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March 11, 2007

Mysterious Character

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

The result of this poll is a sad truth that I long ago made my peace with -- voters care more about a candidate's character than the candidate's issue positions, and least of all about experience and other leadership qualities.  Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge.  Our information about the personal qualities of candidates is subject to much more media distortion than our information about the candidates' issue positions.  For the latter, we have more hard data to fall back on.  But getting yourself portrayed as a person of honesty and integrity is largely a matter of being able to effectively manipulate the more touchy-feely side of media coverage.  Being a difficult target for negative ads, which is quite far from being a good person, helps too. 

March 11, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge. Our information about the personal qualities of candidates is subject to much more media distortion than our information about the candidates' issue positions.

Disagree entirely. See "Humble American foreign policy."

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 11, 2007 2:13:30 PM

disgree with what? the impact of media on our perception?

Posted by: akaison | Mar 11, 2007 2:35:45 PM

I think Tim disagrees with my relative confidence in our ability to judge issue stances and character. I'd point him to Bush's old self-description as a "compassionate conservative."

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 11, 2007 2:38:28 PM

disgree with what? the impact of media on our perception?

He disagrees on the greater transparency of policy stances. I think there's a case to be made that the synthetic, heuristic category of "character", which loosely binds policy positions, personal history, alliances and allegiances, by its very complexity, can be harder to manipulate than the seemingly material data of policy proposals.

I'm not really sure. I definitely believe that an oversimplified, 19th-century dichotomy of reason and emotion will fail to get at the way these dynamics work. I don't think either Neil or SCMT is taking that tack here, but it's one of the more common ways of understanding "character" vs. "policy", so I figured I'd mention it.

Posted by: DivGuy | Mar 11, 2007 2:42:48 PM

It's not just the celebrity-centric nature of our culture, but also, people's belief in their competence in evaluating the "character" of "their" celebrities.

Think about it. Lots and lots of people know all about Reese Witherspoon's life. Why should politicians be different?

Posted by: chimneyswift | Mar 11, 2007 2:48:31 PM

I'd point him to Bush's old self-description as a "compassionate conservative."

Doesn't this just reinforce Tim's point? That was at least as much a promise about policy as character.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 11, 2007 2:49:47 PM

I don't think so, Sanpete. I can't remember a single policy that was promised under the "compassionate conservative" banner. Its effect was to portray Bush as a nice guy who wasn't Newt Gingrich.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Mar 11, 2007 2:53:36 PM

Compassionate conservatism was defined as conservative policies that would help the less fortunate. It was never, properly speaking, a claim about some emotional state, though the two were often mixed together. The evidence put out that Bush was a compassionate conservative, besides whatever rhetoric could be managed, was his policy record in Texas, along with policy promises about education (No Child Left Behind), social welfare programs (workfare, Social Security private accounts), crime prevention, anti-drug programs, faith-based initiatives, etc. All were presented under the umbrella of compassionate conservatism. There was always great skepticism that the some of the policies would have the effects promised, but in any case the whole idea more or less got swept aside after September 11th.

Newt Gingrich is compassionate too. His favorite movie is Boys Town, which he sees as showing the kinds of compassionate policies we need more of.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 11, 2007 3:16:35 PM

I think the compassionate conservatism isn't a sign of character. What was a sign of character was people equating liking Bush with agreeing with him on policy, or assuming that he agreed with them on policy. It's the "I could sit down him for a meal or a beer" factor.

Chemney makes the point most succintly. I will give another example. I have a muslim friend who like Lynard Synnard (spelling?). Now, he has attributed all sorts of things to the personality of the band members because of the public persona of the band. I remember trying in vain to explain to him that what he perceives isn't necessarily what's there. This guy is like me a lawyer. He is trained to be skeptical, and he had a hard time doing it. We want to trust what we are seeing and hearing, and it takes a powerful amoutn of effort for all of us to resist this.

In 2004, polling showed that in MS the majority of voters believed Bush was in favor of importing drugs from Canada when he repeatedly said he was not. In the 1980s, a woman was interviewed from my state who said she was voting for Reagan because she felt he would lower her taxes. he clearly wasn't because he lived in a little silver trailer on social security benefits.

Now, why did they believe this? They believed it because it fit into their view of his character. I admit I'm making a leap, but its one backed up by my knowledge of Chimney so effectively explains above- the nature of our pop culture. We are all, red state or blue, influenced and shaped by the culture we live in. That culture is now celebrity centric.

n fact, Giulani's race on the right is a celebrity centric run. People are basing all of their views on him on what they feel, not what they know, about what he did or did not do on 9/11. That's about it.

