A Final Thought (Maybe)

I’m listening to Bartok.  The Miraculous Mandarin, a recording by the St. Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting.

Earlier I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR.  A report caught my attention about—you guessed it—why Mitt Romney lost.  Or, more to the point, why he almost won.  It had to do with something I find utterly baffling about the American political consciousness.  I don’t know, maybe it’s true everywhere.

Basically, that during most of the campaign Romney ran on issues and did little to “let people know him personally.”  This, according to the report, was the cause of his low approval numbers.  People didn’t “like” him because he seemed cold and distant.  In August, his campaign turned that around by presenting a more “homey” Mitt, highlighting his “personality” and his “likeableness.”

It worked.  Suddenly people warmed to him, his approval rating rose, and, as we saw, he took 48% of the popular vote, something six months earlier seemed unlikely in the extreme.

Because people liked him.

It reminded me of George W. Bush’s first campaign, when we kept hearing this “he seems like a guy I could sit down and have a beer with.”

As it turned out, that quality did not translate into good policy.  Honestly, there are many people I like but I wouldn’t even let them watch my dog.  Like does not translate to ability.

So my reaction was—is—what the hell?

What this tells me is that a candidate can misrepresent, lie, withhold, distort, tease, and otherwise spew nonsense, but if the voters like him, none of that matters.  (Let me remind you, Romney kept to a very casual relation to the truth in the debates; none of this is arguable, he either didn’t know what he was talking about or flat out lied.)  Furthermore, as I indicated early in the election cycle, he was an advocate for a failed policy.  People have had it demonstrated to them by everything short of utter and total economic collapse that the fiscal and tax policies of the GOP have not worked.

And yet.

People will ignore measures of competence, reasonableness, sound judgment, and policy and vote for someone because they like him?

For the record, I’ve done the reverse myself—voted for someone because I didn’t like his or her opponent.  I get that. (Heck, I did it this time.)  They did or said something that turned me off.  But frankly, how much I liked the candidate for whom I voted played little part in my decision.

This is something that beggars the imagination.  I deal with this in the arts all the time.  Basically, there is the artist…and there is the work.  It is the work that matters.  I don’t care (usually) if the artist is the reincarnation of Simon Legree, if the work he or she produces has merit, that is what counts.  (Yes, there are exceptions, but it takes a great deal to force me to abandon this principle.)  What matters if So-n-So was an alcoholic womanizer who kicked puppies, if the novel he wrote or the music he made moves and inspires us, that is the salient point.

So to—perhaps more so—with politicians.  I want someone who will do the job well, not someone I might be able to “sit down and have a beer with.”

Like that would ever happen anyway.

I didn’t respond to the nonsense about Romney putting his dog in a crate on the roof of his car, because it had nothing to do with his qualifications as a potential president.  We try to ignore the religious leanings of candidates for the same reason.  Personal foible, the vagaries of “character” are slippery, tectonic grounds on which to base such an important decision.  I don’t care how much I might “like” a candidate for the school board, if he or she doesn’t understand basic science or thinks the Earth is the center of the solar system, I will not vote for that person.  Competence trumps personality.

(Besides, how the hell are we supposed to gauge “like” or “dislike” in such a context?  No matter what the image presented may be, none of us know that person, nor will likely ever know them.  “Like” in this case is purely a projection, our own hopes and desires put on someone we may never meet in person.  We aren’t “liking” them so much as liking what we want of ourselves that we imagine reflected in the candidate.)

Back in 1952, Adlai Stevenson, possibly the most intelligent, educated, and competent politician vying for high office, lost to Eisenhower because, as it was spun at the time, he was an intellectual elitist.  I think we were fortunate that Eisenhower possessed a competence of a different sort, but the fact is people did not vote for him because of that competence, but because “We Like Ike!”  Kennedy defeated Nixon because of his “personality.”  (Famously, the debates held showed an interesting divergence—those who listened on radio said Nixon had won, those who watched on television said Kennedy had.  Depending on the medium, “personality” favored the candidate who could appeal best through the insubstantiality of “likeableness.”)  Hubert Humphrey lost to Nixon because he could not translate policy competence into the kind of popular “like” that Bobby Kennedy clearly had.  George McGovern, four years later, never overcame a certain dourness, which is something when you consider that Nixon was possibly the least likeable president since Coolidge.

And on that note, it is only in recent years that people have been acknowledging what competence Nixon did possess, digging its way out from beneath the ignominy of his ultimate paranoid ogre image.

George H.W. Bush was by far the better qualified contender in 1980, but Reagan had “like” all over everyone.  Reagan is still forgiven for the damage he did by virtue of a profound lack of grasp because people think back fondly on him as someone they liked immensely.

This is a lousy way to choose a president.

Competence should have favored John Huntsman in the primaries.

Probably, if competence had triumphed, we’d be looking at a second term for Hilary Clinton today.

But in fairness, just how are we to judge competence when we collectively know so little about what the job entails?  People vote for the candidate they think will be “on their side” and the only way to pick that is to go with gut reactions.  We “like” one or the other.

That could be partly rectified by simply paying more attention.  But that’s the other problem with us, collectively—frankly, my dear, outside whatever issue adrenalizes us at the moment, we don’t give a damn.  And that’s why we keep getting representatives who in the end don’t really represent us.

How do you like that?

2 thoughts on “A Final Thought (Maybe)

  1. You’re fighting the tide, here. Of course people pick candidates they like–our unconscious assessments of other people are honed by years of experience as well as thousands of years of evolution as tribal monkeys. And tribal monkeys are mostly concerned about status–where they are in the hierarchy and where others are. If your emotional (monkey) brain can’t figure out where somebody else is in relation to you in the hierarchy, your intellectual judgment won’t kick in to evaluate them on policy.

    And it’s arguably more important: policy doesn’t matter if you don’t trust someone to carry it out. It’s just words. How do we decide to trust somebody? On emotional response, on intuition, on “gut feeling.” You can have all the perfect policy in the world but if I don’t trust you to actually carry it out, why vote for you?

    1. No argument there. It’s just that our assessment of what we “like” is based on image alone, which is next to worthless. You can’t even really know if your gut feeling as to whether a candidate will betray is correct. The only rational basis is on policy—or on at least a reasonable recognition of detractors over other factors (like, he lied through his teeth, even though I like him a lot).

      But I suspect you’re right. Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, outlines how little reasoned consideration plays a part in how we make decisions. But I also believe that if we don’t start pointing this out and trying to correct it, we will continue electing sub par leaders.

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