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September 11, 2012



Why does politics remain so macho when the evidence suggests that machismo leads to poor decisions?


Luis Enrique

I'd be interested to see whether male or female voters are biased for or against male or female politicians. I've seen a couple of studies of sexism in which gender discrimination turned out to be women against women (the experiments were scripts sent to theaters, and CVs sent with photos). But I'd guess male voters are biased against women.


Cialdini (Influence) argues that uncertainty leads to inaction, and thus to get action you need to dispel that uncertainty.

It doesn't seem to matter, however, whether that certainty is false or not. So you get the paradox that people will follow a strong leader even when he/she is wrong, but won't follow a leader who is more likely to be right, because the very traits that make for better judgement put potential followers off.

The real problem is that (if Cialdini is right) this paradox results from things hard-wired into human nature, so macho leadership accompanied by poor decision-making will be very hard to uproot (whether in politics, business or elsewhere). Non-macho leaders, no matter how superior their judgement, will always struggle to find followers.


What's striking of democracy is its ability to select the wrong people (either men or women), people who not only do not appear to display the human and intellectual abilities that top political jobs are supposed to require, but people who more often than not lack the expected integrity.

Take Italy: the respectable Mario Monti was not elected, while his predecessor (Berlusconi) repeatedly was.
In France, voters faced the unappealing choice of Sarkozy vs Hollande (and even Segolène Royal five years earlier).
The republican US nominee insulted the Brits when he visited the Olympics.
In Switzerland, we are very lucky at the moment, because we have one or two seemingly competent federal counselors (out of 7, including 3 women). Such times are scarce, more often than not, it is zero out of 7.

The problem is not that the political selection process is macho, the problem is that it works very badly.

Account Deleted

You're making a category error by equating government with business, and ironically perpetuating the myth that businessmen have an innate talent for government, in part because they self-present as decisive.

Politicians are not selected for their ability to do well in a particular job (an election is not an interview, at least not since the days of rotten boroughs), so the evidence that women may be "better" than men in roles requiring judgement is irrelevant. All that matters is who can manoeuvre their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Machismo is often denigrated as a symptom of weakness (thus Foot, via Mae West, was implying that Owen had a small dick), but its very existence is an acknowledgement of the reality of male power and the expectation of certain men that they can dominate women at will.

Politics reflects power. Our society continues to suffer from entrenched sexism. Why should we be surprised that the gender balance of the cabinet reflects this?


@ Richardveryard, Fromarse - I don't think I'm naive enough to think that the point of politics is to produce good policies. I think I've said often enough that the state exists to support capitalist hierarchies. I think this post just sort of amplifies that point.
@ Luis - I wouldn't be surprised if many women were biased against women - the Daily Mail's business model is predicated upno this. But my point here isn't about the need for women in politics so much as a (traditional?) feminine mentality - the recognition of uncertainty and amibguity, and less overconfidence.


"a (traditional?) feminine mentality - the recognition of uncertainty and amibguity"

Also the traditional mentality of the Civil Service, and of the British Establishment more widely: "One the one hand ... on the other hand ...", shades of grey, etc.

Now irredeemably (?) associated with imperial and national decline.

Account Deleted

Chris, you're on dodgy territory in assuming that there is such a thing as a "feminine mentality", or even that there is an equivalent male mentality relatively lacking in ambiguity. These are mere constructs, just as much as the more obviously superstructural nonsense of machismo.

The biological determinism that holds that women are better at recognising uncertainty is just the modern equivalent of the belief that wombs induce hysteria.


I remember my games of Monopoly as a teenager which I would play with some lads and one girl. I would often go bust half way through the game whilst the girl would accrete a quiet and cautious fortune for herself and finally clean out all of us lads. Grrr!

So I reckon Chris has definitely put his finger on something here.

john malpas

The marriage game is far too profitable for females to give it up for real work.


@ Fromarse - By "feminine mentality" I had in mind the Bem sex role inventory results. I agree this is a construct: I've said so meself:
However, it doesn't follow that the construct isn't useful. It is - paradoxically in the precisely opposite way from which it has traditionally been used.


However, it doesn't follow that the construct isn't useful. It is - paradoxically in the precisely opposite way from which it has traditionally been used.

Exactly - now all of a sudden 'traditional', 'feminine' attributes are being cited as a source of virtue (not least by feminists who really ought to know better): see the debate about women and finance over at the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/aug/20/women-in-finance-50-years

Burnell risks conflating the behaviour (overconfidence or 'machismo') with biology (men/women)...or are there no overconfident ('macha'?) women who go into business or politics?


This is a bit vague. What is a bad decision in this context? Can you evaluate a political decision without adopting an ideological stance your self as the person doing the evaluation? Surely not. So then evaluation depends on your political beliefs or prejudices. The Government seems to me to be extremely right wing; but lots of tory MPs seem to think Cameron is the new Karl Marx. For me right wing decisions are always wrong as I come from a different place.

If you think ideology should not determine decisions then party politics is a failure by definition and always must be. A political party and its activists and donors are unrepresentative of the average person by definition. Political leaders are drawn from this unrepresentative group of people. The search for a politician who is a "regular guy" and who you might like to have a beer with is an exercise in fantasy. None of them are regular guys or girls they are political nerds.

It is surely a good idea to have a non partisan civil service to act as a counter weight to ideological extremism? You could also select the upper house by a lottery from the whole population and thus divorce its members from electoral politics. But as politics has no one metric of success your evaluation of the new system like your evaluation of the old is moot.


Things have come to a pretty pass when THIS is considered macho...



A big part of machismo can be seen in the Rob Marchant/Hopi Sen tendency to insist "there is no more money" - if you quiz them on the sense of this, it comes back to "no more money" is a statement of "adultness" or rather, machismo...

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