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Trudeau, Obama, and Trump Walk Into a Bar…

They are immediately greeted by a chorus of:

“Oh la la, Justin… votre père aurait été si fier!”1

“Yo, B.O., last call?”

“Whoa, Donald… how’d you get in here?  We didn’t know you were coming.”


Not really.


The recent media coverage of American and Canadian politics has been making me reflect on how political leadership is understood by different groups in our society.

Perhaps “reflect” is too serious a word; this is more along the lines of “somewhat linear, probably naïve, and possibly nonsensical musings from deep within the strange and unpredictable workings of my brain, which has become far too obsessed with Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling novels.”  Allow me to digress for a moment:

The Psy/Changeling novels are a paranormal romance/urban fantasy series about a world inhabited by three races: regular humans, with no special abilities; an intellectually-advanced humanoid species known as the Psy, who are born with various aptitudes for telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation; and Changelings, creatures who are both human and animal and can change into either form at will, and whose social organization is based on the pack animal hierarchies found in the real world.

A fan (not me, I swear!) once asked Ms. Singh whether she has researched actual pack animal behaviour, because her descriptions of Changeling pack life are so detailed and nuanced.  She replied that she has, indeed, done a lot of research on the topic; however, she keeps in mind that the Changelings are human as well, so she isn’t necessarily translating the way pack animals behave directly onto how the Changelings interact in the books.  The Changelings have fully integrated both their animal and human natures.

When I first began this series, what was most notable to me was how the Changelings conceive “dominance” and “submission” within their pack hierarchies. Sincere apologies to Ms. Singh if I get this wrong:  dominant pack members are not considered superior to submissive members, and, likewise, submissives aren’t considered inferior to dominants. Those designations are simply the way Changelings determine the responsibilities each pack member has, because all of those responsibilities are needed to maintain the overall health of the pack.

That’s why the pack hierarchy must be maintained at all costs: not in order to keep pack members – especially the submissives – “in their place”, but in order to ensure that all the functions and duties that are necessary for a healthy pack are being taken care of.  If the hierarchy is broken for any reason, pack members will start to feel confused, anxious and, nervous.  This can quickly escalate to feeling unsafe, which is a dangerous situation for beings who are as fully animal as they are human.  Because what happens when animals feel unsafe?  They lash out in violence.


It is often said that humans are pack animals, despite all of our technological advances, trappings of civilization, and strict adherence to the ideology of individualism (in so-called Western societies, at least). It is also often said that our pack-like tendencies are the most obvious during an election period. Lots of time and energy has been spent on trying to figure out why we humans identify so strongly with one political party – and, significantly, one political party leader – over another.  Here’s my theory (and I use that term very loosely):

Politics is, fundamentally, about deciding which party is going to best use our society’s resources and capacities to ensure our safety: economic, social, etc.  Our human brains, with their comparatively overdeveloped neo-cortices, generally understand this.  Our pack animal brains, however, don’t.  While our human brains may care about a party’s position on environmental policy, or its approach to market regulation, our pack animal brains are only concerned with whether the “alpha” of the party is dominant enough to keep us safe. This explains why the cult of personality is such a central feature in election campaigns, regardless of a party’s political stripe.

In a society that is as fundamentally inequitable as ours, though, “safety” is a complicated issue, because one group’s safety often comes at the expense of another’s. Consider, for a moment, what safety looks like in a Changeling pack: safety isn’t achieved by marginalizing the submissives to the advantage of the dominants. It’s achieved through a hierarchy that requires the positions of all pack members to be equally valued.

Our society, however, is still largely based on a hierarchy that requires the “dominants” to ensure safety by disenfranchising, subordinating, and even murdering2, the “submissives” whenever they don’t “stay in their place”.

But here’s the rub: our society is also based on a democracy, which is meant to be the reverse of a hierarchy. It’s meant to be a system where both dominants and submissives are equally valued, and have the collective power to choose an “alpha” to serve them, not to lead them.

Despite the fact that it is built into a fundamentally stratified, hierarchical system, democracy has certainly helped us progress towards equality between our dominants and submissives, which makes some groups of people feel safe. This is one way to explain the currency of  political leaders (“alphas”) like Obama or Trudeau.

On the other hand, the hierarchical system is a very powerful draw for many other groups of people (mainly, but not exclusively, dominants, because hegemony! And kyriarchy!), because it makes them feel safe.  This is one way to explain the currency of political leaders like Trump.

This makes me wonder:  what would it take for us to live in a democratic society where our safety didn’t come at the expense of others’? Is this even possible, given our pack animal-like need for the comfort of a hierarchy? Does that need make democracy, ultimately, a fool’s errand?  I don’t know…

To paraphrase that guy who may or may not have been Winston Churchill3, “Democracy is a hot mess, but at least it’s not as messy as the all other sh*t we’ve tried before.”

So, maybe we just need to get better at it.


1 According to Google Translate, that means, “Your father would have been so proud!”

2 Both within and outside the law.

3 Winston Churchill did say it but, apparently, he was paraphrasing someone else.

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