Why is the world so full of bad leaders?

In his book Political Animals historian Rick Shenkman writes that people are more adapted to living in small groups than to the large societies of the modern world.  For millions of years, our ancestors lived in small groups. (Our common ancestor lived 200,000 years ago)  One advantage of living in a small group is that you know your leaders personally.   Shenkman says that to know someone, you have to spend time with them.  Hunter-gatherers communicate with their leaders face-to-face, but in contrast, most of us just watch our politicians  on T.V.  So we make mistakes in choosing leaders.
President Lyndon Johnson gave this advice to his young staffers. “Read eyes.  No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.”
But T.V. is not the way to have this type of interaction.
Shenkman gives an example of a mistaken reading of a politician.
If you asked an ordinary American in 1961 what he liked about John and Jacqueline Kennedy he probably would have said, among other things, their marriage.  They looked like the perfect couple.  After the election millions of Americans were so inspired by the Kennedys that they began to model themselves after them.  American men stopped wearing hats because Jack went hatless.  American women began donning the pillbox hat because Jackie wore a pillbox hat at the inauguration.   Film of the parents playing with their adoring children, John and Caroline, warmed voters’ hearts, reinforcing the impression that the Kennedy family was exceptional.
It was of course, one big lie.  Jack was a philandering, insensitive lothario….
For instance, as president,  Jack’s aides procured young women for him on a regular basis.  So our taxpayer dollars were going to pay staffers to procure women for a man who we thought was a great example of a family man.
It could be argued that this does not matter. If he was a good president, then who cares about his sleazy private life?  But there is a puzzle: Americans were sure they knew Kennedy well.  And they were shocked years later when the truth started coming out.
Shenkman believes that the images that come to mind when we think of Kennedy shape how we judge him.  We see him on his sailboat, hair flying in the wind, or see him playing touch-football on the lawn of the family estate in Hyannis Port, or delivering his inaugural address “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
jfkbestsail
Shenkman also says basically that we are lazy.  We do simple pattern matching much more than we do deep thinking.  We have to feel anxiety to make us do rethinking of assumptions.  Furthermore much of the time, pattern matching works.
Shenkman gives a list of seven presidents and the ages at which they first made their mark in life.  Often they run for election or won elections when they were relatively young.  By age twenty five, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe had all won seats in Virginia’s colonial legislature.  George Washington tried to become Adjutant General of Virginia even though at the time he had never worn a uniform.  Abe Lincoln ran for a seat in the state legislature at age 23, though he had little more than one full year’s schooling.  Just months before, he was working on his father’s broken down farm for meager wages.  Nobody outdoes Alexander the Great, however.  At the age of 18, he led the cavalry that helped defeat the Athenian army.  He conquered the Persian Empire at twenty-six.
In general, early ambition marks many future leaders.  It may show in their choice in spouses.  Ambitious people often make every effort to marry into power and money.  Shenkman gives several examples, including the future president Taft, who married the daughter of the richest banker in town, and FDR who married Teddy Roosevelt’s niece while Teddy was in the White House, and George Washington, who married the richest woman in Virginia.
Ambition may require making moral compromises, including telling people what they want to hear.  Presidential candidate Al Gore said that is why he supported the corn-to-ethanol program, and John McCain said that is why when asked to comment on the Confederate battle flag displayed at South Carolina’s statehouse he initially said the issue should be left up to the states.  Later he apologized for not calling for its removal, saying he had given up on his principles out of “political self-interest.”  Likewise, in 1964 George H. W. Bush lost an election for the Senate and then confessed to his minister,  “You know, John, I took some of the far right positions to get elected.  I hope I never do it again.”
There are two problems here.  When you are told by a candidate that he believes in causes that in reality he does not, then not only is he compromising to get elected, but he’s manipulating you.  Suppose, for example, that some of those “far right” positions that Bush took actually had validity.  In that case, the far-right voter is getting a promise that nobody intends to follow through on.  The candidate is being condescending to that voter.
