Voting Model #1 cont’d: “They’re so interesting…I would love to have dinner with them” vote

A friend told me the other night that her mother voted for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections because she thought Roslyn Carter looked uptight, whereas Nancy Reagan seemed much more appealing. I think that many folks find this voting model appealing, even if not consciously, and I wonder why. A similar logic has become the basis of a popular college-application question: Who would you most like to have dinner with, and why? Eager college applicants (myself included) choose unusual famous figures who will somehow reflect how impressive the essay-writer really is. Applicant gets accepted to her favorite college and somehow internalizes the logic: namely that the famous figure with whom she wants to have dinner reflects something admirable about herself.

I ended my previous post by pointing out that people will believe whatever you tell them you are, even if that self-representation is, let’s say, less than completely precise. That’s not such a bad thing in most areas of our lives. We all have certain versions of ourselves that we’d prefer that people see. When folks do see our preferred versions of ourselves, we make them our friends and lovers. When they see us differently from our preferred self-representations, we fight, reconcile, forgive or break up with those friends. And we also have tendencies to change or want to change our self-representations. This is why it was so popular to “go west, young man.” If you wanted to “remake” yourself, you moved to a new place with a new version of yourself and made new friends (it’s also why totalized surveillance in the form of FBI databases and CIA fusion centers are problematic—but that’s for another post).

I take away several things from this:

1. We tend to be friends with folks because we like their self-representations. But we’re not necessarily harmed when they change their self-representations, in large part because their actions probably don’t have an immediate impact on us. So, if I have a friend who was pro-union in college but becomes a union-busting lobbyist afterward, I may not respect her for it, but I can probably live with it–as long as we never discuss her work. Depending upon the nature of our friendship, I might take up the option of calling her out on it, discussing, reconciling, disagreeing, or ultimately ending the friendship because I am so troubled by her vocation (Yes, I know that Aristotle wrote about different types of friendship). But the consequences can be managed, at least at a personal level.

2. We think well of our friends, and can even imagine supporting them for office because we like and support who (we think) they are. But in most cases, we’re not called upon to do so, because for most of us, our friends don’t run for office. And we may like/deal with friends whose principles are odds for us, but we don’t have support them financially, work on their campaigns, or vote for them. We can even withdraw our support for family members whose politics we disagree with. See for example, Candace Gingrich-Jones on her brother, Newt.

3. The opposite conclusion is more problematic: voting for someone because we like their self-representations, or because we can imagine them being our friends. The image that they project may not (usually is not) accurate (more on this below). The effects of voting for someone whose self-representation is inaccurate/misleading/deceptive could lead to widespread and disastrous results for many more folks than just myself. Of course, it could have a happy opposite effect, but I can’t think of any examples.

On the accuracy of public self-representations: Walter Benjamin has a brilliant essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There are many insights to be gleaned from this piece, written in 1936. Benjamin points out how the invention of the camera enables a forum that influences, even prescribes, how a true emotion is reflected publicly. The “authenticity” of the emotion, which we might otherwise ascribe through our myriad interactions with a person, can now be extracted through the trust of the camera. At the end of Casablanca, we get a 3 second screen shot of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes filled with tears as Humphrey Bogart assures her that they’ll always have Paris. We know that this means their love was true, their love was lost, and Bergman’s heart is broken. As Benjamin notes so wisely, “This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” (Benjamin 1936, VIII). Can Ingrid really be sad if her eyes aren’t filled with tears? Can Bogey really be heartbroken if he’s not drowning his sorrows in whiskey?

Judgments about the moral stature of a person (in the public eye) are suspect to begin with, especially if they’re based on physical features, fashion sense, or weight (think about the snarky comments about New Jersey governor Chris Christie when he was reported to consider running for president). But he’s also one of the few politicos who nominated (AND defended) the appointment of a South Asian Muslim lawyer to the New Jersey Superior Court.

(I know that Benjamin has a much deeper critique about the convergence of capitalism and technology, aesthetics, and the evacuation of authenticity through the vehicle of mass reproduction, about which much more can be said. Really, I do. I already mentioned that his essay was brilliant.)

On political judgments based on public persona: What does a charming smile, gentle temperament, or well-modulated voice tell us about a person’s political convictions? President Lyndon B. Johnson managed to push through some pretty decent civil rights and affirmative action legislation, rough redneck though he was. On the other hand, his foreign policy decisions left much to be desired. But his personality didn’t necessarily reveal that much except he was an interesting character to quote in newspaper articles.

