conditions were often brutal. This has shaped our psychology, and our policy preferences—including about immigration."

Garcia is not simply an academic theorist. Besides serving as an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, he is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. He spoke with Pacific Standard to discuss how our deeper impulses guide our political beliefs, and why understanding them is crucial to emerging from this era of extreme polarization.

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If we assume that humans have spent most of our history living in perpetually warring tribes, it's easy to see how a fear of outsiders could be embedded deep in our brains. But why do some modern-day people feel this so acutely, and others barely at all?

People vary on a particular trait. There's a natural curve; some people are in the middle, and some are on the wings. Conservatives tend to fall on the more fearful end of the natural curve with regards to all kinds of stimuli, including xenophobia. A robust literature finds conservatives are on the more xenophobic end of the spectrum, while liberals are on the opposite end. They're interested in new cultures.

People at different points on the natural curve vary on their strategy for survival. Those on the xenophobic end are going to be really worried about outsiders, including immigrants. They respond warmly to talk of a border wall. That attitude benefited their ancestors. People on the other end of the spectrum are more interested in other people, other cultures, and what they have to offer.

How can we use evolutionary theory to explain the appeal of President Donald Trump?

The need to survive against violent outside tribes has left us with a preference for tall, large, aggressive male leaders, particularly in times of war. One study looked at nearly 300 years of U.S. presidential elections. All pairs of candidates were taller than the average citizen, and the taller of the two won a majority of the time. Even though today, our leaders would never represent us in a physical fight, candidates nevertheless go out of their way to demonstrate their fighting prowess. Ben Carson bragged that he tried to stab someone in his youth. Vladimir Putin filmed himself working out in a gym. In response to a protester at a rally, Trump yelled out, "I'd like to punch him in the face." The crowd just roared. This reflects our ancient need for protection.

Conservatives represent the more fearful end of the spectrum, so that kind of rhetoric is going to resonate emotionally with more fearful individuals. They're drawn to the chest-thumpers among our political candidates, including Trump. People on the other end of the natural curve are repelled by that.

Another issue is fear of germs. Conservatives fear germs more than liberals. That fear was incredibly useful in our evolutionary past, when people died regularly from simple maladies. Diseases were largely spread by other humans, which explains the link between fear of germs and fear of humans. The Nazi regime referred to Jews as "vermin." During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus called the Tutsis "cockroaches."

Trump has used similar, if a bit subtler, language about immigrants from Latin America. But to your larger point about him: He successfully used belittling nicknames for his opponents to establish himself as the alpha male. If a lot of his appeal is as a symbolic big-man-who-can-take-care-of-you, how can he keep that up if he is losing to Nancy Pelosi—not only an opponent, but a woman?

He has lost face in a lot of ways. He has been so bumbling, and so many of his advisers have been indicted. At some point, the rational-thinking part of the brain has to come in and take the wheel [regarding voters' assessment of Trump as national leader].

What does your research tell you about the wisdom of the Democrats nominating a woman to run for president in 2020? Are the concepts of "masculinity" and "leader" still too intertwined in our brains to make a female president conceivable? Would she have to embody traditionally masculine qualities, as Margaret Thatcher did in Britain?

It's really hard to predict. Just because there's a certain draw to large, brash leaders like Trump doesn't mean choosing them is inevitable. The Trump administration is a disaster that reflects the worst aspects of male psychology. After experiencing it, people may be ready for a change.

Hector Garcia.

Hector Garcia.

Generally speaking, we prefer masculine leaders in times of conflict, and female leaders in times of peace. The problem is shrewd political advisers take note of this, and have their male candidates manufacture or exaggerate potential threats. During the 2018 Congressional elections, Trump warned of this big immigrant caravan heading toward the U.S., and [GOP-friendly] news reports said they could be carrying disease. That wasn't an accident. Political operatives know evolutionary science.

The warning I want to give the public is: If you don't understand the evolutionary roots of your political psychology, others who do understand it will use that knowledge to manipulate you.

Let's talk a bit about abortion. You write that our reactions to that procedure are complicated, in that they combine our deep-seated desire to protect children, and the male desire to control women's reproductive behavior.

Women's sexual independence has always been a threat to men evolutionarily, and extreme conservatives argue abortion leads to female adultery and promiscuity. They argue it removes a disincentive for extramarital sex, which is an unwanted pregnancy. That's a powerful underlying motivator to support restrictions on abortion.

Men have gone to all lengths to prevent [unknowingly raising another man's child as his own], including restricting women to the home, and draping them in burqas so they're not attractive to other men. In Saudi Arabia, women don't have the right to travel without permission from a male guardian. All this is intended to control women's sexuality. It's also why the "dangers" of contraception are so touted by the right. Even though [birth control] would prevent cuckoldry in a literal sense, female sexual freedom remains an emotional threat.

The Brett Kavanaugh hearings came to mind as I read your book. What deeply ingrained male fears got stirred up by the accusations against the now-justice?

For much of our species' history, groups of men conducted raids on rival tribes, where they slaughtered all the men and took all of the women as sexual slaves. During World War II, the Red Army is estimated to have committed two million rapes. If conservatism arose from this violent, group-based male competition for mates, it's easy to [predict the pushback to] these accusations of a team-based sexual assault. When they're in an alliance, men have each other's back. And conservative political parties are, in many respects, male alliances.

It was striking how many conservative women argued that if we looked too hard into Kavanaugh's past, it would negatively affect the lives of their sons. They were basically standing up for the right of their sons to commit sexual assaults.

That's a great point. Sometimes, for a woman, it pays to align yourself with a male-dominant hierarchy. It's a kind of devil's bargain. Also, remember that people sometimes take political stances based on not only the survival of their own genes, but also their kids' genes. Men, for example, will support more liberal causes—including reproductive rights—the more daughters they have.

That brings us to the natural counter-force to this male aggression, which is a more female-driven advocacy of a peaceful, cooperative society—one where it's more likely you can raise kids to adulthood. Does the ideal society balance those two forces?

In the healthiest societies—using many measures—women have more rights, and there are more women in power. They're also less religious, which makes sense when you realize the Abrahamic faiths are strongly based on male reproductive psychology. These societies are more stable because they have scaled back on the impulse to make war on other tribes, and are more focused on domestic stability.

In the book, I argue conservatism is designed to help maintain rank in the primate dominance hierarchy. We're primates, after all. Liberalism, in contrast, is an attempt to equalize those hierarchies.


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