Most people don’t realize it, but we are in the middle of one of the most fascinating natural experiments in modern American history. We know that our current era of politics is determined by one of two trends. (1) We act more out of hatred for our opponents than we do out of support for our candidates. It explains how odious creatures like Ted Cruz get elected. And (2) we support the policies and actions of politicians we like rather than support the politicians who enact policies and actions we like. We’ll switch our political beliefs to match those of politicians we like rather than switch politicians. Both are at work right now in our politics. Which one will win out?
Much has been made of how popular Old Handsome Joe Biden is right now. I heard lots o’ talk by all the talking heads on the TV machine that there was one poll where Biden got a 62% approval rating! One poll! 62%. It must be true. We should slow down here and consider Biden’s polling average, so lets skip over to Five Thirty Eight and check out their average of Biden’s approval ratings! He has been holding steady at 54.7% approval since the election, but his disapproval rating has been creeping upward, reaching 38.1%.
The reasoning that has all the pundits swooning is that because Trump never broke 50% approval, Biden’s sky high approval must mean some Repubes approve of him. He’s skimmed some of the spongy supporters off the top of the festering vat of Trump voters. Hunh.
Biden’s stock-in-trade has always been likeability, and if you saw his speech marking the 500,000 needless unnecessary and avoidable #COVID19 deaths threshold, you understand why. He was understanding, soothing, and compassionate. He connected emotionally with all who were open to being emotionally connected with, which according one poll is about 60% of the population.
The Stuart Smalley Effect
We’ve posted about the likeability factor before here at Ye Olde Blogge. The funny thing is, it doesn’t necessarily garner votes, especially when applied to men. Studies suggest that people like politicians who express warmth, compassion, and sadness. They don’t always vote for them, but they like them. Old Handsome Joe was expressing butt loaded fuck ton of warmth, compassion, and sadness in his #COVID19 commemoration speech, wasn’t he? And, doggone it, people like him like he’s some kind of common Stuart Smalley.
The other thing that Biden has going for him is being an old white guy because our beliefs are driven by the groups we belong to, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot of folks who belong to the old white guy group whether they are old white guys or not. Joe Biden looks like a lot of Americans, he speaks their language, and exudes their vibe. They identify with him.
His warmth, compassion, and sadness added to old white guyness combine to produce likeability.
The Affect Heuristic: Instant Liking or Disliking
One of our most basic reactions is the instantaneous like and dislike reaction. Upon encountering anything, within milliseconds of seeing it, you either like it or dislike it based on trivial superficial characteristics, too. True, those characteristics are all based on past experience of things. Things that were helpful to us, we generally like and associate goodness with, so when something triggers those associations we like it. More than likely, it too will be helpful.
Once when visiting Germany, I staggered into a German bakery early one morning. In the display case I spied a thick piece of chocolate pastry with an almost equally thick slab of sugar icing spread across the top. Man, was that what the doctor ordered to chase the herd of sheep outta my mouth and calm the miners excavating my head. I wanted that and a big hot steaming cup of coffee. I got the coffee, but I didn’t get that. Instead of a chocolate pastry, I got pumpernickel bread and instead of sugar icing, lard. Needless to say, my breakfast did not help dispel my hangover. Perhaps you’ve a similar story that you could relate in the comment?
Our associations don’t always steer us right, but they are powerful and that like and dislike reaction is foundational to our decision making. If you like it, it is because it reminds you something you liked before. And, if you like it, you’re going to want it or do something with it or whatever. Apparently, Old Handsome Joe Biden is one of those people that folks take a liking to straight away.
While likeability might not drive voting, it does drive support, which is weird because the only support that really matters is who we vote for. As noted elsewhere on Ye Olde Blogge, identity trumps ideology. Our ideologies are almost completely malleable. They are fleeting and fragile ready to be recast in an instance under the right circumstances that is.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are a slew of issues like #COVID19 relief, pandemic mitigation efforts, voting accessibility. minimum wage, access to healthcare and a slew of other issues depends on who is espousing them. If we like the person who wants to forgive student loan debt, then we’ll likely want to forgive it to. If we dislike the person who is advocating laws limiting access to the vote, we’ll likely not support limiting voting access.
Studies in this area have demonstrated two things. First, that people are amazingly good at ignoring contradictions. They can be against the #COVID19 vaccine in 2020 and eager to take it in 2021 without every really realizing or acknowledging the change. And, second, low-information voters are especially prone to follow-the-leader style beliefs. They just adopt the beliefs that the politician de jour is holding.
Conclusion: As people come to like Old Handsome Joe Biden, they’re likely to adopt many of his political stances, especially if they’re low-information voters. And, who are low-information voters? Those pesky independent voters and many in MAGA Nation. Unfortunately, most of the MAGA voters have already given their heart to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber, but the malleable middle is up for grabs and Joe Biden has grabbed them. I’m sure he’s just squeezing their shoulders and sniffing their hair, though.
The Sportsification of National Politics
Poised against this trend of adopting the views of the politicians you like is hate voting or the sportsification of politics. One of the more recent phenomenon to occur in modern American politics is voting for the opponent of the politician or party you hate rather than for the politician or party you like. The Repubes have successfully turned democratic politics into a zero-sum game in which every victory by one side means the other side loses. It is the embodiment of rule #3 from Hitler’s Propaganda Playbook, NEVER CONCEDE THAT THERE MAY BE SOME GOOD IN YOUR ENEMY.
When we treat our politics as if it were a sporting event in which the only thing that matters is winning, then we cannot compromise with the other side. Compromise is not winning, so it must be tantamount to losing. We care only about party affiliation and not about policy, personality, or purview. If your senator runs off to Cancun while you sit in the dark wondering whether you’ll freeze to death before you die of thirst, it is unimportant as long as your senator is not a Democrat. Delivering $4 million dollars in aide is a despicable act if its done by a Democrat, and it cannot be supported.
Under these circumstances, the 74 million Trump voters could never support Biden, yet he has a vaunted 60% approval rating in ONE POLL!!1! So, we’re going to see which one is more important in modern American politics. Is it whether the politician is liked and therefore his policy positions are supported or is it his identity and party affiliation and, therefore, hated and despised?
My money is on the likeability factor over the hate voting factor. I think maybe the Repubes do too given the desperate lengths that are going to to tear him down: criticizing an elderly dog with hip dysplasia? Really? Neera Tanden‘s mean tweets? Deb Haaland for being too Native American? I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. They’ve got nothing to criticize, really, so we’re back to tan suits and grey poupon. We’ll see if it works against the white guy as well as it did against his Black partner.
If you like posts about Super Powers and American Politics, then join our email list, so you don’t miss a single post!
Categories: Cognitive Psychology