Let's Be Honest About Why We Vote the Way We Do

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Mr. Kitchen is a former book review editor for HNN.

We can’t really convince our friends or that damned brother-in-law of anything during an election year, nor are they any more successful with us. The conversations go on for months. Both sides use the tricks of logic, but to no avail. All the evidence, even some matters that are not quite evident, are pulled into the discussion by all involved. Still no one moves. Carefully selected statistics, the last refuge of dirty rotten scoundrels, are pulled out like Christmas presents and, to the shock of both sides, even they do not carry the day. Appeals to decency are made, prejudices are laid bare, but nothing. Scoffing, snorting, and sarcasm are then hauled out. The whole thing devolves into an embarrassing and not-too-intellectual equivalent of a fifth-grade foodfight. I’ve even seen it happen between a sensitive, well-meaning Obamaite husband and his decent, thoughtful McCainite wife. (She CAN be a maverick!)

As such divergent figures as Lenin and Tolstoy cried, “What is to be done?” Through an ethnocentric lens, our current crisis seems just as insoluble as theirs. What comes over us every four years? What divides us so deeply from the person sitting just on the other side of the table that we can remember loving only, say, two hours ago?

I will take a stab at the matter, and, hopefully, I will be able to avoid seeming like a special pleader for either of the current candidates. In addition, I hope that what I say can be construed as having at least a residue of respect for both of them. At least a residue.

The real attractions of candidates for public office can often be difficult to explain. Imitating philosophers, we might do well to start with definitions. Nearly a century ago, the great sociologist Max Weber helpfully divided authority into three ideal types: traditional, rational-legalistic or bureaucratic, and charismatic. When wisely employed, this clever sparsing goes far in explaining the almost always incompatible kinds of authority and leadership that we find in our world and why and how bonds can be established between leader and led.

Next we should note that neither of our two current examples, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, is a “traditional” leader carrying a hereditary title such as prince or count who could appeal to tradition and thereby compel us to defer to him; that is, neither springs from a politically prominent, politically entrenched family. Nor does either man claim authority because he steps forward from the managerial-bureaucratic ranks. Barack Obama and John McCain are not technocratic, workaday managers of vast, sprawling organizations. This leaves us with our third possibility, the matter of their charisma.

It has been some time since this nation has experienced charisma on this level. Ronald Reagan springs to mind. He spoke with force, lucidity, and ease, communicating his self-assurance to his supporters, then locking them in a tight, affection-filled embrace. John Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson are other examples of this type of appeal. They had charisma in spades. This sort of thing is an ephemeral quality that is impervious to reason. It excites people, even when they can't tell you why. It also maddens adversaries, who simply don’t get it.

A charismatic leader, also, is usually a newcomer, though Mr. McCain gives the lie to the view that this must always be so. He possesses a charisma that springs from his biography as a war hero, his unpredictability, his defiant “mavericky” personality. In contrast, the upstart Obama leans on his eloquence, his quick smile, his almost unstated half-African-American, half-Caucasian promise that he transcends an old and shameful division that should no longer obsess us. As is usual with charismatic types, each of the opponents seems to sum up inchoate feelings and longings, an exasperation with the status quo. This may be at the bottom of why this contest has become a slapdown about who has the right to wrap himself in the angelic robes of “change.”

Change may or may not be holy, but we would do well to recognize that charisma can result in both good and ill. On the upside, a charismatic leader can mobilize energy, inspire millions, achieve the unlikely. As president, Mr. Obama could prove to be a deeply eloquent crusader who could inspire and lead an entire generation. For his part, Mr. McCain might prove an irresistible force, a septuagenarian Teddy Roosevelt whose image, whose very persona, would allow him to cut across the ideological divide that seems to imprison the safer, more consistent types.

On the downside, a charismatic leader is often a mindless charlatan, a deceiver, a seductive self-server. Aaron Burr was a disaster. Andrew Jackson was, undoubtedly, a demogogue who played in the fire of populist politics. Some would argue that his almost complete success set back the tone of our national politics for a generation. Adolf Hitler, of course, is the example that undoubtedly and most persuasively accounts for the abiding suspicion of charisma. He was a nearly deranged nobody, a provincial, an unimportant corporal who came to mesmerize millions. The ovens of the holocaust were his parting gift to us. Thank you, charisma.

Successes and failures aside, we are now stuck with only this charismatic ideal type to draw from in our current election year. So similar in the gifts they bring, McCain and Obama have found the need to differentiate from each other. After the nominations by the respective parties of the two candidates, that differentiation did ensue, it had to, and it did so with the force of a syllogism. The battle then formed along a slightly different line, a generational demarcation that separates the potentially dangerous innocence and inexperience of Barack Obama from the seasoned-by-fire, perilously Bush-compromised experience of John McCain.

The older Senator is the beneficiary of a fetish for experience that is held by many. Those who fall on that side of the great divide would point out the tested characters of the deeply experienced Washington, Jefferson, or Madison. The followers in the other camp, on the other hand, would be quick to point out that holders of weighty, respectable resumes can perform miserably once in office. Think of the elder Adams, the catastrophic Buchanan, and the relentlously ruinous Tyler--unsuccessful all, but on paper three of the most"qualified" and experienced men ever to hold the office of the presidency. We have all learned from our own working lives that resumes can fool.