Posted by: akaison | Mar 11, 2007 3:37:43 PM

I really think it is perception of character that is important to many voters, not actual character. People seem to listen only to words and not actions. It's very annoying but that is how it is right now.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope | Mar 11, 2007 4:02:22 PM

Well, there have always been ignorant or frivolous voters. People voted for W.H. Harrison, for example, because he was "born in a log cabin" and a drinker of hard cider--unlike that tea-sippin' Frenchified Van Buren. For many such voters, it's not so much "character" as "personality" that matters. At the present time, the personality of candidates tends to be emphasized in part because the two parties are actually pretty evenly matched, and have to fight over the portion of the electorate that we call "swing" voters. People who have strong preferences on the issues tend to be already attached to one side or the other, and are a lot harder to shake loose. A considerable fraction of the "swing" vote, I suspect, is made up of the most frivolous voters, those most easily swayed by considerations of personality. The parties are clawing for the slightest edge to get to 50 percent plus one, so they emphasize the winning personal traits of their guy in order to draw in the clueless and the light-minded. Their votes count just as much as anyone else's, after all. The GOP has been a lot better at this for the past 25 years. This isn't the whole of the explanation, of course. The decline of party identification has a lot to do with it too, as does the frivolity of much journalism and punditry. Maureen Dowd is the classic case in point.

Posted by: Karl Radek | Mar 11, 2007 4:32:15 PM

The sad irony is that, as Krugman pointed out in a recent column, that the best way to get a handle on a candidate's character is by looking at his/her policy stances. What hard choices is he/she ducking --- is he/she lying --- what does he/she seem particularly focused on --- all these are very good clues as to what the person could be like. Krugman's hostility to Bush stems from his observations, even before the 2000 "election," that Bush's budget proposals were filled with outright lies.

Posted by: ChristianPinko | Mar 11, 2007 4:42:00 PM

let me see if i understand you correctly....
you have made peace with the sad truth that 55% of the people consider honesty and integrity to be more important than a candidate's stance on an issue?
.......i think i read that correctly.
......well, i am one of that 55 percent...because i dont think that a person can arrive at a heartfelt position on anything in life without integrity and honesty.
i think that political positions are open to vast interpretation, but intellectual and emotional honesty and integrity help one to formulate sound opinions and stances.
...and i dont think that any media manipulations or massages can conceal the truth about someone's actions and character for very long. i cant imagine how one could think otherwise...
and may i ask you how you think anyone can be in a position of leadership if they have not been chosen first on the basis of character and integrity.
good Lord.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 11, 2007 5:33:07 PM

Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge.

Which is why there is a cottage industry dedicated to reducing 'character' to some easily grasped surrogate indicium, like oral sex, or looking French.

If you can dictate the terms of the reductionism, you can make anything the operative surrogate du jour for character.

Posted by: Mao Zhe Dong | Mar 11, 2007 5:36:14 PM

55% of the people consider honesty and integrity to be more important than a candidate's stance on an issue?

They're not making the call on a candidate's actual honesty and integrity -- not unless they know the candidate personally. They're making the call based on what survives layers and layers of mediation by the campaign, the media, and the zeitgeist.

Policy suffers far less from this mediation. You either did X or didn't, voted yea or nay, supported or opposed -- not that these can't be spun, but they can't be made to disappear entirely. There's less leeway for spin.

...because i dont think that a person can arrive at a heartfelt position on anything in life without integrity and honesty.

Or what has the appearance of integrity and honesty, and you're in no position to judge whether the appearance matches up with reality. On the other hand, whether you voted up or down on the AUMF resolution can be known without cavil.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Mar 11, 2007 5:43:29 PM

mao zhe dong...
i dont believe there is any operative surrogate du jour for character...
and the operatives would not be oral sex or french....
....they would be lying, cheating, stealing, selfishness... not taking resonsibility for one's action, lack of accountability,harming others knowingly, acting with disregard to the safety and well-being of others.
...when one takes away all of the spin, i think character and integrity are quite unwaveringly black and white. it is only a matter of time before the truth of another person's actions become transparent.
.....there can be understanding and forgiveness, but character and integrity seem pretty clearly discernible to me.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 11, 2007 5:54:27 PM

t is only a matter of time before the truth of another person's actions become transparent.

Usually after he or she is elected, when their policy positions are known today.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Mar 11, 2007 5:57:15 PM

"you're in no position to judge if appearance matches up with reality.."

i disagree.
appearances of honesty and integrity dont hold up for very long.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 11, 2007 5:58:47 PM

But getting yourself portrayed as a person of honesty and integrity is largely a matter of being able to effectively manipulate the more touchy-feely side of media coverage.

Or as Jean Giraudoux put it:

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made.

