Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Poser Factor: A Psychologist's Take on the Presidential Election

As the Presidential election grinds along, candidates periodically whine about their media coverage. The truth of the matter, however, is that--for the most part--the Presidential hopefuls get a free ride on their questionable views.

Consider: Clinton and Obama can propose with straight faces (and an unquestioning media) that the U.S. government--yes, the same government that brought us emergency management in New Orleans and escalating budget deficits--will effectively and efficiently manage our health care system. McCain intones that the American occupation of Iraq--yes, the one that started as a liberation and now dangerously overstretches the military--should morph into ongoing, de facto colonization. Credulous reporters get their quotes right and pass along his prescriptions.

No, it's pretty difficult to raise media ire with matters of policy. Let there be an issue of character, however, and the media pwnage is palpable. The most recent case in point was Clinton's portrayal of herself under fire on the Bosnia tarmac. It wasn't just that she was lying; at that point she was a poser. You know the kind: the ones who show up with their Hot Topic t-shirts du jour and suddenly become alt-rockers, goths, metalheads, what have you. Liars can be engaging; posers are just annoying. And the media doesn't suffer annoying fools gladly.

That's why reporters turned on McCain when he suddenly courted the religious right and embraced the once-reviled Bush tax cuts. This wasn't the maverick everyone loved; it was a conservative poser--and the conservatives knew it most of all.

Bush the draft avoider lands his aircraft on a destroyer and declares "mission accomplished"? Poser. Romney the Massachusetts moderate discovers the evils of immigration? Spitzer the righteous solicits services from the human traffickers he prosecutes? Posers all; bring on the media feeding frenzy.

So perhaps it's a sign of the topsy-turvy times that Obama's recent fortunes hinge on the desire that the American public will actually see him as a poser in the Wright church: a likable unifier who only sat in the pews to build his street cred with Chicago constituents. The possibility that it's not a pose--that it's part of a larger, consistent pattern of sincere disaffection with the country--well, that is worse than annoying. Love of country, like love of a spouse, loses more than credibility when framed as incessant calls for change.

Will we elect a poser? Will we elect someone we desperately hope is a poser? Only in an environment where such questions are possible could the Republican who solicited partnership with John Kerry, then the endorsement of George Bush, ride the "straight talk express" to his party's nomination.

There's no lack of hope--or audacity--in election 2008.


Colin said...

"The people get the goverment they deserve".

Although you must admit, the game forces someone to become who they are not to win. Selling your soul to the devil is a pre-requisite, not a bonus. How many potentially great politicians have been brought down by not compromising on their ideals, neglecting to build an adaquate demographic base, and thus being beat out by much more incompetent opponents? Politics is truly about the lesser of two evils, it seems.

And people wonder why Bloomberg refuses to run. I see an extremely intelligent man who would make a great President, but the term 'unelectable' exists for a reason.

Martingale said...

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Winston Churchill

Speech in the House of Commons (1947-11-11)

SSK said...

The one candidate that wasnt a poser was Ron Paul. It was good to see him get some coverage and in some areas a good percentage of the vote. I fear for the younger generations in this country.

Markus said...

Great rage, Brett, and I bet these politicians are in the end not better or worse than you and me: they are just pursuing their legal business which matters (for you and me ;-)

CharlesTrader said...

It is true that leadership seems to be the profession of the professional salesperson, or the ruthles, or even worse, the ruthless, professional salesperson.

In democracies, however, much of the blame is with the voting public, as others above have stated.

The God fearing public would not hesitate to vote for the devil, if they tought that it would give them an advantage in life.


CharlesTrader said...

I should add that journalism is a profession that is good at determining what the public wants to hear rather than what the public should hear. Politics is pretty much the same thing in determining what the public wants to hear to attract votes. Politicians also need to be good at turning a disadvantage into an advantage; figuring out ways to turn criticism into an asset.

So, you have two different professions working side-by-side trying to achieve the same goal - selling to the public.

