M.T. Kite-Powell: The Likability Myth

The American Thinker blog posted a piece this week discussing the role of the “likability factor” in how voters favor candidates, in reaction to what has become a tired mantra by the left in the media. Every presidential election cycle the media trot out a new magic buzzword or phrase that describes a must-have quality in that election cycle, and that – surprise – always magically fits the Democrat candidate. In 2000, the word of the day was “gravitas”. In 2004, it was “nuance”. In 2008, it was the ever-so-deep “cool”. This year, they’ve gone poly-syllabic with “likability factor”, although the premise behind it is actually not so recent.

“Likability factor” takes two things into consideration: charm and physical beauty. Of course, many of us are already rather aware that “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain” but American Thinker in this instance unfortunately takes the bait and argues favorability based on the media-concocted premise. As a result, both the premise and the response are flawed. The truth is that President Obama does win in the charm department over Mitt Romney, so to deny this is to lose credibility with your reader. Of course, both candidates are fairly good-looking, but to turn the campaign into a beauty pageant is to become tone-deaf to the interests of the voter.

The left sought to employ “likability” way back in the 1980s to explain away how it was that President Reagan connected so well with voters. Liberal politicos so often seem to be fixated on personality over substance, when it becomes clear that their ideas fail to resonate with most people. I guess that fact and the left’s uncanny ability to craft fiction is why they do make some good movies now and then.

But whether we win in November will have less to do with Romney personally than it will each of us personally. That’s sort of psych 101 and something they teach you in management school and couples counseling: ultimately what people want to hear are things having to do with them.

The voter doesn’t want to send someone to Washington so that politician can fulfill a personal career goal or because they have a likable personality or are easy on the eyes. Although all other things being equal, I’m sure personality and looks help to a small degree, but all things are never equal and issues are at stake.

What is it we call “issues” in a liberal electoral republic? Issues are those things that impact the lives of voters. Elections are about voters, not politicians, and so it goes that the candidate who communicates to the voter that s/he hears what concerns them and that s/he is running to serve the voter by offering solutions – or at least ameliorations – to the issues that impact the voter is the candidate who wins.

Now there is a sticky part here. What might that be? Let me divert for a moment into some fundamentals. Notice that I said “the candidate who communicates…” To communicate, two things must happen:

1. One first must send the message.

2. One must receive it.

On the sender’s part, the manner in which the sender sends the information should be optimized for the best possible likelihood of reception by the intended audience. On the receiver’s part, there must be this:

1. A willingness to receive and process the message.

2. The ability to do so.

Naturally, in any medium other than direct face-to-face communication (and even there certain other conditions are necessary, such as time, lack of certain distractions, language, tone, and so forth), to some extent great or small the integrity of the communication process exists at the mercy of the middle-man – be it a person, a group, technology, and so forth.

Obviously, miscommunication can happen and does happen due to a failure at any point along the route from sender to receiver, and the longer and more complex the route, the greater the chance of information being lost or latent and thus of little or no use to the receiver. Thus perception does not always pair up with reality. This easily explains the seeming paradox that candidates who offer little or no helpful substance on issues – or indeed, whose agendas regarding those issues are antithetical to the interests of the voter – somehow manage to win primaries and elections really rather often.

So it is not sufficient that a candidate be devoted to the correct positions on the issues that matter most and impact the lives of voters and be capable of working diligently and effectively to move policy in the right direction, but s/he must also inform the voter of this and the voter must also be receptive to this.

This is where political ads – and historically often more importantly – entertainment and news media, as well as academia become so important. In a modern society where the technical aspect of communicating long distances to large groups of people is not a problem, these other filters become the primary adversary for the good politician seeking to win elections.

The media sought to characterize Reagan’s electoral victories as purely ones of personality rather than substance, because to allow that he won on his merits was to allow a historical narrative to be developed that threatened the ideological agenda of the media. So the media which failed to prevent Reagan from communicating sufficiently with the voter, hailed him as The Great Communicator not because they believed his ideas to be great but because he won in spite of their biased reporting and hostile press conferences and the onslaught by entertainment culture – all of which sought to distort Reagan’s message while simultaneously inoculating the voter to that message in a verity of ways.

