Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Democrats and Republicans are both adept at ignoring facts, says report.

Here's an interesting piece on viceral reactions to political candidates. I've always felt that it was Republicans (well, conservatives, anyway,) who were more disposed to making irrational, emotional decisions when voting, but this article says we're all guilty. I detect no bias in that article, though I think this most recent presidential election was full of more irrationally emotional Republicans than irrationally emotional Democrats. This sort of thing isn't the rule during any given election cycle, but it sure was lopsided in 2004. And 2002. It makes sense that people will react this way. I've read studies on the way people identify with commercial brands, and they'll unreasonably light up when they see, say, the Coca-Cola logo, if they happen to have fond associations with the Coke brand. Never mind the fact that Pepsi consistently beats Coke in blind taste tests; many people stay loyal to Coke, and their brain waves prove it.

Small wonder that political campaigns in the United States make such use of the basic strategies of marketing soft drinks and fabric softeners. The United States is probably the greatest marketer in the world; we're the kind of society that puts a value on the ability to sell anything to anyone. Political campaigns aren't always this way, but the last two presidential campaigns certainly have been. I fault the Atwater/Rove school of thought for this: peddle your candidate as someone warm and loveable, touching the emotions of your target market, and they'll forget about issues, which is what political campaigns are, in theory, supposed to be about. That's how Bush almost won the 2000 election, and it's how Bush won the media dogfight that followed that election, and it's how he won the 2004 election. Kerry wasn't such a good candidate when it came to marketing. Had the 2004 election been run on issues and not on image, it would have been very different, and Kerry would have been a cinch to win.

I don't mean to suggest that Democrats, during 2004 or during other cycles, haven't resorted to this viceral Madison Avenue-style campaigning. Sure, the Kerry campaign did it, too. I don't suspect that candidate Kerry would have resorted to such tactics if the Bush administration hadn't been using them continuously from 1999 to, well, the present, but the fact is that no matter whom the Democrats would have nominated would have had to fight Bush's kind of fight, like it or not. The 2004 election was a referendum on the incumbent's campaign's marketing style; no matter what you think of Bush's politics, you have to agree that his campaign's marketing style is sheer genius.

Bill Clinton was a great marketer, too—either that or he had great marketers working for him. Either way, he sold himself to America without a whole lot in the way of policy proposals. Sure, there was some policy debate during his elections—there always is—but I wouldn't say that was the upshot of what got him into office. Just because the way Bush did it was worse, however, doesn't mean it was okay for Clinton to have done it.

Idea-driven campaigns seldom do that well. George McGovern's 1972 campaign was based on social issues, for the most part, which was a bad enough miscalculation, but he really messed up by ignoring the bread-and-butter issues that have worked so well for liberals in the past. Result? A disastrous loss, followed by exactly zero liberal presidents afterward. Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign was a disaster that focused intensely on ideology, but just didn't play well on TV. He, too, had a disastrous loss, but gave rise to the neo-conservative school of thought that was followed by such conservative luminaries as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Tom DeLay. It was an ideological jackpot that didn't pay off until well after his crushing loss where he carried only his home state plus five Southern states that were mad at the Democratic Party for having pushed through the Civil Rights Act.

My ideologies are above political parties, on one hand, but considering that political parties aren't above my ideologies, I find myself sticking with the Democrats, more and more, not having voted for a Republican since 1994 and not having been willing even to consider it since 2000. But I'm not beyond a candidate's viceral appeal, I'll admit. Consider John Kerry, whose voting record was out of step with my ideology, but who had some things going for him that I don't consider important in a candidate, but appealed to me nonetheless, because they're also true of me:

·Blue eyes
·Slavic ancestry
·Once played in a rock band (well, I never did, but I always sort of wanted to)
·Fluent in French
·Raised Catholic, but seems less than enthusiastic about it these days
·Connection to the Pittsburgh area
·Gorgeous Latin woman at his side
·Cool hair (well, this isn't true of me anymore, and is getting less and less true of me all the time!)

None of the above are the kinds items you should consider when you're choosing which candidate to vote for (unless you're voting in France, where the fluency in French is worth considering.) However, they did appeal to me. I would have voted for whomever the Democrats put up, though, and looked past viceral appeal right to what they stood for. I first backed Howard Dean and then leaned toward Bob Graham, though I do remember being content with John Kerry and feeling that John Edwards was an asset to Kerry's ticket (and have since eaten those words.)

I won't say that all of Bush's supporters did so on a viceral level, but I will say that the thrust of his campaign was to sell a personality more than policies. I don't know what would have happened if Kerry had tried to emphasize policy more than personality; as it was, Kerry was well out of his league. I accept that a good chunk of voters finds Bush personable, for whatever reason. I accept it because it's a verifiable fact (at least, it was at election time,) but it's always been true that people like Bush make my flesh crawl. I find him pandering, cynical and mean, and I always have. Despite that, I maintain that I would have voted for him if he had run on any decent policy proposals, but reckless tax giveaways, Christian favoritism, isolationism (2000) and international bullyism (2004) just don't sit well with me. If you put those ideas in a candidate who has viceral appeal to me, I'd like to think I'd still vote against that person, but I have to say I wouldn't enjoy it as much as my not voting for Bush.


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