Paul Nitze: Choosing between two guys from Planet Vulcan in 2012
Drew Westen is a brain man at the University of Emory who is on his way to being a bona fide public intellectual. “Brain man” is not the most artful description, but Westen’s career has spanned political science, psychology and neuroscience, so he’s hard to put in a box. Westen contributes to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and was in the news for his recent vivisection of the president in The New York Times. Before that, he wrote a fine book called “The Political Brain.”Westen’s a Democrat who thinks Democrats run lousy campaigns. They lean way too hard on reason, when most voters are animated by gut feeling. “The Political Brain” is partly a love letter to Bill Clinton, who gets high marks for his emotional appeal. Chapter one describes Clinton’s famous “Man from Hope” television ad, which creates so many positive associations with the candidate that it’s a sort of political umami. Westen contrasts “Man from Hope” with a similar spot that John Kerry ran in 2004. It features members of Kerry’s platoon praising his courage in Vietnam, and some warm words from Kerry’s family.Clinton’s ad was simple, narrated by him alone, and left the impression that Clinton was presidential, but not above you. Kerry’s ad told a bunch of different stories, it used multiple narrators, and it left the impression, to quote Westen, “This guy isn’t like me.”If you’ve ever knocked on doors for an hour, Westen’s theories about voter choice ring true. So how can it be that we’re headed for a presidential showdown between two guys who the large majority of Americans don’t trust in their gut? It seems that either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will be in the White House in 2013, and whichever of them wins the contest, they’ll have gotten millions of votes from people who neither trust nor particularly like them.Wait a second, you say. Does anybody in these miserable times actually like our leaders? Don’t we expect our politicians to be slick and untrustworthy? Sure, I agree, but this time is different.In Barack Obama we have a president who, after two years of cool and dispassionate leadership, has alienated a lot of his core supporters. Many feel like they don’t know what makes him tick. That they ever felt like they knew what made him tick is the bigger surprise, because he told us in “Dreams from my Father” that his identity has been an ongoing construction project. The president has brought a new, missionary style of politics to the White House, and it’s oddly similar to Romney’s. Instead of convincing voters that they’re like you, both emphasize that even if they’re completely alien, they’ll work really hard on your behalf. They’re the political reincarnation of Dr. Spock: “I come from another planet. I bring logic and experience. Live long and prosper.”Don’t knock it. All politicians learn to connect with strangers, but Romney and Obama have learned the difficult trick of connecting with people without seeming to identify with them. They’ve done that out of necessity. Obama because of the hard truth that if he had run as more of a “conviction” politician, white voters would not have looked past his race. Romney because of his Mormon faith, which many Protestant evangelicals can’t abide.If you want to know what standard conviction politics looks like, Rick Perry is your man. He was a “yell leader” at Texas A&M. He knows who his people are (mostly white, mostly evangelical, mostly from the South and Midwest), and he’s all about telling you he’s a regular guy. Although Perry doesn’t have the sheer charisma of Bill Clinton, he’s running the kind of campaign that, if you believe Westen, should be successful.That it’s not says something about how the country has changed. I don’t know exactly why conviction politics isn’t working, but my gut (cue the snare) tells me it has something to do with increasing racial and ethnic diversity, income inequality and the role of money in politics. Surely as we’ve become more fragmented, emotional appeals have become harder to target. The big problem with this is how hard it has made it for the president to govern. Republicans in Congress have obstructed his agenda because they sense, correctly, that voters whose support lies in their heads aren’t as committed as voters whose support lies in their hearts. One of the only things allowing our democracy to function in recent years was the growing power of the presidential bully pulpit, and with President Obama that has been diminished. Because Mitt Romney’s base of support is so similar, he will also find it impossible to govern if he wins office.One small ground for optimism is that the type of politics practiced by Obama and Romney is instinctively unifying. If you caught a private moment with either, they’d tell you that we can’t keep eroding American institutions that bring different people together. It’s an idea that has much in common with the last American president who many voters found strange and unappealing – George H.W. Bush. Bush Sr. believes in the old American tradition of associationalism and community institutions. It was at the heart of his “thousand points of light” vision, which refers to “people who get involved in their communities and help to make them better places to live.”When the president announced this week that we will withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of the year, it served as another reminder of how little we have been asked to participate in and sacrifice for this war. That is of a piece with a general failure of our political institutions to demand sacrifice or build community in recent years. The type of politics practiced by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, for all its weaknesses, does seek to repair trust.
Paul Nitze has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.
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