Sarah Palin: Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Anthropology

McCain’s VP Pick Makes Darwinian and Boasian Sense

Sarah Palin takes aimShock and awe. That had to be one thought in McCain’s mind when he picked a little-known governor of Alaska–the state one pundit called an overgrown igloo–to stand a heartbeat away from his seat in the Oval Office, his age and cancer history be damned.

But once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot, and McCain is not risk-averse. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and will vote for Obama, but I have to say my liberal friends have missed the upside of this gamble. Looked at from the vantage of ev psych or culture, there are reasons to think McCain is crazy like a fox.

First, the shock and awe. Many years ago primatologists figured out that in addition to dominance structure in a monkey or ape group, there is something called attention structure. Dominance hierarchies in primates (unlike in chickens) are not linear, and coalitions matter a lot, but so does the ability to get attention.

One chimp used to bang big sticks on an empty gas drum; he changed the power structure. Rock stars have their power, and Obama was the only star in this election–until Friday. The McCain secrecy ploys baffled the media through Thursday night, so the GOP looked gracious in their reticence after Obama’s fine speech.

Then, BOOM. The Palin announcement truncated the news cycle on Obama’s speech, widely considered a triumph, to 12 hours. No one talked about anything but her for half the weekend–until Gustav, an even greater attention-getter that at this writing could still derail Republican hopes. But up to a point there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Sarah Palin grabbed the country by its collar.

What did we see? Well, for one thing, like the Alaskan bumper sticker says, “Coldest State, Hottest Governor.” We hate it, but looks count. Studies show that they improve a person’s chances in the nursery, elementary school, the courtroom, politics, and business. Even if you’re dead on arrival in the ER, your chance of being revived is better if you are good-looking. It matters from cradle to grave.

Then there’s her energy and optimism. Positive psychologist Marty Seligman finds that presidential races go to the more optimistic candidate. You can argue about Obama vs. McCain on this score, but you can’t argue about Biden vs. Palin.

With five kids ranging from army age to infancy, she’s got far more reproductive success than the average American, so she validates the huge investment we put in our children. And to mothers from right to middle at least, she says, You can still be anything you want to be. I know liberal women find the pick insulting–I’ve been hearing about it all weekend–but they are not the women McCain is aiming at.

Last on the ev psych side, she validates masculinity. If you’re lucky enough to have both X chromosomes, you’ll have to trust me on this. The pictures they have shown and will show countless times have her visiting troops in fatigues and taking aim with obvious skill through the sights of an automatic rifle. She ice-fishes, hunts, and is a lifelong NRA member. And, standing next to John McCain, she said her husband–a part-Eskimo union man, oil-rig worker, and champion ice-machine racer–is the man she most admires.

Which brings us to the Boasian side. Franz Boas, the founder of modern American anthropology, taught us to respect the power of culture. His most famous disciple, Margaret Mead, wrote a book about American culture. It was during the heyday of national character theory, which may need a partial revival.

Mead’s book about our culture was called And Keep Your Powder Dry. If you remember five words from this blog, it should be those. It is a metaphor for the essence of rural and small town America, the America of the heartland between the coasts that so often baffles and foils us liberals.

What does Mead’s title mean? Guns, of course, and readiness for defense against all enemies, but metaphorically far more: Self-reliance, independence, resistance to authority, and a frontier mentality in which you carve out a place for yourself and your family, expect the worst, stay alert, and don’t expect help from anyone.

Liberals scoff at the Alaskan frontier, which to us means only wildlife protection. To Middle America it means the last stand of the Old West. We mock her past experience: Governor of how many people?–a population a quarter the size of Brooklyn’s! Mayor of what? Wasilla, population 6,715–of which she’d been beauty queen? Give me a break!

Well, we are mocking the very cultural center of the heartland, the folks who have beaten us in 7 out of 10 presidential elections for four decades.

Add to these advantages the fact that she faced down Alaska’s corrupt old-boy network, including Republican poobahs; that she sent the money for the “bridge to nowhere” back to Washington, saying “If Alaska wants a bridge, we’ll build it ourselves;” and that she holds views on abortion, evolution, and gays that drive liberals nuts. When Palin holds that Down’s Syndrome baby in her arms, the heartland swoons. She may light a fire under the right-wing base that McCain himself could never have ignited.

