They say politics is show business for ugly people. And if one scans the entire series of U.S. presidential portraits, that zinger does seem to write itself. Starting with the rouged poltergeists who founded this nation, on to the stolid walruses of the 19th Century and the lipless Babbitts who carried the earth’s oldest continuous democracy into modern times, this anthology of male imperfection evokes nothing so much as an extended happy hour at the Star Wars Mos Eisley cantina. This is not to slight the great men who gave the world its greatest gift in the form of America, but indeed our diaphanous founding fathers, in particular, were almost literally red, white, and blue.
No doubt, some blame rests with styles of period dress and portraiture. But still, we’ve traveled a long and glamorous path. Faced with the creature beauty on display among the 2008 presidential frontrunners, one is forced to give the old “ugly people” line a rethink. Contemplating the Romney jaw, Obama mouth, Edwards dimple, McCain eye, and Hillary cheekbone, it seems the class of ’08 looks less like a collection of presidential candidates than the preposterous cast of a primetime drama about presidential candidates.
How did this happen? Is it possible that this presidential pageant reflects more than an increasing emphasis on aesthetics, or the universal dynamic of chance? Might one even be able to mount an argument for our democracy’s virtue based on so shallow an observation? I believe so. In fact, I think the pretty bloom of catwalk candidates is visual confirmation of democracy’s superiority over the gnarled roots of the English monarchy.
Evolutionary psychologists have, for years, observed one of the key features of human attractiveness to be vertical symmetry. In a 1994 study of several hundred college students, for example, Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad found that “the most symmetrical males had started having sex three to four years earlier than their most lopsided brethren.” That’s not earth shattering, and there are many more studies that back up the claim. However, the argument’s next premise is sure to raise the hackles of every right-thinking liberal who loves his fellow man. Here goes: Physical symmetry is robustly correlated with high intelligence. That is to say, good-looking people tend to be smarter than their “lopsided brethren.” At best, detractors label this phrenology, at worst eugenics. But the data is there. In 2004, for example, Mark D. Prokosch found that physical symmetry “more strongly predicts intelligence than brain size, nerve conduction velocity, reaction time reliability, and a number of other measures.” (As you begin to compile counter-examples in you head, understand I’ll give you some [I wouldn’t want Keanu Reeves on my debating team], but not other’s [Einstein was, I think, a handsome young man.]) There are a great many exceptions to this trend, and I’m glad of it. I’d hate to live in a predictable world of beautiful geniuses and doltish ogres. The exceptions, as it turns out, are a big part of this story.
So, based on this line of research, our attractive presidential candidates are likely to have a few neurons firing. This itself is cause for celebration, but so too is the way we got here. As America has grown into a more perfect democracy, the aristocratic network that once helped to secure prominent positions has given way to a demonstrable meritocracy. In other words, as freedom and opportunity opened up to more Americans, the cream rose to the top.
A remarkable number of America’s first presidents are believed to have been of some royal lineage. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, J.Q. Adams, Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, and Buchanan. That’s eight out of the first fifteen. We know that royal blood secures that descriptor by maintaining reproductive exclusivity: Royals bed royals. Now, whatever genetic imperfections these early presidents bore, they were, mostly, brilliant. Within the symmetry-intelligence framework, they were, like the country they invented, exceptional. But more to the point, as the U.S. moved further away from the strictures of the English class structure, claims to royalty opened fewer doors. Freed of blue-blood determinism, the course of U.S. history was charted more frequently (and more effectively) by self-made Americans. Or at least, the progeny of self-made Americans, which still beats the divine right of kings by a healthy margin. Watching the 2008 election unfold, we’re witness to the comely legacy of that shift. Our radiant, twinkling, and smoldering candidates are clear indications of the health of our democracy.
This year’s frontrunners would have been laughed, smugly, from the royal court. The handsome collection of mutts comes from stocks as varied as Scots-Irish, Mexican, Swedish, Welsh, and Kenyan. In fact, there is no eugenics in my argument, whatsoever. The beautiful face of the American candidate is an instant anti-eugenics argument. Freedom and democracy are the most discriminating breeders ever known. As it turns out, America is not only the oldest continuous democracy on the planet, but also one of history’s longest successful marriages-and a gay one at that: the blessed union of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Jefferson.
If you don’t think much of this argument, or you find it too heavy on exceptions, I urge you to take a gander across the pond. Charles Phillip Arthur George, the nominal Prince of Wales, who’s sported the face of ill-proportioned adolescence further into adulthood than any man in history, is also due to be King of England. In no ways exceptional, Charles is walking confirmation of the looks-IQ paradigm. Erase the great experiment of America, and we’d be poised to kneel at the throne of this dull and cowardly man who makes Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich look like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Abe Greenwald is the assistant online editor at Commentary.