September 7, 2008

Politicians who can "relate"



There's a great article on the reception of Palin's speech here. Judith Warner hits it right on. I think Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof have addressed this issue as well. In America, it pays for a politician to "dumb it down" because people somehow feel that it's easier to relate to dumb people.

One of the worst poisons of the American political climate right now, the thing that time and again in recent years has led us to disaster, is the need people feel for leaders they can “relate” to. This need isn’t limited to women; it brought us after all, two terms of George W. Bush. And it isn’t new; Americans have always needed to feel that their leaders were, on some level, people like them.

But in the past, it was possible to fill that need through empathetic connection. Few Depression-era voters could “relate” to Franklin Roosevelt’s patrician background, notes historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “It was his ability to connect to them that made them feel they could connect to him,” she told me in a phone interview.

The age of television, Goodwin believes, has made the demand for connection more immediate and intense. But never before George W. Bush did it quite reach the beer-drinking level of familiarity. “Now it’s all about being able to see your life story in the candidate, rather than the candidate, with empathy, being able to relate to you.”

I still can't get over how W pulled it off. When all is said and done, people need a politician who can manage resources and lead people. Who cares if he or she would make a good PTA friend or drinking buddy? Most of us won't have the opportunity to attend soccer practice or drink beer with them anyway. The only way we're going to get rid of this trend is for us to make smart cool. We need to do more to start celebrating smart people in American society.

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