Is she ready to be president? I think not. Is she a completely new and unpredictable factor in this election? You’d better believe it. We liberals can go right on ladling out our scorn, but the GOP may end up laughing all the way to the White House.


  1. I was SO MUCH hoping you would devote your limited time and unlimited intellectual energy to making sense of the bewildering and exciting developments of our country’s current political scene. You, Dr. Konner, more than any human or hero I know, have the anthropological and sociological knowledge, along with the common sense and uncommon gift for self-expression, to guide us through these times with some modicum of consciousness that can help us teach our children as we experience ourselves, what it means to be intellectually, morally, and socially evolving!

    Suffice it to say that I was overjoyed to log in and find that you had, indeed, tackled these issues as you always do, with humility, honesty and piercing inquiry. I am, in fact, one of the independent, idiosyncratic, authority-resistant small-towners of which you speak, although I do my best to step out of my rural upbringing to larger world views with the help of global thinkers like yourself.

    While I WOULD have voted for Hilary in a heartbeat, but could NOT have consciously voted for Obama OR McCain, I MAY cast my ballot on the Republican side of the current debates BECAUSE I have come to believe that our country desperately needs more women in positions of national/local leadership, AND because Sarah Palin looks so darn sexy in camouflage.

    More than that, I like many aspects of her mind, not just the moral, intellectual, spiritual, rural, responsible ways of thinking she portrays on-screen (which may be just a mirage) but the maternal versus patriarchal and careful versus cocky demeanor that convinces me she is, unlike me, a carrier of double-gauge x chromosomes. This, I have become convinced by you and many others, will protect her (and her country) from the malady from which I, myself, suffer, an x-chromosome deficiency that makes me more selfish than benevolent and more competitive than cooperative, even when I very much wish to be otherwise.

    As a wise man once said, “If, as now seems clear, women, like other primate females, are less aggressive than males for biological reasons, then an overall increase in the number of women in power would tend to buffer political systems against violence.”

    I am, I think, currently leaning toward prioritizing that biological truth as the most important of the many differences between current Republican and Democratic parties, because a world without war is much more to be desired than an economy of unsustainable prosperity, and because no amount of education or experience is likely to influence the gut-level, war-waging, emotionally instinctive causes of cultural/international conflict, as signicantly as 100 million years of mammalian sexual evolution.

    Another male vice-president? “That’s not change. That’s just more of the same!”

    T. Allen

  2. Jody says:

    This statement, published by an African American physician in Time Magazine, Aug 23, 1968 could have been published yesterday. Why do Americans like Sarah Palin? Because the Democrats are throwing billions of dollars overseas with Jimmy Carter and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs while their own kids are protesting right here in Chicago for better schools and education.

  3. Ono No Komachi says:

    Looks like McCain probably crashed the plane,although it’s too soon to tell.

    It would appear that someone like Sarah Palin would cause at least some people to reconsider the idea that an influx of females into politics would be protective. Palin appears to be even more aggressive and less nuanced and diplomatic than McCain. It’s possible that this is due to the fact that she clawed her way to the top in a Y dominated hierarchy, but the simplest answer that’s just the way she is as a human being. She has the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces. My guess is she was born that way.

    Palin is fun because she is seriously hilarious, speaks in word salad, and appears to lack basic critical thinking skills – not something anyone wants in a political leader.

    To that dude who might vote Repbulican because Palin is on the ticket – huh? That makes about as much sense as voting McCain for peace because older males are less violent than younger males.

    Obama 2008 – way hotter than McCain. (Actually, the hottest guy was Romney, but he’s kind of old and I didn’t agree with most of his policies).


  4. Melvin Konner says:

    Ono, your post is cute and insightful. I agree (as I said above) that Palin is not ready to be president, and it’s fortunate her ticket lost. But we certainly have not heard the end of her. She is back in Alaska, where her performance as governor had an 80 percent approval rating, which must have included the majority of Democrats. She electrified the national meeting of governors this past week, and she remains the hottest thing to hit the Republican party since sliced toast. She may be running for president in every election in my remaining lifetime (I’m 62)–unless she wins one or two of them, after which she’ll have to coast. I’m too old and have seen too much to discount the possibility of a future Palin presidency.

Leave a Reply