As the Reagan administration drew to a close, the media become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to spin events by twisting Reagan’s words and limiting Reagan’s direct access to the voter so that they could alter the historical narrative. In the post-Reagan era, the media has continued to step up this effort by overtly snubbing and talking over speeches by GOP candidates and presidents previously afforded the proper respect of heads of state and potential heads of state.

The media and academia also continued to promulgate the narrative that Reagan won on popularity rather than principle and in 1992 Bill Clinton was championed to the public as the next great president on this basis, while it sought to make Clinton and Bush appear fairly similar on key policy issues. Yet, the reality of what motivated the voter was not ultimately good hair, boxers over briefs or the ability to play the saxophone but the perception. What influenced many voters relying on media and academia for their information was the belief that Bill Clinton was a “new Democrat” moderate who embraced free markets, saw the failures of the Soviet era and socialism, would continue Bush’s national security priorities for the most part, and that he would not break his promises as Bush had with the “no new taxes” pledge.

However, had the voter been properly informed about Clinton on the issues that mattered as well as his propensity for lying, it seems very likely that Bush would have been re-elected that year.

Likability is therefore candy to informed favorability’s meat and potatoes. Paul Ryan has brought an exciting new dynamic to the Romney team, which is one of not only substance but substance that reflects and addresses the interests and needs of voters. Ryan also has a much better ability of communicating those ideas. The question now becomes this:

1. Whether the campaign will succeed in talking over the heads of media, deconstruct the academic and media premises.

2. Whether the campaign can successfully reach the non-politically active and apolitical voter (the 40ish percent in the so-called middle) and bring back those disaffected among the 50ish percent who self-describe as conservative, many of whom are not activist and lack the political savvy to proactively re-engage after being burned by a nasty primary process, much of which orchestrated by the liberal media and even some Republicans.

So if you have good ideas and the ability to push policy, that’s wonderful; however, failure to manage perception will end your chances before they began. Newt Gingrich saw this during his nomination bid, where he was enormously popular in the polls before the media and some of the other campaigns invested tens of millions of dollars to distort his message or paint him as unreliable. In states where Newt was well-known, he was able to overcome this information warfare and win by landslides; however, in states where he was not well-known, his campaigned lacked the resources to win the war of perception. Furthermore, the one area where Newt was able to go over the heads of the media and communicate his ideas – the debate – the media quickly adjusted and manipulated the questions, time allotted, those allowed to participate in the live audience (and even how and when they could respond) in order to steer the debates in a way that they would showcase only the candidates the media preferred.

But it’s not just negative perception that can harm a candidate but no perception at all. Thaddeus McCotter also faced the battle of reaching voters with his message and lacked sufficient resources to achieve it, all while a hostile media shut him out of debates while inviting more liberal candidates with similar poll numbers. Similar to McCotter’s plight was that of Ambassador Alan Keyes in the 2000 election cycle, where he was shut out of debates despite the inclusion of other candidates showing similar poll numbers. So how do we get our message around a hostile media today? It really takes two things, I think, at this point and time:

1. The sender must accept the fact that traditional media is hostile and use creative outlets like social media and the web.

2. The receiver must become more active than ever in the listening process. Turning on a news channel – even Fox News – is not by any stretch enough.

The good news is that the information age presents us with a golden opportunity for true popular involvement in the process. With the internet, every American can find what he or she needs to know about the candidates in about the same or less time than it does to do one’s taxes or pay bills – and infinitely more important. At the same time, there is also a genuine need for conservatives to move into every area of news and entertainment media. As Andrew Breitbart once famously put it, “The left wins because it controls the narrative. The narrative is controlled by the media. The left is the media. Narrative is everything.” The same need exists in academia.

The hope for America lies in our diffuse power that gives us freedom to innovate and develop those ideas into productive action. These free-market principles must also be exercised in the political arena; if power to be diffuse, it must be exercised by the people, and in this sense that means doing one’s homework. Indeed, it is even in the very act of proactively finding and therefore owning that information that the spirit of liberty and the free market perpetuates; it is only found in tyrannies that men are kept and fed like farm animals.

Truly, information is like a sword that can either be wielded or left in the stone. An educated and active citizenry portends a great future for America but to arrive at that place, we must move out of the information age into the age of knowledge.

“A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” – Benjamin Franklin

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