Friday, May 13, 2011

We Do This To Ourselves

In one of his many comic personas, the vain actor Fernando, Billy Crystal used to say in a Spanish accent "It's not how you feel, it's how you look." He could have been talking about politics, as Robert Reich points out:
Policy wonks like me want to believe the public pays most attention to candidates’ platforms and policy positions. Again and again we’re proven wrong. Unless a candidate is way out of the mainstream (Barry Goldwater and George McGovern come to mind), the public tends to vote for the person who makes them feel safest at a visceral level, who reassures them he’ll take best care of the country – not because of what he says but because of how he says it.

In this regard, looks matter. Taller candidates almost always win over shorter ones (meaning even if I’d whipped him in a debate, Romney would probably still have won the governorship). Good-looking ones with great smiles garner more votes than those who scowl or perspire (Kennedy versus Nixon), thin ones are elected over fat ones (William Howard Taft to the contrary notwithstanding), and the bald need not apply (would Eisenhower have made it if Stevenson had been blessed with a thick shock?).

Voices also matter. Deeper registers signal gravitas; higher and more nasal emanations don’t command nearly as much respect (think of Reagan versus Carter, or Obama versus McCain).

And behavior matters. Voters prefer candidates who appear even-tempered and comfortable with themselves (this was Obama’s strongest advantage over John McCain in 2008). They also favor the candidate who projects the most confidence and optimism (think FDR, Reagan, and Bill Clinton).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Mitt
None of this is news to me. As Reich mentions by way of example, the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate back in 1960 demonstrated this. People who listened to it on radio thought Nixon won. Folks who watched it on TV liked the more charismatic and attractive Kennedy. The public's reaction to those debates was something of a laboratory experiment in human voting behavior, because so many saw it on television, and so many others listened to it on radio.

As I was putting together this article yesterday, one of my unwritten thoughts about that screenshot of Ron Paul was "you know, the guy looks a little crazy." Of course, I'm not going by his looks. As with many political candidates, I'd heard about him long before I knew what he looked like. It's possible, and I think even likely, that some of the folks telling me about him were influenced by how he looks, but Paul's record speaks for itself. He's an iconoclast, but he's an iconoclast who often lets his prejudices and preconceptions influence his thinking more than he should. He's someone who has forgotten that, even though he's very smart and has a flexible intellect, he can still be colossally wrong about something.

Psychological study after psychological study has shown that what Reich is saying is absolutely true. It's not just how we choose our leaders - how people look often influences their job prospects, their likelihood of becoming management, and even their success in what ought to be intellectual settings. We are still hairless apes, and there is something in us that needs to judge people this way. That's not entirely a bad thing - how people look and act can tell us something about their health, and their psychological well-being. Nixon's paranoia and general discomfort with people is something that comes through in some videos of him. At least, it does in retrospect. I'm sure that some folks who watched him debate Kennedy on TV picked up on that.

As Reich admitted in that article, he tried to run against Mitt Romney for governor of Massachusetts back in 2002. Despite having been Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, Reich couldn't gather together enough money to make a go of it, and he dropped out before the primary. Reich is, as he often jokes, considerably shorter than average, which is nearly always a disadvantage in politics. Looks can be something of an acquired taste, but if one were to choose between Reich and Romney for a male modeling job, I don't think many people would choose Reich. So, even if he had the connections he needed to raise money, Reich would have had an uphill battle. He doesn't say so, but I'd bet that at least part of Reich's inability to raise money had to do with those potential contributors' perception of how electable he was, which is at least partly a function of how he looks. While it's only speculation, I'd have to think that Reich would have made at least as good a governor as Romney.

So, yes, to a great extent, we do this to ourselves. We pick the Mitt Romneys over the Robert Reichs at least as often as we pick the Jack Kennedys over the Richard Nixons. Many of us don't bother trying to figure out what the politicians involved even pretend to stand for, let alone what they really do. Until that changes, our voting choices are likely to be far more limited than they should be.

UPDATE/NOTE (May 13): This article originally appeared here on May 11. Thanks to problems Blogger was having, the version of this article I posted Wednesday is gone. I don't know why. Apparently, the needed to set the clock back or something. That's why the comments are gone, and that would possibly any differences between this article and the one that was here two days ago.


Paul Sunstone said...

Somedays, it seems to me we pick our leaders on the basis of every qualification under the sun except whether they are likely to do anything worth doing.

Cujo359 said...

You won't get any argument from me on that score, Paul. I'm dumbfounded by the approval ratings for President Obama these days. Not that they're higher in total than they should be - that's always been a mystery with most presidents. What's crazy is that he is overwhelmingly approved by self-identified liberals, and overwhelming disapproved by conservatives. Yet the man has done little to change the policies of the Bush Administration in most policy areas. If anything, those approval ratings should be the opposite of what they are.

Of course, you can blame part of that on the immense amounts of misinformation available on the television news these days, but some of it is stuff that anyone could figure out if he paid attention. It's clear that quite a few people don't.