AMERICANS are prolific taste-testers. We are curious. We are game to try. We’ll test-drive cars, savor free samples, and sign up for trial subscriptions. We enjoy flaunting that well-developed capacity to weigh, analyze, and render a decision in one fell swoop. Malcolm Gladwell fleshes out a description of this ability in Blink, his entertaining treatise on “thin slicing.” In any short term encounter, however, Gladwell suggests that we often trade the quality of a deliberative decision for the surety of a quick decision. And sometimes we pay the price for it, as snap judgments based on a sip don’t always match the taste of a real drink.
If these brief mental auditions inform our consumption, it’s no wonder our culture of taste-testers also relishes the political application—an election year of debate clips, crowd chants, and well-designed posters all handing out quick sips of our choices for Commander in Chief.
In the 2008 campaign, potent political strategy combined with more media outlets than any previous election to proliferate these bite-sized impressions. As voters finally put the race to rest, we might consider how the “tasting” process informed our decision. We had more than a year of vetting, but it primarily consisted of calculated image construction in which some were more successful than others. Obama was “hopeful,” “fresh,” and “charismatic.” McCain was “dependable,” “patriotic,” and should you forget at any point, a “maverick.” But our recollection of issues may be a bit less clear. Let’s see: taxes? Er … health care? Something about “drill, baby, drill”? Somebody named Bill Ayers? Joe the Plumber?
A November Zogby poll showed how voters’ taste associations played like a blindfolded flavor game. Nearly 60% of Obama voters didn’t know which party currently controls Congress. 87% of them knew Sarah Palin said she could “see Russia from her house,” but roughly the same percentage could not correctly answer questions about Obama’s strong-arming of opponents in his first election, his associations with Weather Underground, or his admission that his coal policy would intentionally bankrupt the coal industry. In an audio survey of Harlem that went viral, African-American voters supported McCain’s policies when they were attached to Obama’s name.
The numbers show (so far) that high percentages of the people who voted for our new president are politically ill-informed. That doesn’t by any means nullify their choice, but it does cast shadows on the grand narratives of record participation and first-time voting. Sure, lots of people voted for the first time, but did they know what they were choosing? And how did we get to the point that we can endure two long years of learning the candidates and still not really know them?
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The Obama-McCain election may have hit new lows in media-saturated voter ignorance, but it traced a trajectory that began soon after the creation of the office. Since the 1800 election, American presidential candidates have courted opinion with the “popular arts”—the demagogue rhetoric and voter-based leadership the Founders disparaged as unfitting for the office.
In the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson built a strong party platform on the strength of his own ideas for states rights, electorate empowerment, and Western expansion. But in the meantime, he worked feverishly to pigeonhole his opponent, John Quincy Adams, leaving Adams holding an outdated bag of Whiggish philosophy. In the early 1900s, after a period of conservative executives, Theodore Roosevelt recast the office as a political powerhouse. He later wrote in his autobiography: “If a man is fit to be President, he will speedily so impress himself in the office that the policies pursued will be his anyhow, and he will not have to bother as to whether he is changing them or not.” In other words, he should so strongly personalize the presidency that whatever good done is credited to him.
Woodrow Wilson heralded the coming of popular leadership with the driving force of his own Utopian rhetoric. He wrote that the president “can dominate his party by being spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country, by giving direction to opinion, by giving the country at once the information and the statements of policy which will enable it to form its judgments alike of parties and men.”
Scholars classically define the modern presidential elections as Wilsonian creations, cut loose from the institutional limits of the machinery politic. As presidential scholar James Ceaser tells it, Wilson understood the office to be the ultimate tool for the inspirational leader—one who would offer a vision to the nation without the surly bonds of party organizations and platform. But Wilson’s system hacked at the line between demigod and demagogue as charisma’s agenda trumped party policy.
Now, things are tilted even further toward persona, as evidenced by the prevalence of YouTube clips and pseudo-grassroots diversions like Facebook groups and iPhone apps. Today’s interpretation offers an “open” system that relies on the dominance of a candidate’s image, defining their party’s platform only as necessary. (In this election, both Obama’s and McCain’s positions proved expendable or alterable when the moment required.) Coupled with the rise of digital media, this enables candidates to make or break their presidential bid with the postmodern suavity of a well-placed ad campaign, an SNL sketch, or a 30-minute infomercial.
But image-based election is that it leaves little room for tangible leadership. The vote is blind without concrete policies or clear clashes of ideas. Theoretically, the obscenely long campaign season might have encouraged stronger issue development, but average voters ultimately choose a man who created his own brand without the structure of a party platform or voting issues.
So, we took the challenge, and we got the t-shirt. But there’s more to product analysis than initial introductions. The “home test” is another method that measures alternative response to a product. Home-use looks at how customer preferences handle a whole week of the product—versus just a sip. And unlike the wildly commercialized outcomes of the Pepsi Challenge, Coke always handily won the home tests. It seems that although people liked the flavor of Pepsi on first impression, they preferred Coke for the whole drinking experience.
With Barack Obama’s inauguration today, our long-term home test begins. It may be less attractive to political fashionistas in the impulse-driven age demographics, but what we’ve lacked in deliberation should be tempered with what we can provide in accountability. Image-based politics fit well with our thin-slicing minds, but a presidential taste-test doesn’t do the office justice. As we start the next assessment, hopefully the full glass will match our first impressions.
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