On the left side of the aisle is another egregious example:
Former secretary of defense Robert Gates in his memoir wrote this about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: “they both confessed in private in his presence that they opposed President George W. Bush’s surge of troops into Iraq for political reasons.”  This admission is quite serious.  Your country is in a war, your president is making hard decisions that involve human lives, and you won’t back him up because you are worried about votes.
To sum up Shenkman’s argument so far, we make bad decisions on our leaders because we don’t know them personally, and are too lazy to find out who they are, and also, because they don’t always tell the truth, even if they are well-intentioned.
Shenkman then talks about “myths”. An example that he gives is the larger than life image of Stalin.  Stalin was the Russian leader who, before WW-II, let the Nazis train on Russian territory and build up their Air Force there.  “Hundreds of Luftwaffe pilots and technical personnel visited, studied and were trained at Soviet air force schools in several locations in Central Russia”.  Stalin also ignored warnings by spies that the German army would invade Russia, and even purged much of his own military leadership before the invasion happened, thus weakening the Red Army at a critical moment.  Plus he is responsible for the death of tens of millions of Ukrainians and Russians and others before the invasion.  Then of course the Nazis did invade, and many more Russians paid the price for that.
So who do today’s Russians tell pollsters is the greatest Russian leader in history?  Joseph Stalin!
I don’t know that I would agree with the idea that this poll result demonstrates our propensity for believing in myths.  I think it is partly due to the fact that Russians live in a society where information is controlled.  They also are taught to dislike America, though America was the country that equipped their military to fight back at the time  The Russians, in a sense, don’t live in the real world.
stalin
Statue of Joseph Stalin
Shenkman doesn’t think we evolved to know truth – we evolved to survive, and only to the extent that knowing truth helps in that goal, do we evolve to recognize truth.  He believes in “evolutionary psychology”, which assumes that our psychology is based on adaptation to the conditions our species lived in during most of our pre-history.  There are some problems with that, because its hard to test such assertion.  A proponent could say: “we tend to look down at low status people because doing so  was adaptive” and then he would have to figure out why that particular trait was adaptive.
It is also hard to believe that we have not evolved to know truth, because misreading people or situations can destroy us before we pass down those misreading genes.  There might be an advantage to blindly following the group, and our leaders, but at some point, there would be an advantage in stepping back before the rest of the tribe runs off the cliff.
Anyway, assuming evolutionary psychology is partly correct, his argument continues as follows:
We have biases that help us survive but have nothing to do with privileging the truth.  These include the “Availability bias”, the Perseverance Bias”, the “Source Confusion” bias, the “Projection Bias”, and other biases.  For instance, ‘Perseverance bias’ is the tendency to stick with an opinion once we have enunciated it, even if contradictory evidence surfaces.  Shenkman says that this was advantageous at a time long ago when opinions were formed from hard experience, and there was no advantage in spending time and energy revising them.  ‘Projection Bias’ is the idea that other people think just like us.  Shenkman says that when the U.S. invaded Iraq, policymakers believed we would be greeted as liberators.  “We figured that’s how we’d respond if somebody helped us overthrow a brutal dictator.  We’d be grateful.  But that is not how most Iraqis responded.  They used our intervention to settle scores.”
Shenkman says that in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, projection often worked.  The motivations of people in our tribe wouldn’t be much different than the motivations of the people in the neighboring tribe.
I think that the truth is a bit more complicated.  Lets start with “Perseverance Bias”  Scientists came up with a sensible model of the atom that fit the existing evidence.  In that model negatively charged electrons orbited the nucleus.  Eventually scientists realized that this led to a contradiction.  Orbiting charged particles radiate energy away, and so the electrons should spiral into the nucleus.  So there was a problem, but the model, imperfect as it was, worked in many ways.  When quantum theory came along, the problems were resolved.  But until then, it made sense to stick with a model that often was right.  In life, we are often dealing with incomplete information, and exceptions to rules happen quite often.  We  have to be somewhat reluctant to overthrow the rules at the drop of a hat.  Of course we also get emotionally invested in groups or ideas, and those emotions can interfere with our accepting information that challenges our beliefs.
