It goes without saying that elections are emotionally charged endeavors—everything that a candidate does is scrutinized and examined in the context of a myriad of controversial issues. The emotional component helps us put a human face to an otherwise lofty position, and allows us to believe that we can, in some way, relate to the leader of the free world.
Often, however, candidates’ attempts to become more relatable result in unintended comedy, for — as much as they may try to show otherwise — those vying for the presidency are usually not individuals that most people can relate to. They know this, we know this, but they still feel they have to give it a shot.
In the 2012 elections, the relatability issue has been on the forefront of discourse, with continued references to Mitt Romney’s considerable wealth, as well as the emphasis on President Obama’s work as a community organizer and his “humble” beginnings. While exaggerations naturally occur in both candidates’ rhetoric, this election sees the Obama campaign taking more and more liberties with the truth—perhaps an indication that the President’s policy record isn’t sufficient to propel him to victory.
Obama’s “man of the people” experiences as a community organizer in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens housing project did not involve him actually living in the low-income neighborhood; instead, he made a 90-minute daily commute from his upscale Hyde Park apartment. In Indonesia, Obama lived in an upscale neighborhood, and in Hawaii he attended a prestigious prep school. Also, his references to his experience as a “constitutional law professor” conflict with his actual status as “senior lecturer” at the time.
The purportedly “rugged” nature of Romney mission work in France has been questioned– the Daily Mail refers to the Mormon mission accommodations as “…a house built by and for rich people” and “…a palace.” But the Mail’s piece contradicts a 2007 New York Times article which details Romney’s French experiences, saying “He lived on about $100 a month, sleeping on cast-off mattresses and crowding into small apartments in groups of four. The only toilet was often down the hall and the only shower in a public bathhouse.” Little public attention is also given to the hit-and run car accident (assumed to be a drunk driver) which killed the wife of the mission President and put Romney in the hospital.
The exaggerations and embellishments on each side go on and on, but, perhaps in a sad sign of the times, most are ignored by the media and public simply because there are so numerous. And after the public has an initial impression of a candidate, peppering speeches or debates with minor inaccuracies turns into an arms race of keeping up with the opponent’s fabrications.
Such a state of affairs is certainly contrary to what one would expect in the information age, wherein we are empowered to check the veracity of any statement simply through a Google search. But we don’t, because that takes time. Thankfully, fact-check organizations exist that provide the public with this much needed service, but the number of voters who research what is said in a debate, rather than simply taking everything at face value, remains largely unknown. And even among the fact-check groups, the temptation to mix opinion with fact, or to present facts in a strategic manner renders many such groups part of the mire of disinformation they allegedly seek to limit. Though commentary on this issue exists, it pales in comparison to the ever-growing morass of half-truths and boldfaced lies.
As a result, the election becomes less about the issues since the public is less confident in either candidate’s real position on any given topic. And as positions become less tangible, the emphasis correspondingly shifts to other less concrete factors, like personality and the aforementioned “relatability.”
The idea of electing someone “you’d like to have a beer with” was born from this frustration. If we’re not able to understand the reality of a candidate’s position, and it takes too much work to verify everything they say, we are left with little recourse than to decide based on perceptions of affability. Not only is this scenario disheartening, it is decidedly dangerous. While thoughts of drinking with our elected officials may be humorous, voters’ decisions should be based on policy, not sociability.
Governor Romney is certainly feeling the brunt of this feel-good electoral trend, with his extensive wealth and corporate background providing fodder for his critics to convey the image of a disconnected, disinterested power broker. Ross Perot had the same problem, as did Steve Forbes. Whatever their policy proposals, their wealth was constantly touted by their opponents as something that detached them from the rest of American society. This line of attack has traditionally worked, but the reasons underlying its success are difficult to grasp. Intuitively, someone with experience managing substantial wealth and extensive business interests would be very well suited to overseeing and leading the world’s largest economy. But, alas, we’re interested in who would make the better drinking buddy.
It’s the old story of misplaced (and unquestionably lopsided) emphasis on matters of total inconsequence. Subjects like Romney’s much mocked “binders full of women” remark and issues regarding his dog take up prime-time election coverage, and the thought of ending federal funding to PBS becomes a highly emotional battle, in which a simple fiscal position is portrayed as brash and heartless.
Of course, the media’s attention to such minutia isn’t just domestic. When our news networks devote time to heated discussions over Big Bird and company, the rest of the world looks on, thoroughly confused as to our priorities. Indeed, such confusion undermines our image abroad and threatens our national interests.
To a degree, the President must be detached from the rest of the country as a good CEO maintains a distance from the rest of the company, while still keeping a finger on its operational pulse and intervening in problem areas when necessary. Detachment does not mean disconnectedness. On this level, detachment is the ability to rise above the intricacies of a situation or problem and see it in a larger context, while still being aware of the details. This awareness results in a broader and more informed viewpoint from which decisions can be made, and solutions proposed.
In the same way that the President must be detached, so must be voters. We must look beyond petty accusations, we must be proactive in our recognition and rejection of blatant inaccuracies in policy discussions, and recognize that we are not voting for a next door neighbor, but the CEO of the world’s most powerful military and economy.