In defense of the system, there may be an advantage to the country in electing a person who can survive the irrational and brutal election process. If you are that good of a personal fighter, maybe you will fight just as hard for the country's welfare.



mooheadradio said...

When every possible answer to every available question is researched to death, you get soundbytes, not real answers. Like the radio playing the same 250 songs over and over, people feel comfortable hearing the same questions and answers over and over. It is less thought provoking, less challenging.

What makes people "mis-speak"? What makes them pad their resume or make up stories entirely? I suppose our politicians are largely fictionalized. So much so, that we don't know them at all. Is McCain a maverick or a conservative christian? Is Obama patriotic or disloyal? It is remarkable how little we know about these people. Even more amazing is the fictionalized "redemption" these people realize. Spitzer tells the world he is addicted to sex and goes to "therapy". Ted Haggard went one step further. He had gay, christian sex, and redeemed himself by opening his own therapy clinic with the help of public funding. Jimmy Swaggart "sinned", Bill Clinton never touched her and didn't inhale, Ronald Reagan was a war hero...either in a movie or in real life.

It gets to the point that the candidates believe their fictionalization. But, then again, they don't buy groceries, carry cash, have jobs, or mingle with "real" people. Except in fictionalized town hall meetings on TV.

Mr Moohead
Resident Bovine

Brandon Wilhite said...

When I look at politics and the media, I mostly see suspicion, distrust, and criticism...which is why I pretty much stay away from the stuff.

I believe that in turn what we see in these two arenas is really a result of a much larger culture of distrust. While in some ways that is a warranted view, in other ways it is also a dangerous view. On the one hand there should be a healthy questioning of the "facts" which are presented to us...on the other hand if all we ever do is question, then we are left angry, frustrated, and impotent. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, a stance of 'critical realism' is difficult to hold and navigate. Therefore most people seem to choose the path of pure skepticism.

Imho, many of the ills of the world today can be chalked up to this de facto stance.


Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the excellent comments on the (mercifully rare) political post. Question what you see and hear is good advice for politics as for markets. As Mr. Moohead points out (do check out his sports site at, there is much fictionalization to get past in the political world--not unlike the hype we have to overcome in trading.


jeff said...

Dr. Brett, your observations are astute and penetrating. However, I think there is a world of difference between being a poser like Clinton, Obama, McCain, not to mention Spitzer, and between Mr. Bush, who's been knowingly condemnig thousands of Americans (and countless thousands of Iraqis)to cruel and unusual death, and tens of thousands others to life in pain, for no good reason, indeed no reason at all, not even the spoils of war. And ruining the economy in the process. But who cares? If people really had problem with posers, they would vote for Nader, wouldn't they?

David said...

Brett and gang,

Interesting post and great comments. I certainly agree with the points made about the problems inherent in democracy, and with Ssk's comments about Ron Paul being more of the genuine article.

But the funny thing is, what stands out to me most in this post are Brett's comments on the way we regard posers, especially given the example of the recent "goth" or "alt-rocker" convert. This brought back a funny memory for me (Brett, being a fellow Chicagoan, you'll appreciate this).

I had a friend who was a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan back in the early-mid 90's alt-rock heyday. Of course, being self-conscious teenagers we had a deep mistrust of Q101-style Johnny-come-latelys who were even more recent converts to the music and trends.

My friend was alarmed at the growing number of recent Pumpkins devotees who had climbed aboard the bandwagon, wearing their SP t-shirts with pride. As ridiculous as it sounds, we decided to head down to The Alley to find him a relatively poser-free Smashing Pumpkins shirt design (one that had not yet been donned by the crowd).

My friend found the perfect shirt (a white t-shirt with the simple SP heart band logo), paid for it, and threw it on with satisfaction. We were all smiles as we walked out from the alley on the side of The Alley and back out onto the street. We had barely hit the sidewalk when we looked to our left and saw a kid our age walking towards us...with the exact same Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt.

The look of exasperation on my friend's face was priceless.

Moral: I don't know. But I guess we learned that day that you can't buy your individuality with a t-shirt.