Monday, April 21, 2008

Confound Their Politicks

Ross Douthat defends the practice of asking politicians about their relationship to their flag pins, rather than their health care plans, thusly:

Or cast your mind further back, to 1992, and consider something as seemingly insubstantial as the controversy over Bill Clinton's draft-dodging - or something less substantial still, like the mini-controversy over Hillary (Rodham) Clinton's now-she-uses-it, now-she-doesn't approach to keeping, or not keeping, her maiden name. I think you can make a pretty strong case that Clinton's peculiarly Boomerish relationship to the military brass - the mix of suspicion, condescension and ignorance on both sides - had a more decisive impact on American foreign policy in the 1990s than, say, what Clinton-the-candidate said about China policy in the run-up to the '92 vote. And while there's a sense, obviously, in which nothing could be further from the actual work of governing than the question of whether the First Lady of the United States has her husband's last name, in hindsight I think that the mix of echt-feminist principle and political opportunism that Hillary displayed in her changing choice of last and middle names probably told us as much about her approach to politics than most of the speeches she gave in the course of the campaign against George H.W. Bush.

Douthat admits that it is pretty hard to reliably make these inferences, though, so I'm not sure what it proves. Still, it is hard to deny that people talk a lot about the "personality" of their politicians, although I doubt it has a big impact on voting behaviour.

Of course "personality" =! personality. I have known a few politicians, and have known a lot more people who know politicians. And one consistent result is that their personalities, as perceived by those who know them, bear no resemblence to their popular personas. Those the public think of as aloof aren't. Those the public think of as smart aren't. Those the public think of as nice aren't. I wouldn't go so far as to say there is a negative correlation between public persona and actual personality, but there is definitely a zero correlation.

On the other hand, there is actually a pretty strong correlation between election platform and what is implemented in office -- the reason we remember it otherwise is because the exception is more prominent mentally than the rule.

Ross's post just shows the benefit of constitutional monarchy. I don't doubt the existence of a hunger for a relationship with the persona of public figures, whether positive or negative. It just should be supplied by hereditary monarchs and their families, not by politicians who should be considered unglamorous professionals, like dentists. The increasingly-presidential style of Canadian politics shows how much we have lost as the Liberals have undermined the monarchy, but the recent US election does at least provide a warning of how much further there is to go.

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