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What Debate? Obama v. Romney Was Incumbent Alpha v. Challenge Alpha

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Setting aside the nostrum that this election is unique in modern times and probably the most important of our lifetimes, a trope which is repeated every four years, what you and I saw on Tuesday had almost nothing to do with genuine philosophical differences. This was not Cato vs. Caesar, Adams vs. Jefferson, or even Lincoln vs. Douglas. This was incumbent alpha vs. challenge alpha in a chest thumping display of dyadic conflict designed to determine who will occupy the top position in a dominance hierarchy.


Should we expect anything different from two politicians who have conspicuously appeared in public bare-chested? Should we expect anything different from two politicians who have conspicuously appeared in public bare-chested? (Herehere, and here). (Kind of reminds me of this guy.)

The question we were called upon to answer on Tuesday was not whose philosophy is true, but instead who is the Big Man. Anthropologically, it was more like a pre-modern Polynesian chieftain conflict than anything like a real debate. By that standard, and that seems to be the standard that anyone cares about, Romney won the first debate against Obama. You see, Romney glared at Obama, and Obama’s eyes dropped, a standard act of submission. Romney was louder, Obama softer. Romney interrupted more, mastering both Obama and Jim Lehrer. Romney was the Big Man.

This week, Obama did not look down. He and Romney engaged in an elaborate dance of territorial disputes, crossing into one another’s personal space, striding fearlessly around the arena of conflict. Hand raised above the other in a stylistic analogue of physical blows. The screen crawl of Twitter feeds which ran at the bottom of the screen of the station I happened to be watching the debate on actually had a comment wondering if it would come to blows. But it would not: in this setting, alphas don’t strike, at least not with their bodies. They strike with their words.


The strikes were strikes at the truthfulness and competence, nay, even virility of the other. What the other guy said “Just isn’t true.” He’s misrepresented my record. He can’t get it, that oil production is up. I, on the other hand, have a binder full of females. That one won’t protect you from flood and fire. He won’t bring bread to the village to feed the vulnerable ones. He does not dominate the trader class as I do, but is dominated by the trader class. I’m the Big Man.

And why should be we surprised? Our nation has been on the path to tribalism for some time. Why shouldn’t we choose the chief to which we hail the same way the world has chosen its chiefs for millennia? Youth, physical vitality, territorial boldness, the will to dominance, tribal alliances, these are the ways men and women naturally choose leaders unless some set of ideas, some civilizing impulse raises them above that natural level. For America that set of ideas was found in the Declaration of Independence.

But nobody was talking about the Declaration on Tuesday, about being endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights, about absolute limits on the power of the state, about property rights: that kind of talk is so GOP primary. Tuesday was more Who’s Your Daddy? Who will take care of you? Who will provide for your needs?

Most commentators focused on the anthropological dominance struggle, a few focused on the tiny shards of philosophical disagreements, but I’ve been focusing on the areas of agreement between the two candidates. I find their overlap to be more important than their divergence, because their overlap is the one thing I know we’re sure to get for the next four years. The items they disagree on have something like a 50/50 probability (or if Intrade is right, a 65/35 probability), but the stuff that they share is a lock.


One of C.S. Lewis’ best essays is the under-appreciated “On The Reading of Old Books”, in which he makes the case for thoughtful people to use the classics as a tool to transcend the thoughtless pieties of one’s own age.

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.”


Obama and Romney, at least this week, seemed to “[unite]…by a great mass of common assumptions.” Here’s a partial list of them:

·         The welfare state is a good idea, the only question is who can administer it more effectively.

·         The rich do not pay too much in taxes; the only question is whether the tax codes should redistribute through differentials in tax rates or through differentials in tax deductions.

·         The college bubble is not big enough already, and government should continue to distort capital markets towards artificially high levels of college expenditures.

·         We should be ‘energy independent’, meaning we should not import energy from other parts of the world.

·         The continued devaluation of the dollar is nothing to be concerned about.

·         It is the proper role of the U.S. military not just to punish the regime in Afghanistan which harbored Osama Bin Laden, but to build a prosperous democracy there. The only difference is how long we try before giving up.

·         The U.S. probably should have similar roles in various other Middle Eastern countries. The only difference being whether we should ‘lead’ from the front or from behind.


·         America should have a large diplomatic contingent in every nation on earth and should engage in extensive government-to-government financial aid to the third world. The only difference is to what degree that aid should be conditional or unconditional.

·         The President’s job is to take care of you.

·         It is okay for you as voters to think of yourself primarily as members of a group, a tribe; young, old; male, female; rich, poor. There are no fixed principles of reason which transcend these differences and which are every bit of true of the billionaire, private-jet riding, oil executive and the saintly, suffering single mom working at the diner for tips. You are your group and should vote as such. The only difference is which chief will most effectively bear the needed gifts to your particular group.

These are the truisms, what Jacques Ellul calls the Commonplaces of the modern political world. They are bigger than the differences. I won’t have any problem going into the booth next month and choosing Romney over Obama; I’m a realist. But being a realist, I acknowledge that the problems America faces are deeper than the differences between those men; that a Romney victory is at best a stopgap measure; that tribal government comes out of tribal politics and tribal politics comes out of tribal thinking. In the long run, what we need is truth, not tribe.



 Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for

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