Personality Matters in Politics

Society breaks down into assemblages of people who identify themselves by region, by race, and moral, spiritual and philosophical boundaries. Often, these boundaries are defined by the laws each respective group sets for itself.

As important as these laws are, it's rare for people - even many politicians - to view or impart proposed legislation on their own. Most people don't download bills and pore through them in a vacuum. Many bills are legalistic, dependent on prior laws, and difficult to sift through, so we often depend on media 'analysts' to tell us what they mean. After all, who has the time to do otherwise? Gathering an informed opinion about any topic, particularly the ramifications of any given law, takes time and energy and patience, and that's something in short supply for a lot of us.

We therefore rely on messengers: politicians to sell us the laws that define our culture, and cable news pundits, articles and op-ed contributors to tell us whether it's worth our time. Everything passes through a filter. While trying to catch this filtered information, we contend with all manner of bias. We must often deal with the messenger more than the message, and this creates conditions where the only way to get to the heart of a message is to push through the messenger until something resembling truth seeps out.

These messengers are often think tanks or politicians, but sometimes they're lobby groups and advertising agencies. Either way, we view every potential legislative miracle or disaster through the lens of a personality or a campaign. That's just the way it is.

There are oases from the circus. For instance, I love the site if only for its insistence on moving past personality and vetting truth from untruth in politics. It may not be a perfect forum, and I'm sure there's a bias to be found there, but it's still a refreshing place to visit.  Look anywhere else, and you're pushing through a cavalcade of personalities marching across the front pages, delivering speeches and throwing insults and kissing babies and making grandiose, empty statements that don't approach the substance of any issue.

This cult of personality that surrounds elections, and the increasing din over political races and contests has always been prominent. It's nothing new, it's just amplified by technology. It's not just that we're obsessed with celebrity and personality in politics, but politicians and superstar pundits have become surrogate vessels for the policies, morals, and ideals we seek to adopt for ourselves. They are, in a way, supercharged avatars for our own moral and societal aspirations.

These people are symbols. They are accessible personalities breathing life into figures, statistics, studies, and academic reports. They are a way to convert reflection on a society - for instance, how it treats its poor, or imprisoned populations - into something like mass entertainment. Even outside of news entertainment, we have politicians lining up to get us to like them.

Personalities take topics as disparate as the environment, illegal immigration, domestic security and campaign finance reform, and make them compelling and marketable. Personalities transform dry debates on these topics into contentious soap operas. Personalities - and in this case, I mean politicians, candidates, pundits and entertainment personalities - make topics accessible, but they can also misinform, misrepresent, and deceive.

Since we are, as viewers and analysts, forced to scrutinize the messengers in this personality-centric world of politics, it can become quite easy to resort to the ad hominem attack. This logical fallacy is probably the most common in debate. It boils down to attacking the messenger instead of the message. It's much easier, after all, to discredit a person than a policy. Policies are more impassable, while people are just waiting to screw up.

I've fallen into the ad hominem trap many times. It's just so easy to do. But the truth remains - in order to analyze policy we must push through the personalities. We must analyze the messengers. They come intertwined with the policies they propose, for better or for worse.


Popular Posts