Thursday, January 24, 2008

Image Matters

“We like to pretend that democracy is an exercise in high-minded judgment regarding pure policy. It isn’t, and it never has been.” —Ben Shapiro

There are hoards of online surveys you can take that try to gauge how well you match up with the various presidential candidates on policy issues. These tools can be entertaining if you’re not already politically informed, but I generally put very little stock in them.

Many voters — especially those with particular political interest — like to think of themselves as rather objective. They like to think that their political judgment is based upon scientifically reducible political data. But few, if any of us actually function that way.

I have long held that most, if not all voters make their decisions, as Ben Shapiro explains in this interview by Kathryn Jean Lopez, based upon the totality of the package candidates present. Whether we like it or not, a candidate’s image has perhaps more to do with our decision than do a candidate’s policies.

Shapiro argues that this is not necessarily a bad thing. He says, “I agree with Edmund Burke when it comes to representative government — we’re electing people who will exercise their independent determination when it comes to shaping policy. That means we have to judge the people, not just their policies.”

For example, Shapiro says that “personal likability is often an indicator of presidential performance.” He offers anecdotes about presidents that performed well because they were easygoing or witty or confident. He says, “We want America strong and confident rather than weak and vacillating — and we want the presidents who represent our country to have those same qualities.”

But Shapiro also notes that we have sometimes made mistakes. Harding looked marvelously presidential. “Unfortunately,” says Shapiro, “he was also a rotten president.” Carter didn’t have as much going for him image-wise as did Ford, but Ford carried the stigma of Nixon’s image, so Carter won. “Fortunately,” says Shapiro, “Americans recognize their mistakes quickly enough, which is why they dumped Carter in 1980.”

Presidential candidates work on their public images full-time, but they can’t successfully stray too far from their inner self. Americans quickly figure out fakes, and they don’t like them. Shapiro says that “in order for policy and experience to matter, they must gibe with the candidate’s image.”

This is why Mitt Romney, for example, doesn’t get much traction (and even earns distrust) when he tries to look like a social conservative, but performs well when he runs as an accomplished businessman with a firm fiscal hand. It is why John McCain fails when he tries to look like a bona fide conservative, but scores well when he plays the part of a taciturn butt-kicker. (See also this WSJ article on authenticity.)

Americans also have a penchant for choosing candidates based on less important superficial factors as well. Shapiro notes, “We’ve only had five presidents in the history of the United States who were completely bald.” And one of those was unelected. But what a ridiculous measure of executive ability! (I write this as a guy with a full head of hair. Good hair is not a reliable indicator of executive performance.) Height is another silly factor that has been important in many races.

Shapiro notes that Americans love cowboys. He divides candidates into “boots vs. suits” camps. The boots candidates “have that down-home feel” that seems to mean that they are more in touch with “traditional American values.” Reagan was the consummate cowboy. Suits candidates have an urban businessman feel. They are at a disadvantage because Americans don’t trust them as much. Shapiro says, “The biggest mistake the media ever made with regard to George W. Bush was labeling him a cowboy.”

Instead of arguing that voters should become emotionless political robots, I agree with Shapiro when he says that recognizing how we really choose among candidates is a good thing. “The more we recognize how we judge superficialities, the more we can learn to distinguish the superficialities that matter from the superficialities that don’t.”

Candidates for political office are not a raw bundle of issues. The ability to actually perform well in the position for which they are running is also highly important. How they can be expected to interface with the public and with all of the other players is important. For presidential candidates, we need to have some clue as to how they will interact with the judicial branch, legislators, interest groups, and foreign representatives. We need to have some idea as to how they will respond in a crisis. That is why a candidate’s image and personality must be included in our judgment calls.

Voters are deciding right now which candidate in their party presents the best overall package. Before long we will have many months to closely examine two candidates for the presidency. I imagine this examination will be longer and more in our faces than any of us wish. But it will afford us probably the best chance ever to get a feel for which of the two major party candidates has the best total package. It is on this basis that Americans will vote in November.

1 comment:

Scott Hinrichs said...

COL Takashi takes issue with the whole "authenticity" thing in this post.