The Earthling

Styles of Polygamy 

Clinton philandered; Dole left his wife. Who’s the worse “character”?

One of the great applause-getters in Bob Dole’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention was, “It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.” Pretty nervy line, coming from a man who left his first wife and their daughter. Then again, some people found it nervy when Bill Clinton, at a Memphis church in 1993, delivered his famous sermon on family values. All that stands between Clinton and bushels of illegitimate children, after all, is contraceptive technology.
       It seems to me we have rough parity between Clinton and Dole in the personal failings department, at least as far as “family values” go. Yet Clinton’s escapades are generally perceived as constituting a “character” problem, whereas Dole’s divorce gets only the occasional raised eyebrow. Am I confused, or is America confused? In an attempt to settle this question impartially, I will now put on my lab coat and take up the tools of modern science. We will dissect the question of which (if either) is worse–Clinton’s infidelity or Dole’s divorce. 

But first let me stress that, although I will eventually shift into moral-indignation mode, I have deep sympathy for both men. They are, after all, Earthlings. They were created by the process of natural selection and thus, are inherently absurd–driven by impulses that exist today only because they helped our ancestors transmit their genes.
       Consider the extreme thirst for status and power found in male homo sapiens in general and Clinton and Dole in particular. According to evolutionary psychologists, this thirst exists because during evolution, it led to lots of offspring. Those of our male ancestors who most doggedly climbed to the top of the local status hierarchy were often rewarded with sex partners–either multiple wives (the Dole approach) or multiple lovers (the Clinton approach).
       Hence the cruel irony facing Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Dole: From nature’s point of view, a central purpose of pursuing status is to convert it into sex. Yet, demonstrated success in making this conversion is now deemed a disadvantage in the quest for the highest-status slot in the world. The very point of being alpha male is considered evidence, in modern America, of unfitness for the job! Talk about defeating the purpose. 

How did our culture get mired in this puritanical paradox? Well, consider the limited menu of options:
1. Polygamy. This is the natural state of our species. Then again, the natural state of our species is also a small hunter-gatherer society, with little wealth and thus, only mild inequalities of status and power among men. In this “ancestral environment,” large harems were rare; competition for women, though intense, was seldom epically intense. But then came agriculture and other sources of economic surplus. Suddenly some males could be way more powerful than others. The commensurately massive sexual rewards made men ill-inclined to play by Marquess of Queensberry rules. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most prolific genetic replicator in the history of our species was the last Sharifian emperor of Morocco, who had 888 offspring. He was known as Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty. Get the picture?
       And, in polygamous societies, low-status males weren’t exactly pacifists either. With scads of women monopolized by the well-to-do, less fortunate men could get mighty lonely and become very unhappy campers. This volatile discontent may be the reason that, as anthropologist Laura Betzig has shown, polygamy and authoritarianism have gone hand in hand. Back when the Zulu king was entitled to more than 100 women, coughing or spitting at his dinner table was punishable by death.
       In this sense, monogamy meshes better than polygamy with the egalitarian values of a democracy. One-man-one-vote, one-man-one-wife. Unfortunately, monogamy is hard to sustain given our species’ naturally polygamous bent. And that’s especially true in a place like America, with great status inequality. Rich or powerful married men feel an extravagant sense of sexual entitlement, and many women feel like gratifying it. Hence option No. 2: 

2 Serial monogamy. This is what we have now. You can acquire a second spouse so long as you discard the first one. This is basically a covert, and mild, form of polygamy: High-status males get to monopolize more than one fertile woman. Thus Dole, having risen from crippled war veteran to U.S. senator, traded in his 47-year-old first wife–as her fertility was expiring–for a 39-year-old. (This isn’t to say Dole was pondering his wives’ relative fertility.) But serial monogamy has a big downside not shared by polygamy: Lots of kids get reared either without fathers or with stepfathers, who often lack the Darwinian devotion of a biological father–and who may even be downright hostile. As evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson showed in their book Homicide, children not reared by both biological parents are at greatly elevated risk of physical abuse, even murder. That’s one piece of the larger truth at the heart of the “family-values” crusade: Divorce and unwed motherhood are bad for kids. True monogamy, then, would seem a very worthwhile institution. But if monogamy is at odds with human nature, how do you keep it from metamorphosing into serial monogamy?

3 Monogamy Victorian style. When high-status males leave their wives for a younger model, you can stigmatize them, damaging their social, and even professional, standing. In 19th-century Britain, this tough love helped keep the divorce rate near zero even amid the stark status inequality of a modern nation. Note its ingeniousness: To repress the powerful polygamous impulse in men, you employ their equally powerful thirst for social status. The irony facing Dole–that converting your status into multiple wives can threaten the status itself–is thus a remnant, though greatly diluted, of our Victorian heritage.
       The central theme of Dole’s campaign is that he embodies the Victorian values that were still robust in the America of his youth. He says he stands for “God, family, honor, duty, country.” Well one duty, back then, was to stay with your family. In explaining his divorce, Dole says his marriage had become unhappy. But if doing your duty was easy, they wouldn’t call it “duty,” would they?
       It’s not enough to note that Dole’s daughter Robin was 17 when he divorced, and now seems well adjusted. Children of her socioeconomic class obviously stand a better-than-average chance of recovery. But the (factually correct) premise of Victorian morality was that one person’s transgression, if unpunished, invites emulation. That’s true in spades for society’s biggest role models–senators, presidents, etc. Dole’s divorce, in some incalculable but not trivial way, makes other divorces more likely–including divorces with more vivid casualties than his; including divorces that will push women and children into poverty. To elect a divorced president is to reject a central pillar of the moral order Dole says he’ll rebuild. 

And what about re-electing a world-class philanderer? Obviously, infidelity is a less-direct contributor to the divorce rate than divorce. Indeed, in some cultures, permissible infidelity is paired with stigmatized divorce as part of the family-values formula: high-status males get a mistress as compensation for sticking with their aging wives. And even in Victorian England–and in the America of Dole’s youth–a man’s infidelity was forgiven more readily than his desertion.
       But this doesn’t add up to an alibi for Clinton. Clinton’s infidelity, like Dole’s divorce, has consequences that aren’t merely local. The man is role model in chief. So it’s not an excuse that he didn’t get Gennifer Flowers pregnant. Sometimes, casual sex does get single women pregnant. And unwed motherhood is as big a part of the “family-values” problem as divorce. Clinton’s defenders sometimes cite the trysts of other presidents–Kennedy, FDR, even Ike in his WW II days. Well, those men lived back when it was possible to keep such things a secret. Which made them less culpable, under the perfectly logical hypocrisy of Victorian standards.
       In the end, I would say there is indeed rough moral parity between Clinton and Dole on the family-values front. Dole is marginally more vulnerable because his moralizing is more detailed, and thus its irony is more glaring. (“If I could by magic restore to every child who lacks a father or a mother, that father or that mother, I would,” he said at the San Diego convention. How about starting with your daughter?) Democrats historically have been more guarded in their family-values rhetoric. This probably represents a failure of vision, but it may partly represent a certain clarity of vision as well. It’s harder to be smug if you’re aware of your own failings. And it’s harder to yearn so unreservedly for the golden age of Victorian America if you realize that morality is like economics: There’s no free lunch.