American politicians are in serious trouble. They need to win votes, but their profession is among the least trusted. A Gallup poll in 2014 showed that 7 % of Americans thought that members of Congress had “high” or “very high” standards of honesty and ethics. Even folks in car sales business beat those in Congress by a notch in trustworthiness: 8%.

Take Republicans as an example. Although they have dominated Congress for several years, they are by no means popular. Surveys show that congressional job approval rates have hovered near single digits in recent years, sinking to as low as 9% in 2014. Apparently, many in Congress aren’t elected for their political merit.

We know this from the dramatic rise and fall of Ben Carson as a GOP presidential candidate. Carson apparently knew little beyond his specialty in neurosurgery. He claimed that Egyptian pyramids were used for storing grains and argued that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened had the Jews had guns. Even so, he enjoyed a moment of popularity for an unrelated reason: he wasn’t a politician. His political fate might have been totally different had his forged story of a scholarship from West Point remained hidden.

The fall of Carson removed a major rival for another political outsider, Donald Trump. Trump has been so popular that even his vulgar and offensive remarks can’t turn off his supporters. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” bragged the real estate mogul, “and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His anti-immigration and anti-Muslim talks can do little but fire up the conviction of his followers including many blue-collar workers, who are unlikely to gain from a Trump presidency. When voters shun Washington insiders, we know how deeply disappointed they are in politicians.

As Trump inches toward his nomination as GOP presidential candidate, cynicism has gone from brewing to sizzling: Is American democracy really a farce?

What can politicians do to turn the tide around, to win trust back from voters? A simple answer lies in the peacock’s tail.

You can get the idea by putting yourself in the shoes of a peahen. Your task is to pick the fittest dude from a bunch, all trying to convince you: “I am the one!” How can you tell the real deal from the phonies? The answer, according to evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi, is to look for the one with the most elaborate tail. The logic is simple: a peacock who bears such a tail has to be fit. Otherwise, he would have already succumbed to the scarcity of resources and abundance of predators. So, a large tail is itself a manifestation of male fitness, for wimps can’t afford such a luxury—a handicap. This idea is variously known as the handicap, indicator, good gene, or honest signaling hypothesis in evolutionary biology. It provides a compelling account for such questions as why male guppies sport orange spots on their bodies, why male birds in many species show off beautiful colors, and why male elks grow huge antlers. These glitzy ornaments are collectively known as sexually selected traits, many of which serve nothing but broadcast male fitness.

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This honest signaling system is no stranger to our own species. Party-going college males down bottles of alcohol drinks to prove their physical prowess in front of female peers. Many men take on big debts to buy their brides diamond rings as a symbol of fidelity. Priests in Buddhism, Catholicism, and many other religions forgo reproduction to evince their piety to the divine. Here, alcohol, diamonds, and celibacy are all handicaps serving the same end: walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Unfortunately, American politicians haven’t taken the advantage of donning handicaps to boost public trust. On the contrary, many suffer an image problem of being corrupt. To be specific, it is not the hard corruption such as taking bribes or kickbacks (which are rare, thanks to American laws) that turns voters off. Rather, it is the prevalence of soft corruption—corruption that is legal but unethical—that really deflates Americans’ trust for politicians.

Soft corruption can pop up whenever public and private interests collide, and we’ve seen it in patronage, lobbying, investment, campaign financing, the electoral process, and many other political arenas. Take unlimited campaign contributions by corporations for example. Despite their legality, a vast number of Americans see them as Faustian deals between money and politics, corroding the integrity of democracy. This is where Trump enjoys a clear edge over his Republican rivals. Funding his campaign with his own money, he is seen by many as untangled with special interests.

We now know what politicians can learn from peacocks: if you want to win public trust, you should show that you have no intention for a big payoff related to or as a result of your public service. You can prop up your promise by using public ceremonies, holding the Bible and swearing to God. Or more forcefully, you can do it the Japanese way, by cutting one of your pinkies off.

Off course, Americans aren’t so naïve as to believe that political rituals alone can serve as effective handicaps for trust. Ultimately, it is our political system that can make politicians wear the peacock’s tail. At present, however, our laws are far too feeble and limited to curb soft corruption. We are in a dire need for new legislations.

Clearly, much can be done to sever money from politics. For instance, we can raise public funds for political campaigns to free politicians from the influence of private money. We can shut the infamous “revolving door” by which politicians get paid later for their favor done to individuals, companies, and organizations. We can also bar ex-politicians from lobbying for special interest groups.

The question now is not whether we can boost our trust for American politics and politicians. Rather, it lies in whether we have the willpower to do it. And this is something we can’t learn from the peacock.

Published On: April 12, 2016

Lixing Sun

Lixing Sun

Lixing Sun is currently a Professor of Biology at Central Washington University. He studies, teaches, and writes about animal behavior, human nature, evolution, and behavioral economics.


  • John Strate says:

    The author’s argument seems to have hit the target’s bulls eye. It’s been difficult for political scientists to show what campaign money purchases other than access. My guess is that it’s “protection money.” Those members of Congress receiving campaign money won’t support and may actively oppose legislation that negatively impacts their contributors. Perhaps some legislation is introduced for the sole purpose of making it easy to shake down campaign money from fearful special interests. I wrote my member of Congress, Debbie Dingell, complaining about the money she’s received from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a major health insurer. How can you be a supporter of single payer (Medicare for All) when you’re taking money from a major insurer? Short answer–you can’t. I’ve not heard back from her office. Refusing to take money from special interests definitely would be a politician’s form of costly signalling. I’ll not hold my breath waiting for this to happen. The obvious reform is public financing of campaigns, but members won’t go there because it would diminish the advantage of incumbency.

    • Lixing Sun says:

      Indeed, as the Germans say, “Do good things and let it be known,” American politicians could easily win a lot of votes by doing the right thing (such as OPENLY rejecting money from interest groups). I am just curious as to why so many of them are so obsessed with raising campaign money as to forget this more effective handicap strategy. Any insights?

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