Something struck me during last night’s debate: During one of her answers Sarah Palin described her desire to return the belief in American Exceptionalism, the belief that America and its citizens are different and set apart in some way than other nations. It is closely linked to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States had essentially a natural right to expand its borders and influence. To a lot of people, American Exceptionalism means there is something intrinsically different about this country that makes it better or more desirable than other countries. There is something special about America that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Palin wants to continue the thought that America is the greatest nation and her citizens can always be proud.
What strikes me is the argument going on in this nation over which candidate is more like the common citizen and which candidate is the “elitist.” McCain tries to paint Obama as an out-of-touch “celebrity” who sees rural America as people who cling to guns and God out of desperation while Obama wants to describe McCain as a man who is so removed from the middle class he can’t even define it and doesn’t even know how many houses he owns.
What is inspiring both of these candidates to use such arguments is—and McCain’s top adviser feels this way—is that the election will not come down to the issues but to the personalities. While the Obama team rightly pounced on this statement as diversion politics, what the McCain camp feels is not entirely incorrect. Likability ratings are one of the most focused on factors for a political candidate and they are constantly seeking to keep that rating high. So many times we here referenced the candidate people think reminds them of one of their relatives or the candidate they most want to sit down and watch a football game with or knock back a beer with. While it seems distracting to try to focus on personalities and not issues, past elections have consistently shown that personality matters deeply and how people view a candidate’s personality can determine whether or not they will vote for that person, even if they don’t necessarily share their policy views completely.
One of the most important factors cited for George W. Bush becoming president was he his high likability rating when he was running for president. People said he seemed like the uncle they had growing up who would awkwardly laugh as he stumbled over something he was trying to say. Admittedly not the most eloquent speaker, but instead someone who struggled remembering specific names and who at times seemed nervous. He was the candidate people saw as the everyday citizen, the one they would most want to have a beer with and just shoot the breeze. His campaign would play up this image of the man who just liked to watch baseball on his free time, the national pastime. He was presented as the everyman candidate and a lot of people bought into it and liked him more because of it. It was supposed to show that here was a guy, just like you, who is the president. Never mind that this “everyman” is the son of a former president and ran an oil company and a Major League Baseball team, something no one in my social circle has ever come close to doing yet. But this of course is not the image you want people to have of the candidate. You don’t want them to seem out of touch or above the average citizen. They need to appear just like everyone else, the average guy who just happens to be running for president.
And what did the Bush team do to his opponents? They painted them as “elitist” and not like the average citizen. John Kerry was the French-loving, cheese-eating, wine-drinking mutant who in no way could relate to the problems of the average citizen. He’s the kind of person who thinks he’s better than you, secluding himself in his study to read from his extensive personal library rather than go down to the local watering hole to enjoy the game with the town folk. A lot of people and the media picked up on this image, pointing out the awkwardness of Kerry when his campaign forced him into the photo-op everyman activities to try to counter punch this image. And we saw this with the present campaigns during the primaries. Mitt Romney tried to tout his hunting credentials about he loved to go after critters and varmints in his backyard and Hillary Clinton famously took a shot of whiskey that made the average citizen stop and say, “Hey, I want to take shots in the mid-afternoon too. Maybe I’ll give Clinton a second look.” Every candidate seemed to trip over themselves to show that they were no different than the rest of us, that there was nothing truly exceptional about them to set them apart from you or me.
Why is it that so many citizens expect our country to set itself apart and be the standard bearer for excellence but at the same time want our leaders to be someone just like them? And even when you have one candidate who made his way through the military ranks due to his father’s last name and married into money is going against a candidate who was raised by a single mother, grew up on food stamps, but managed to graduated from Ivy League institutions and deferred high-paying law firm work to instead work with the inner-city and poor community it is the latter candidate who is the “elitist?” At what point did intelligence and excellent rhetorical skills become a handicap for a candidate? Shouldn’t we want the smart, well-read, well-spoken people leading this country? If I’m seeing a brain surgeon I’m not going to pick the clumsy, accident prone doctor who refers to my skull as my “brain helmet” who reminds me a little of me; I’m picking the one who graduated at the top of his class from Harvard who uses technical medical terms while he picks at my brain helmet.
Look, I understand the appeal of someone who seems like us being president because it comes back to the whole belief of America as the land of opportunity where anyone can make it if they try hard enough. And that’s the whole appeal behind Sarah Palin, the hockey mom who just happens to be running for vice-president. She tried very hard to come off as folksy and down to earth in the debate and she did a very good job of this. This is the type of person I would expect to see picking up their kid after school and driving them off to soccer practice, or in her case hockey practice. But this isn’t what we should expect out of our leaders. We should expect something more, something that is truly special about that leader that sets them apart. If America truly is exceptional, then our leaders need to be that as well. There’s something to be said about someone who has the ability to rise to the top above everyone else and lead. It shouldn’t be an indictment on a candidate that they are different than the average citizen, but that is what we should want. We all love that wacky Uncle Jim but I don’t want him to be president or vice-president because Uncle Jim has a knack to drink too much at Thanksgiving dinner, tell everyone what he “really thinks,” and pass out face first in his mashed potatoes. While that may be good entertainment for your night, it is not a quality I want to be in the leader of this nation. If America is truly an exceptional place, it is time we demanded our leaders be as such.
—M. Night Crawler