Seeing dominance and affiliation in politics

In my most recent book, I helped people see how we’re always tracking status roles in the way we make decisions. Who’s up and who’s down? What does this interaction or this purchase do to maintain or change my role?

It comes down to “who eats lunch first” and the instinct has been around since the savannah.

One place we see this really clearly is in world politics. Some candidates personify affiliation (who is with me/how are we working together) while others depend on dominance to gain and exert power (who am I defeating).

Jimmy Carter was an affiliation president. It was important to him to be in sync and to build alliances while diminishing conflict. Winston Churchhill was primarily a dominator, and using that posture, he built alliances that saved the UK in World War II.

Likability isn’t always related to this choice of dominance vs affiliation, but it’s often more difficult for a dominator to be seen as likable at the same time.

In many settings, dominance can be seen as bluster (if it’s on the surface only) or bullying (when applied in settings of unequal power).

In a world of fast media cycles, we see again, again and again the easy optics of domination. Professional wrestling is a sport of nothing but dominance–it’s a theater of status. And as we strip away the long-term from discussions of politics, Twitter and the rest of the chattersphere has created a similar theatre for politics.

In the short run, this is satisfying, because people get to feel as though their avatar, the leader who represents them, is moving up, which of course means that they’re moving up as well.

Even without a pandemic, the game theory of this short-term measure is flawed. Because in sports, not every team makes it to the finals, and not every wrestler becomes the world champ. And in politics, the repercussions of non-cooperation can last for generations.

Bluster is hard to maintain in places where performance is easy to measure. And so it tends to move to places where it’s not as easy to measure output.


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