How physical appearance plays a role in our political preferences
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Jacob Lorinc
I’VE never watched Game of Thrones, but if I did, I figure it would look something like the February 13th Republican primary debate: politically chaotic, and distinctly medieval.
Maybe it was because of the red backdrop, or the look in Donald Trump’s eyes when slandering Jeb Bush, but something about that debate was eerily reminiscent of a more primitive period in human existence.
Apparently, others would disagree; something about Donald Trump and other loud-mouthed Republicans have captivated a fair portion of the American electorate. Their speeches lack any conceivable substance, and their credentials lack any prior political experience, but when narrowing the scope of their careers down to the performances they deliver onstage, even a thuggish business tycoon and a retired neurosurgeon can convince people that they deserve to be commander-in-chief.
It’s unsurprising, then, that U of T political science professor Ryan Hurl feels we’d be better off without the ability to visualize our political candidates. No more televised debates. No more political pep-rallies in Alabama hayfields. There would be no way of gauging a politician’s physical features or charismatic qualities until they’ve been elected to office. All we’d be left with are their names and political platforms delivered through radio or written word.
It paints quite the hypothetical: one that only a devoted political scientist would actually spend time thinking about, and one that’s difficult to refute. Imagine listening to Justin Trudeau discuss immigration policy over the radio without the faintest idea of what he looks like. How can we trust him? How do we know he’s not just a robot with a culturally ambiguous accent?
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are ones that we mostly derive from a candidate’s appearance. But that’s Hurl’s point. Physical appearance and charismatic qualities cloud our perception of political candidates. They allow us to form critical decisions around aspects of a candidate that don’t pertain to the job we’re electing them to do, and — considering the pseudo-Civil War partaking across the border — that’s a problem.
“When you have this face-to-face politics, it almost short-circuits the civilized, cultural aspects of our consciousness, and has the potential to tap into the deep evolutionary elements of how we respond to certain leaders,” Hurl says. “If this were a hundred-thousand years ago and we were deciding who’s going to be leader of the tribe in some primeval forest, then yes, quite possibly you’re going to be attracted to the person who’s bigger, stronger, and has more energy. The idea here is that modern technology — in a way — connects to some of those more primitive elements of human consciousness that we’re not always aware of.”
It would be hard to qualify a ‘golden era’ of politics in the west, but there’s something to be said for the time prior to the influx of modern technology, when physical attributes — within the privileged group of Caucasian males that comprised the political class — did not play a major role in determining political status.
Hurl cites James Madison, co-author of the United States Constitution and fourth President of the United States, as an example. “In the nineteenth century in the United States, not many people could know that James Madison was a tiny little man who isn’t a very good public speaker… This is one way of thinking about it: James Madison, the tiny man with the squeaky, unattractive voice, could never be a leading politician now, or it seems unlikely.”
In fact, political scientists can pinpoint the exact date when unattractive politicians like Madison had their chances of winning elections squandered. September 26, 1960 was the date of the very first televised debate in a US presidential election, and it permanently changed the way voters perceived presidential nominees.
The debate was between republican nominee Richard Nixon and democratic nominee John F. Kennedy. At the time, the two politicians had relatively similar policies — increased health aid for older citizens, heightened national security measures, and promises to pummel the Soviet Union into oblivion if necessary. What differed, however, was the way the nominees relayed this information. Nixon had just recovered from a bad knee injury, and spent the debate hunched onto one side, scowling at the live audience while humoring a few questions. Kennedy, on the other hand, stood with impeccable posture.
He smiled when asked questions, and looked directly into the camera while answering them.
As Hurl points out, those watching the debate on television thought that Kennedy won the debate, while those listening on the radio thought that Nixon won. What may have swayed voters in that election were Kennedy’s good looks and charismatic presence. “In many cases, elections are won by winning over people who don’t necessarily have the greatest amount of political consciousness — aren’t paying the most attention to politics — so those are the people that can potentially be swayed by things as irrelevant as how pretty or handsome… the candidate [is],” Hurl explains.
There are some arguments against hiding our politicians from the public eye, though. “You can increase… the rationality of decision-making, but it would be at the cost of radically reducing the scope of participation,” Hurl points out. Theoretically, removing politicians from the public eye would force the electorate to make more policy-based decisions, but less of the electorate would likely be willing to engage in the process. “If you eliminate the spectacle aspect of politics, you’re going to eliminate the scope of participation.”
Yet, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In a democracy, you can’t be too stupid to vote, but votes from the less politically-engaged often equate to less-informed choices. If the only thing voters knew about Donald Trump were his policies — namely, building walls, killing terrorists’ families, and so on — then perhaps his support, which thrives on massive rallies and active participation in ‘Trump-mania’ would weaken.
Despite all this, Hurl reminds me that regardless of how attractive your local candidate is, most voters have already made their decisions long before campaigning is underway. In the US some people will always vote republican, and some people will always vote democrat.
Between deep-rooted partisanship and votes based on charisma and physical characteristics, I can’t decide which I find scarier.