Posted by: DAS | Mar 11, 2007 6:38:30 PM

"the secret of success is sincerity. once you can fake that you've got it made."
......
"you can fool some the people all of the time,
and all of the people some of the time,
but you cannot fool all of the people
all of the time."
.......i still think lincoln said it best.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 11, 2007 6:56:28 PM

"Our information about the personal qualities of candidates is subject to much more media distortion than our information about the candidates' issue positions. For the latter, we have more hard data to fall back on. But getting yourself portrayed as a person of honesty and integrity is largely a matter of being able to effectively manipulate the more touchy-feely side of media coverage."

I disagree, entirely.

Issue positions are pretty elastic and easily faked, because this is a representative democracy, and every voter knows that the candidates for office will have to compromise and negotiate with each other to achieve anything; moreover, our particular constitutional democracy features fixed terms of office, so you can be sure that whomever is elected will have to deal with unexpected and unanticipated eventualities and contingencies. In a parliamentary system, the issue positions and programme of the Party mean something, but in our system, not so much.

No single candidate's issue positions mean much of anything, really, other than as general indicators of a candidate's sentiments and ideological leanings, and even then, it is a matter of character and committment, whether, post-election, the officeholder will deliver in any shape or form.

Candidate Bush in 2000 put forth a number of issue positions, which President Bush has done little to further. And, even as President, Bush continues to endorse particular programs, and then cut their funding, sometimes drastically.

One of the more useful things journalists can do is to take their intensive familiarity with the politician, and turn it into insight about what the man (or woman) and the organization and interests, which support the candidate, are about, and digest that into a impression of the candidate's character.

The fact that many of our leading political journalists do an appallingly bad job of assessing and reporting on character is a reason to get better journalists and to insist on much higher standards of journalism.

When I consider the horribly wrong choice of 2000, I don't look back and think I wish I had heard more about the need for a more modest foreign policy with less nation-building arrogance and for compassionate conservatism at home. I wish, instead, that the press had reported that Gore was an earnest visionary and Bush was an unaccomplished liar and fool. It seems to me, that on the basis of existing evidence in 2000, the Media could have done that; instead, they ignored the evidence or distorted it, to come to the exact opposite conclusion.

Do I conclude that character does not matter? No. I conclude that the Media, as we know it, must be utterly destroyed. The Tim Russerts and David Broders and Anne Coulters must be driven from their coveted places in the American political discourse, and the giant Media Corporations must be sliced and diced by a vigorous antitrust and public communications policy.

We need a Revolution, and it is past time to mount the barricades. Choose your targets well, and shoot to kill.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Mar 11, 2007 7:58:14 PM

We need a Revolution, and it is past time to mount the barricades. Choose your targets well, and shoot to kill.

Heh.

If the liberals had their way, all the guns would be gone!!

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 11, 2007 9:11:28 PM

Heh.

If the conservatives had their way, all the liberals would be soap!

Posted by: Michael | Mar 11, 2007 9:37:39 PM

What strikes me as interesting about all this is the matter of voter psychology - how much does a voter's ability to identify personally with a candidate matter. There was sufficient evidence that Bush the Younger was a poor decider prior to his late entry into politics but he cultivated an image of being a man of the common people (though with his lineage we might say commoners). Voters could identify with his working with his hands on the ranch, with his anti-intellectual reactions and if you find yourself identifying with someone it makes it much harder to think of him/her as a bad person (because, after all, we don't want to think of ourselves as bad people - it's a matter of reflection). I'm not suggesting this is the way things should be or that it is a singular explanation but it is something to consider and, if possible, address and harness. Like so many things about civic engagement and the media I can't help but feel that better education could reduce the amount that voters respond viscerally rather than intellectually.

Posted by: GCF | Mar 12, 2007 9:46:03 AM

http://kucinich.us/node/3532

AUSTIN (TX) -- The cancellation in the past two days of two planned nationally televised debates because of candidates’ “scheduling conflicts” and unwillingness to participate smacks of “manipulation by some candidates who would rather run and hide than defend their records and their positions on the war,” Ohio Congressman and Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich said today while campaigning in Texas.

Widely publicized Presidential debates in New Hampshire in April and in Nevada in August were cancelled after some candidates either backed out after agreeing to participate or declined invitations to attend.

“Whatever their excuses, some candidates are clearly trying to avoid any head-to-head public debate where they will have to answer tough questions -- questions about their votes in favor of the Iraq war, their votes in favor of trade policies that have wiped out millions of American jobs, their votes in favor of abridging Constitutional rights by approving the Patriot Act, and their collaboration with insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations to deny Americans adequate health care protection.”

Kucinich said “it’s an insult to the voters, and the height of cynicism, for candidates to refuse to take the public stage and subject themselves to public scrutiny.”

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 12, 2007 10:10:04 AM

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