I also wonder about his example of “Projection Bias” in Iraq, because it seemed for a while that we were greeted as liberators.  Remember the high participation of ordinary Iraqis in the initial vote for a new leader?
The problem may have been that there were too many Iraqis who did not think like us, but it is also true that there were some who did.
Perhaps we also projected our idea of what radical Islamists were like, based on our knowledge of Bible-belt religious fundamentalists.  The book “The War on Truth” by Nafeez Ahmed shows that we supported bloodthirsty Jihadist groups against the Soviet Union, and the CIA  did not understand that you don’t help the wolf obtain its lunch, because after lunch, he decides you are dinner.
Much of the Anglo-world did not understand Hitler and his ambitions and his movement either.  Its easy to put yourself in Hitler’s shoes and say that he was trying to restore pride to Germany, after the humiliation of the Versailles treaty, and that his goals were limited.
in the early years after Hitler took the reins of power, an American traveling through Germany wrote this:
‘Fascism? The right thing for Germany.’
And on August 21, 1937 – two years before the war that would claim 50 million lives broke out – he wrote: ‘The Germans really are too good – therefore people have ganged up on them to protect themselves.’
And in a line which seems directly plugged into the racial superiority line plugged by the Third Reich he wrote after travelling through the Rhineland: ‘The Nordic races certainly seem to be superior to the Romans.’
This American was the young JFK.
Americans did not start the war with Hitler.  His motives did not make sense to a lot of people back then.  He declared war on the U.S.A right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Ironically I think Shenkman makes a similar mistake in misreading motives.  He says, for example, that Americans were bewildered to see hundreds of thousands of frenzied people in the Middle East celebrating the 9/11 attacks.  “Rather than face that we might be at fault, we decided that those demonstrators did not understand us.”  Shenkman feels they had a real motive to dislike us – we are big and powerful and “sometimes careless with the lives of those who live in other countries.”
But I think Shenkman himself is misunderstanding the situation.  People can hate you because of real grievances, but they can be taught to hate you because of culture, religion, ideology, racism, paranoia, conspiracy thinking, etc.  I think even attitudes that seem to be pure emotion do always have a reason, but not necessarily the reason the demonstrators give when asked.  It has been argued that an American ideology of limited government and free speech and free economy can be seen as a subversive threat to ideologues with a strong idea of how their fellows should live.  Those ideologues then deceive their fellow citizens.
A very large percent of the world’s population lives in countries that are not free.  A substantial number of people, even in the United States, do not believe in minimal interference in other people’s lives.
But as far as the world leaders of the various dictatorships, we might ask whether a hunter-gatherer group of maybe 150 people would let such leaders govern them?
I remember speaking with a white man who had lived with small black tribes in an undeveloped part of Africa, and he said to me that those tribes did not have problems with sex predators and other miscreants.  They recognized such people early, and administered justice quickly.
huntergatherers
In our complex world, we are more likely to be deceived  JFK and Nixon may both have been patriotic, but neither were the people we thought they were.  Obama, in my view, is not who his followers thought he was.
Unfortunately, as Canadian poet David Solway writes:
 Political naiveté is often maintained to the death, as in the case of the …the Iranian leftists who ardently backed Ayatollah Khomeini’s overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy, only to find themselves rotting in Evin prison.
On top of this, Shenkman lists appalling stats on ignorance in the U.S.  In this age of ubiquitous information, of the internet and of big data, nearly 25 percent of high school students cannot identify Adolf Hitler.  Its been said people don’t learn from history, but these people don’t even know history.
And they vote.
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One thought on “Why is the world so full of bad leaders?

  1. I think that it is absolutely the case that a huge proportion of human problems — not just political ones — are directly related to the legacy of our hunter-gatherer culture. And rather than developing an elaborate model, as Shenkman has, I would point to just three main problem areas: tribalism itself (the desire to attach oneself to a group and obey its precepts); belief systems (which are often the price of admission to many groups, and all religions and cults); and emotion (which is always encouraged by tribal groupings of all kinds and which is incompatible with clear thinking).

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