The Politics of Vanity
In the immediate wake of the 2012 election, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, New Jersey, wrote a widely circulated essay which offered what many considered to be a profound and fundamental explanation for Romney’s loss to Obama, as excerpted below:
“…Romney did not lose because of the effects of Hurricane Sandy that devastated this area, nor did he lose because he ran a poor campaign, nor did he lose because the Republicans could have chosen better candidates, nor did he lose because Obama benefited from a slight uptick in the economy due to the business cycle. Romney lost because he didn’t get enough votes to win.
That might seem obvious, but not for the obvious reasons. Romney lost because the conservative virtues - the traditional American virtues – of liberty, hard work, free enterprise, private initiative and aspirations to moral greatness – no longer inspire or animate a majority of the electorate.
The simplest reason why Romney lost was because it is impossible to compete against free stuff.”
This is a common theme I have heard echoed among many observers, both known to me personally and on the conservative side of the media: Those with their proverbial hands out, not paying income taxes, not paying property taxes, receiving various entitlements, can increasingly out-vote the productive segments of the electorate. This guarantees, so it is argued, that it is all but impossible for a conservative candidate to win a national election.
I would concede that this is a powerful political force, but there are contradictory signs.
If this were really true, how is it that the GOP took the House in 2010, and then the Senate in 2014…two years after the article referenced above was written? Why did the ‘lazy freeloaders’ vote in the largest GOP majority seen in America’s national legislative branch since WW2? Further, by a wide margin, the majority of governorships and statehouses are also controlled by the GOP. Does the ‘freeloading class’ see some perverse advantage in giving conservatives control of their state governments? Finally, if the Obama ‘free stuff’ economy is seen as so desirable by so many Americans…why do a solid majority, according to numerous reputable polls, believe that the country is ‘on the wrong track’?
This observer would submit that there may be another, even more powerful, fundamental explanation for the Obama phenomenon that cuts across all class, race, and gender lines. I will call this ‘the politics of vanity’.
This is such a simple concept that it easily evades the ‘radar’ of those who spend great effort analyzing such issues. It boils down to this: In far too many cases, the grave and serious decision as to whom should hold the single most powerful office on earth is made on the basis of…what the voter perceives to be the choice that would be made by a “cool person”.
At first glance, this may sound absurd. Surely, given the multiplicity of problems and challenges faced by our country, at home and abroad, voters are not going into the voting booth every four years, thinking mainly about who is the “coolest” candidate…or are they?
I haven’t done any polling on this, and even if I did, I doubt that enough people would provide honest answers for the poll to be of any value. But I know from anecdotal, first-hand experience, along with some rudimentary logic, that this is happening on a massive scale.
I personally know very intelligent, accomplished, successful people who told me with a straight face, after the 2008 election, that they voted for Obama simply so that they could say that they did. Think about the implications of such a statement. Why would someone want to “say” they voted for a particular candidate? In order to leave a certain impression on whomever they are saying this to, right? And what impression is that? That they are “hip”, they are “with it”, they did what a “cool” person would do. Bear in mind that in making such a statement, no reference is made to any particular issue; those are secondary considerations. One can even argue that support of one side of many contentious issues - not only candidates – is subservient to the perception of what is the “cool” position to hold on any given issue, never mind any practical real-world impacts of such positions.
There is a huge psycho-social infrastructure that supports exactly this attitude. Consider who are the “cool” people in our society…the entertainment figures, the actors, the musicians, the people we see in our favorite movies, the people who are in the earphones of our iPods every day. Now consider the politics of most of these people. With notable exceptions, the solid majority of the “cool” people are liberals; it is well-known that overwhelmingly, they supported Obama in both elections, and most still defend him to this day.
I have often said that if my politics determined what music I listened to, I would be forced to listen to mostly country-western music. In my own case, however, I listen to many bands and artists that I know do not share my politics at all. I enjoy the music on my iPod, knowing full well that in all likelihood, the person serenading me is an Obama supporter. For my own part, I am able to separate the one from the other, the art from the artist. I personally don’t care a whit about the politics of the artist; if I enjoy what they produce, that is enough for me. But many people are not able to make this distinction; they want to be able to identify with the artists they prefer.
And this is a great luxury that is afforded by the circumstances enjoyed by most of modern America.
We are a vast country with a very large population, most of whom enjoy a high standard of living – very high – by global standards. While there is a large minority of Americans who are truly struggling, the solid majority of the populace, all whining notwithstanding, are at least doing “OK”. I would define “OK” as having employment that pays at least a living wage, having a house or apartment with reliable plumbing, heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, a serviceable car in the garage or carport, access to medical care, and food in the fridge. Most Americans do not live in fear for their lives; crime rates are low by historical standards in most of the country, we have not experienced war on our soil in living memory, no one is forced to serve in the military, and most Americans barely have any friends, relatives, or coworkers who have served overseas, and have thus been personally impacted by all the turmoil we see on TV. Tragic outrages such as the recent attack in San Bernardino get a lot of media attention – as they should – but out of a population of 330 million, events of this nature do not directly impact the overwhelming majority of the population.
In short, most Americans do not feel any sharp, tangible impact in their own lives that can be traced to the policies of this or that president. So, in a day-to-day sense, it is hard for many of our fellow citizens to appreciate what difference it makes as to who gets elected, if that difference is to be measured by the genuine consequences of poor leadership, disastrous policies, etc.
Thus, if policy positions, personal histories, past associations, past accomplishments as these might relate to prospective objective performance, and so on, can’t be appreciated for their significance in any tangible way, what is left to sway many voters in one direction or another? What is left is simply how they “feel” about a given candidate, or more to the point, which candidate makes them feel better about themselves.
In other words, for millions of voters in America today, the choice they make in the voting booth for the highest office in the land is a choice that is made in much the same way that a new pair of boots, a stylish shirt, or some decorative item for the home is chosen: what seems “cool”, what will impress their friends.
This dynamic is as intractable as it is simple. Taken in a wide historical perspective, we are becoming the victims of our own success…the success of generations past who have won the hard battles against mortal enemies, scarcity, and poverty, through self-sacrifice and suffering that motivated them to persevere and create a safe, abundant environment. This wonderful creation is now populated by a prohibitively large number of spoiled, historically illiterate nincompoops who have, and might very well again, happily elect what amounts to treasonous national leadership because…it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do.
Heaven help us through the all but inevitable crises that will force people to make genuinely serious choices in the voting booth, if we are even allowed to make such choices freely before it is too late. Learning, or perhaps I should say, re-learning history’s hard lessons, the hard way, seems to be the only way out of the political quicksand into which we have fallen.
January 14, 2016