Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Elephant politics

February 17, 2023

The symbol of the Democratic Party is a jackass, the Republican symbol an elephant. A fascinating book on elephant society helps explain why Republican officials act like jackasses.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

In “Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse,” Stanford University professor Caitlin O’Connell offers insights and observations from more than 20 summers of field work in the Etosha National Park and elephant preserve in Namibia.

Most of the action involves the Mushara water hole and what she calls the boys' club: mature and maturing male elephants, who live separately from the cows and their offspring. Both groups live in hierarchical societies, with a dominant bull or cow on top, and established, but mutable, pecking orders below them. 

O’Connell set up shop at Mushara for two months every summer and recorded the behaviors of dozens of animals she had come to know well, by their ears, scars, tusks and other markers. She and her team collected dung from specific elephants and analyzed them for DNA, testosterone levels and stress-linked cortisols to see if they correlate with behaviors.

For at least four years, the top bull elephant was a fellow she calls Greg. He got first dibs at the clean water that flowed through a chute into the water hole. Lower-ranking males had to drink the muddy water lower down.

Greg and his top lieutenants exercised their privilege by butting the lower ranks away from the chute, or cutting them off as they tried to approach it, or simply giving them a look and flapping their ears.


At no point does O’Connell compare elephant society with U.S. politics. This is on me, based on her reports from four successive summers, from 2005 to 2008: a dry year, a wet year, another dry year, then another wet year.

In the dry years, the hierarchy is fairly rigid. No one, except the occasional bull in musth, dares to challenge Greg, or his second- and third-ranked companions. But during the 2006 wet year, the boys' club shrank, and there was more hustling among the lower ranks for higher status. 

O’Connell theorizes that’s because in a summer with more food available, it’s easier for low-ranking males to break up into smaller groups and visit their own water holes, without needing to obey, and be bullied by, the dominant bulls.

Sure enough, in the dry summer of 2007, the boys' club reunited, hierarchy was reasserted, and more from the lower ranks resigned themselves to the pecking order.

(One way an elephant shows submission is by sticking his trunk into the mouth of the dominant bull. O’Connell compares it to Mafia lieutenants kissing the ring of the capo di tutti capi, which is why she calls Greg the Elephant Don.)

In the wet summer of 2008, the pattern of 2006 repeated. The boys' club shrank as smaller groups went off on their own, and there was more jostling for power, even to the point that it looked like Greg might be knocked off his top spot.

To sum up this aspect of her fascinating and well-written book, O’Connell says that in times of scarcity and stress, elephants recognize the need to follow a powerful and presumably wiser strongman. But in times of plenty, when there’s no need for that, they are more likely to go their own way.

This explains, to me, why today’s Republican Party has become the Party of Doom, telling us over and over, that we’re on the Edge of a Precipice!, with jackass Democrats leading the way.

In this way, Republicans try to put the fear of god — actually, hell — into a closely divided country, hoping that we poorer, lower-status beasts would be more likely to follow the lead of a strongman.

This is evident every day in Congress and statehouses, nowhere more clearly than in Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ response to President Biden’s State of the Union address. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie analyzed this in a splendid Valentine’s Day column, citing Sanders’ claim that, by teaching Black history in public schools, “our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race,” and that “big government” wants to “strip away the most American thing there is: your freedom of speech.”

Hard to beat that for unintended irony, or, let’s call it what it is — idiocy. Damn Democrats want to muzzle our freedom of speech, and, by the way, teachers should not be allowed to teach Black history.

For the record, slavery was legal on our shores for 172 years, 1691-1863, longer than the 160 years it has been prohibited.

These Republican idiocies are not peculiar to the United States. Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and like-minded neo-Fascists in Turkey, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere follow the same script, by plan, that nature forced upon the elephants of Namibia: Things are bad. We are surrounded by enemies, foreign and domestic. They repeat this message endlessly, whether it is true or not. Better for all of us if we follow the strongman.

(Caitlin O’Connell’s “Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse” was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015. I repeat: She suggested no such parallels as I did in this column.)

Categories / Op-Ed

Subscribe to our columns

Want new op-eds sent directly to your inbox? Subscribe below!