« Bringing a long spoon | Main | Book Report: The Perfect Summer »

Ooh, it burns me up

Well, and since watching that last debate (which was not a pleasant experience, although occasionally opening the laptop and checking the baseball score improved it a lot), I have been ruminating about persona and Presidential politics.

People (including YHB) have roundly mocked the idea of voting for the candidate you would like to have a beer with. And that’s a Good Thing; once the idea got out into the big old marketplace of ideas, it deserved to be mocked. But after watching the debate last night, it occurred to me that if a pollster asked me which candidate I would rather have a beer with, I might well take that as a sort of shorthand or signifier, or perhaps more accurately as a euphemism for which candidate I find least annoying.

I was thinking, again, about this idea I’ve been hocking about all summer, that there are a variety of audiences for political television, debates and conventions and speeches and such. There’s a sense in which the key audience for a debate is the undecided voter; most truly undecided voters will not watch the whole debate, but will catch bits and pieces of it through broadcast news and entertainment shows over the next few days. I should add this time the possibility that an undecided voter will catch bits of it on YouTube or other on-line sources; I think the number of people who (a) are undecided as of three weeks before the election, (2) are going to bother to watch YouTube clips, and (iii) will bother to vote is pretty small, but anyway. But we’ll include them in with those undecided voters who may be swayed by the debates.

I was trying to imagine what it’s like to be part of that group. They don’t find politics entertaining; if they found it entertaining, they would almost certainly have decided by now, and if not, they would have found so much other information that the debates would be the least of it. They do find it important, because they do vote. So I’m guessing that they find all discussion of politics unpleasant, in a range from annoying to disgusting. They watch the evening news or the Today Show, and when something comes up about politics, they grimace and shrug and roll their eyes. Now, that’s going to be at its worst during the campaign season, when there are going to be lots of clips and sound bites and whatnot, but throughout the next four years, one of these guys is going to be President, and that means that one of those guys is going to be on the TV every few days with a sound bite or photo op.

So on one level, if that was who I was, I would be inclined to vote for the guy I found the least annoying. The guy I wouldn’t mind (as much) seeing on the TV two or three times a week. The guy I wouldn’t mind (as much) having a beer with, if it came to that.

Now, as I say, I think that it’s important to mock that idea, because I think that it’s important that people do feel a little guilty that they don’t put a little mental elbow grease into their own governance. And to some extent, the guy who is the most annoying is likely to be annoying because he’s short, or he has a funny accent, or his face is annoyingly expressive, or he repeats himself a lot, or he’s from a different ethnicity, or he’s a woman. And that’s bad for democracy and bad for the government. But often the guy who is the most annoying is annoying because he is stubborn, or he seems indecisive, or he doesn’t listen to the moderator, or he keeps blathering on about stupid things, or he is contemptuous of women, or he dismisses as unimportant the things that really make a difference in the life of the undecided fellow. And those things can be a reasonable heuristic for the same things that high-information voters (such as YHB) base their highly informed judgements on. I mean, not to be all Blinky, but people really do have remarkable capacity for making snap judgments, at least to the point that those snap judgments are often the same as the highly-informed judgments that they come to after getting all that information.

On the other hand, Al Gore really was annoying. So was Our Only President, of course, but I could very easily imagine somebody just dreading the idea of having Al Gore on the television three or four times a week, totally unrelated to any policies or capabilities. And John McCain is annoying, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


For the most part, I'm as perplexed as you are about the undecided voters, but I've been reminded recently that there are people whose indecision isn't a result of not paying attention. Like, partisans who can't wrap their minds around voting for their party's nominee, but can't quite bring themselves to pull the lever for the other party, either. Or the single mom from Ohio featured in a recent New Yorker story: barely scraping by on two full-time jobs, she has no patience for McCain, but can't muster the faith that Obama's reforms -- or anything government could do -- might actually make her life better.

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.