The lack of experience of the younger Senator, though vilified by many, is viewed by just as many others as an asset. Mr. Obama’s true believers sometimes argue that his inexperience simply means that he has not had as much time to buy into the system. From our national history, the apologists for this position can safely fall back on the example of Abraham Lincoln, an unknown, single-term congressman from the very edge of the national frontier. Furthermore, after a single year as mayor of Buffalo and less than a single term as governor of New York, Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1884. He would then serve two nonconsecutive presidential terms and wind up winning the popular vote for the nation’s highest office three times. In addition, he has a rising reputation among historians. He and Lincoln did pretty well for such inexperienced fellows.

Amidst such arguments and the acknowledgement of the failures and successes of charisma, inexperience, and experience, small wonder that our national discussion has become a cacophony. The situation can even lead to the viewpoint, and it is one that I unshakeably hold, that choosing a president is a crapshoot. It is embarrassing, but we are guessing. We lack prescience. We never truly know who will prove successful and who will not. The variables are many and complex. Simple, dumb luck can often decide the issue.

The whole mess of choosing boils down to values. The belief that evangelicals are the only values voters is a canard. We all have values and we are all evangelical about something. Our only resort, and one to which we are drawn without fail every four years, is to vote according to our value systems and our worldviews. They are the heart of the matter.

What doesn’t matter is how many statistics and policy positions we have memorized. Despite our pretensions, few of us are actual policy wonks. The whole thing will break down less tidily. Some of us will vote according to how dangerous we perceive the world to be. Some will vote to protect whatever little hard-won money remains in our pocketbooks. Others will vote on the basis of some vague sense of idealism. Still others may vote in the hope of finally realizing certain heartfelt desires that they believe would ring in a better world--more humane, more just, more generous. There is no ready guide, of course, for deciding which of these values should carry greater weight. We should, however, recognize that in the end we vote simply according to those values that we PREFER.

With these bedrock personal preferences as a given, the arguments for the relative inexperience and idealism of Barack Obama and the crusty, proven experience of John McCain can both be seen as the thinnest of rationalizations. A visiting alien would go slack-jawed, for if the roles were reversed, our allegiances would reverse. The great Swift would be delighted.

Despite what most of us think we know, almost no one will vote for John McCain only because he is old and has experience. Lots of people are old and have experience. The old bastard at the end of the street who yells at children to get off his lawn could give us that. It is just as true that precious few will vote for Barack Obama simply because he is young and seems like a breath of fresh air. The brash, loud-mouthed young college dropout who lives two doors down and galls us to the core could bring that to the table.

As we approach the voting booth and our pulse quickens, all of this will prove to be true when we will finally realize that, once again, we must vote for the candidate who most closely reflects our core values, who most closely reflects the ethos that we think is more likely to help us gain what we want for ourselves and for our children. All the rest is spume and froth.

That is what makes the election booth the point of truth for each one of us. It is where we all finally come to face our inner selves as we push the chads for what we truly believe. This whole thing is not about Obama and McCain, it is about us. We vote our values without caring a fig for those of the person in the next booth who is voting differently. The rest, the charms and perils of charismatic appeal, and the gabfest about experience and the lack thereof that we listen to so attentively, are external to our inner drama. We roll the existential dice and gamble on the externals like drunken sailors. We never gamble, we never risk, our most deeply cherished values.

This is what makes temperatures rise. This is why we cannot make our choices and do this election thing respectably or respectfully. It is what robs us of any notion of our fallibility. It is what makes us challenge the decency of those with whom we disagree, just as it brings us to claim that God has chosen sides or that our political adversaries do not love their country enough.

To our shame, we will never draw this poison from our politics. That is why Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike will continue to see each other as zoological specimens, and why all will continue to pursue differently imagined solutions for repairing this world. As Immanuel Kant once noted and the wise Isaiah Berlin reiterated, mankind is made of crooked timber.

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More Comments:

Leslie Kitchen - 11/18/2008

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

I was speaking more of person-to-person discussions of politics and why we seem not to understand each other, regardless of how convincincing we try to be.

I don't think that only liberals pollute the process, but I do believe that liberals, consevatives, and independents alike are willfully unable to process information that contradicts their core values, regardless of indivdual policy positions, statistics, or "new" information.

You are right about the public being misinformed. Politicians are almost like magicians in manipulating voters' "hot" buttons. The voters, however, are quite complicit, even quiescent in this process. The best definition of politics that I have ever heard, and it is a cynical one, is that politics is "the organixation of hatreds."

Raul A Garcia - 10/31/2008

Good reflective piece. I don't buy into the "fractured" body politic however. The author leaves out the fact and viability of concensus and compromise that is at the center of our politics also. Many of us are cool and collected. I for one, sent my vote in by mail, in large part to go "green"and make it much less stressful. Too much money has been spent in "misinforming" the public and creating an expensive absurd theater. The author is partly right that we remain too alienated from those stereotypes "down the street"- we should converse more than quip talk on the cellular, observe traffic rules more strictly- there are too many liberals in this daily arena that diminishes us and pollutes. Many take voting seriously but also realize that the exercise thereof is more important than hyperbole, posturing, and media wishful thinking.