The Pathology of Candidate Identification

Finally, someone wrote in a widely-read Internet magazine what I’ve been saying ever since I was old enough to understand how presidential elections worked: it is ridiculous to vote for a candidate merely because you can identify with him.

From Slate: The E-Harmony Election:

“We identify absolutely with our candidates; their struggles become our struggles, their suffering our suffering, their life history our life history. And if we watch the same sitcom, have the same “Midwestern values,” or sit in the same wing of the same church, well now we’re not just voters; we’re in luuuuve. When undecided voters say they need to hear more, they don’t mean they have yet to glean which candidate’s health care proposal is superior; they are waiting for their aha moment. That mind-meld that happens when you and your beloved bond over the chocolate fondue. Who gets me? Who’s like me? With whom do I feel a deep personal connection?

Issues? What issues? I’m voting for me this year.”

To me, it is an absolutely ridiculous proposition that voters would vote on the basis of identification, because the demand itself is contradictory. On the one hand, voters except their leader to be exceptional, but on the other hand, they also want their leaders to be “just one of us.” If you think about this logically, there is no way to reconcile these two conflicting demands.

But even practically, there is simply no way ONE person can credibly claim to identify with millions of possible voters, and vice versa! Yet every four years, we always get this game of oneupsmanship in which candidates kill themselves to try to portray themselves as someone an average voter can relate to, whether it’s through supposed “blue collar background” (don’t believe it), common values (maybe), populism (a complete joke), etc.

To wit: McCain’s sudden transformation into a populist, despite the fact that he doesn’t know how many houses he owns and is married to a billionaire. To wit: the Obama campaign’s decision to have Michelle Obama present her family as any other American family.

But my quesiton is this: WHY? There is no necessary connection between one’s policies and one’s finances (Ted Kennedy is fucking loaded, but he has done more for working class Americans than possibly every other member of Congress in the last 20 years). And even more importantly: what, exactly, is wrong with being an outspoken African American woman with strong opinions?

The Slate article goes on to say:

“The problems with voting for the candidate in the looking glass are myriad. For one thing, it alienates us from candidates who are smarter than we are (too intellectual), more charismatic (too messianic), or even more famous (too much of a celebrity). For another, the voter seeking to validate his own life story is conflating political issues with personal problems. Men who see themselves as victims of an affirmative action firing in the ’80s become the ancient mariners of affirmative action. Women who were asked to make coffee in 1991 are still reliving the humiliation.”

To me, this phenomenon is a serious pathology of the American political process.

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