On the political character of a candidate based on their spouse: Yes, I too was enamored of Michelle Obama. I love (what I think) I see of her character, her accomplishments, her ideas (those that were publicly aired), her beauty. But her public persona tells us very little about her spouse’s political judgments and capacities. It doesn’t even tell us that much about the caliber of the White House dinners that (in a classic patriarchal holdover) as First Lady, she is supposed to be overseeing.

On the romantic, heroic, character of a political candidate, based on his and his public-relations firm’s stories about his upbringing, see Saturday’s post.

Conclusion:

A public figure with charm, good-storytelling skills, and heroic background (i.e. someone I’d like to have as a dinner guest) ≠ good political commitments, political sense, conviction, or administrative skills. Our judgments about a candidate based on video clips, numerous though they be, are fairly undependable.

NB: Perhaps this post is ridiculously obvious. But before November 2008, how many times did you think that Obama’s polished, charming, cosmopolitan self would guarantee us much more progressive politics than Bush’s crude, fratboyish presence?


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3 thoughts on “Voting Model #1 cont’d: “They’re so interesting…I would love to have dinner with them” vote

  1. Hey Falguni,

    I enjoyed the post. And am looking forward to the upcoming installments. I’m appreciating very much the analysis of what goes on in people’s thinking to continue supporting politicians like Obama who continually kick us in the face hard on everything that really matters (authoritarianism, destroying the public sector, extending the catastrophe of neoliberalism ever further).

    My pathway lately has not led me to thinking in terms of supporting presidential candidates of any kind, though I have respect for people trying that, including Jill Stein of the Green Party who has announced her intention to run for president. On the other hand, anyone who is decent (like Jill is) doesn’t really belong as the president of a state so committed to militarism and capitalism like the United States. A more odious person fits better as the head of such a state — at least they won’t have to disgrace themselves in order to get along in that role, because they’ve already done it.

    I think what is confusing about the moment we’re in now (and it is clearer today than it was in 2000, 2004, or 2008) is that virtually all the alternatives, including the continuation of the current system, seem utterly implausible. What is so astonishing is the fact that adhering to some baseline position of facilitating the continued survival of the planet is not really on the table for the ruling class. Just look at the utter disgrace in Durban. The reactionary right has one form of climate denial, regarding the science. Liberals of Obama’s ilk have another form, which is arguably more perverse: they say they believe in the climate science but don’t support any of what is necessary to act commensurately with what the science tells us. (On this point, Naomi Klein’s recent piece in the nation on right wing climate denial is a must-read: http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate?page=full).

    What I’m getting at is that the lack of credibility in virtually every initiative, including the most obvious ones — the initiatives supposedly in motion to avert planetary ecocide — is creating a situation where implausible alternatives have only other implausible alternatives to fight against.

    I remember how it used to feel during the late 1990s when I would talk about revolution. People in my circles (my parents who’d listen the most) thought it was crazy. And they had good reason: their savings were still in tact; the economy seemed to be growing; things seemed OK. But it seems that when I talk with people now, and talk about revolution, well, it might still sound crazy like before, but less crazy in comparison to the idea that the capitalist system can just continue on like this. There’s a new openness to alternative ideas as confusion now occupies a space in many “middle class” people’s consciousness, once occupied by greater certainty about the future.

    So maybe third party campaigns are just another crazy idea — as crazy as some kind of grassroots global democratic revolution would be. But if they are being understood as a way to actually win power via the state, they might actually be worse, because they end up having to recreate the very problematic nature of the state in order to contest its actiosn. On the other hand, if third party candidates can help to loosen the knee-jerk support of democratic politicians by many well-intentioned people when those politicians act in ways that undermine the core the principles these people believe in, that is beneficial. But can the same job be accomplished while also building new political organizations capable of re-organizing society along radically democratic lines, and providing some practical means of dignified survival as political and ecological conditions worsen?

  2. Great Blog ! Keep them coming. Do you think this is unique to US democracy ? How has it come to this? If there is no substantive difference between candidates, can we really blame voters for basing their choices on personality, etc.

    • Thanks so much, Omar. I think there are differences between candidates, but it requires rejecting the options that the Dems/Repubs give us: rejecting a two-party system (since many of the interesting candidates are 3rd party); rejecting these short-term voting models in favor of a longer-term strategy. Will try to follow up on this with a longer post.

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