From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:

 

In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.

Republicans, such as Karl Rove, have been insinuating that Hillary Clinton is “too old” to run for President in 2016.  The Democrats make the obvious reply, which is that Ronald Reagan was even older than Hillary will be in 2016 when he was elected, and the Republicans think he was one of the greatest Presidents ever.  Some would say Clinton faces an unfair double-standard in this matter, because she is a woman, and thus people count her age against her more strongly than they did against Reagan.

Maybe that’s true. But that’s not the double-standard she should be concerned about. That would be the double-standard I always write about on here: the charisma double-standard.

American politics is biased in favor of “style over substance”, and so the most charismatic candidate almost always wins the Presidential election. Ronald Reagan was charismatic; Hillary Clinton is not.

This was proven, quite conclusively, by a Senator named Barack Obama in 2008.  Bear in mind that I say this as someone who supported Obama over Clinton, but Clinton’s resume was far better than Obama’s for the job of President. Yet he won, because he was a more likeable individual.

Hillary Clinton is–Obama’s claims to the contrary–not likeable enough. Mitt Romney had the same problem.  So did John Kerry.  Pretty much every Presidential election since since 1980 has come down to the question of who is more likeable, which, since most voters never get to meet the candidates in person, is in turn determined by charisma.

Now, you may say, this seems unfair to Hillary Clinton.  Yeah, it is.  It’s kind of silly to pick a President based on something so nebulous. But what else can we do? You can dedicate your life to studying politics and still get everything wrong.  So, the average person doesn’t have time to meticulously examine every facet of politicians.  They just vote based on who “seems better”. Hillary Clinton never had charisma.  Her husband did, which is probably why they have made such a successful team–she has the brains, he has the personality.

So, does this mean she can’t win the Presidency?  Not necessarily. The Republicans seemingly have no charismatic candidates lined up.  The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign.  The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.

But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning.  Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.

So, you want to make your name

And gain power, wealth and fame

In the modern G.O.P?

Then let me tell you all the tricks

Needed to succeed in politics

And make yourself a fix-

-ture in Washington, D.C.

 

 

The very first step is you

Find yourself some social issue

That gives heartland people frights.

Like “gay marriage”, for example,

Or use gun control to give a sample

Of how you think the government will trample

On their God-given rights.

 

 

At rallies and conventions you’ll appear,

All decked out in patriotic gear,

And extolling rural souls.

And when auditoriums you’re packing

You will get financial backing

From groups who want low taxes or more “fracking”

And you’ll start rising in the polls.

 

 

With your overflowing coffers,

You will now be able to make offers

To buy up your district’s ad space.

With your name now being seen

Be every voter who has been

Outside, or watched his TV screen–

Your opponent’s in a bad place!

 

 

And then on election night,

To the Party’s great delight

Before 8, they’ll say you’ve won!

The district is a major gain

Thanks to your vigorous campaign

(Meanwhile, half the Democrats abstain)

And you go to Washington!

 

 

And there, you’ll give addresses

Seen by no eyes besides the press’s

And the viewers on C-SPAN.

You’ll say “So-and-so’s a Nazi”,

Claim some stuff about Benghazi;

And what your constituents will not see

Is who backs their Congress-man!

 

 

For the backers will dismiss you

Unless you drop your social issue,

And vote instead for lower taxes.

This argument you’ll cede ’em

For low taxes, you will need ’em

In the interest of defending Freedom–

Or so the brochure from your PAC says.

 

 

One of your first major acts is

To trade culture war for lower taxes;

(A deal the Dems will gladly make!)

And so the country’s torn asunder

Crumbling this vicious cycle under;

And yet people never stop and wonder

If perhaps there’s some mistake.

(more…)

On one of the C-Spans the other night, they were showing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing”, which he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. You can see that speech on YouTube here.

It is pretty much the standard Republican fare  in terms of content, but Reagan was clearly a far more charismatic and persuasive speaker than the Republicans of today.  I hate his line about the hungry being on a diet–it’s that sort of thing that got the Republicans branded as greedy and heartless.  I don’t know how the Goldwater campaign reacted to this, but I’m assuming their position on poverty was not “it’s all in your imagination”.

But what is really interesting to me about it isn’t so much the content of the speech, but the style.  I don’t think people would stand for one long speech, and moreover one filled with a lot of references to statistics and numbers.  I don’t know how accurate the numbers he gives are, but it seems to me this speech contains a lot more precise statistics than a modern speech.

To be fair, I think Reagan was a major beneficiary of the style over substance approach to politics, and probably this speech was shallow by the standards of the time. But my hypothesis is that a shallow 1964 political speech has more substance than an in-depth 2014 political speech.

I remember in 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign did a 30 minute “infomercial” on the networks a week or so before the election.  It was well-made, but more like a documentary, with stock footage and interviews and such.  I think the PR people for Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have  dared to spend the whole  half-hour on one guy giving a talk–that’s dull television.

To be absolutely clear, so nobody misunderstands, I’m not saying Obama had less substance than Reagan did–I’m saying I suspect the audiences of 2008 have much shorter attention spans than the audiences of 1964. But even that may be false, I guess–after all, Goldwater lost, although probably that had more to do with his loose-cannon attitude than anything else.

Last year, there was an online service that was in very high-demand.  It was hyped, but its rollout was very rocky. When it was released to the public, it tended to crash a lot.  It couldn’t handle the number of users it was getting.

People criticized the organization that created it for being unprepared for the number of users, and for designing the system poorly.  It was quite embarrassing, especially since the organization behind it has always been a lightning rod for controversy.

You probably think I’m talking about the Health Care website.  But I’m not. I’m talking about the video game SimCity 4. It’s not the only game that had this kind of problem, though.  Same thing happened with Diablo III in 2012.

The game companies got flak for it, too–gamers hate Electronic Arts about as much as Republicans hate President Obama, but with the additional problem that they aren’t allowed to filibuster EA’s products and demand they come back with new ones.  It’s the equivalent of if Republicans had to pass and endorse all Obama’s pet projects or else leave politics entirely.

But at what point does this sort of thing start to constitute a pattern?  When the U.S. Government and two separate large electronics companies cannot roll out a satisfactory online service, you have to wonder if anyone knows what they are doing as far as building online services.

One argument might be that in all cases, the people making the service thought so many would have to use it–because of the law in the one case, and because of the gaming industry hype machine in the others–that they felt no reason to do a good job on the service in question.

But I don’t buy that for the Health Care case, because it’s one of the major political issues of the time, and even if you are so cynical as to believe the architects don’t care about the people, many of them will find their careers riding on the success or failure of the program.  So they had good reason to make sure the product worked from the get-go.

I don’t have any real explanations for this myself.  I just think it is interesting that wealthy organizations, who ought to have enough resources to understand what they can and can’t make, keep failing at debuting web products like this.

If you follow politics, you probably hear a lot of people saying that the central debate in American politics is about the size of government.

Those people are wrong.

Most of them are not lying, however; they are just repeating something they heard from someone else.  And they even have some evidence for the claim.  After all, the Democrats tend to favor expanding Federal social programs, whereas Republicans favor cutting these programs.

But the tip-off that this really is not the central debate is that sometimes these positions get reversed.  For example, the Republicans generally support increasing military spending, whereas Democrats favor cutting it.  As fielding an army is one of the oldest and most basic functions of government, this clearly shows that the divide is a bit more complex than just some random debate over what percentage of GDP the Federal government outlays should comprise.

“Size of Government” is a vague concept anyway.  What does it mean?  Government outlays as a percentage of GDP?  Number of people employed by the government?  Even then, it’s not like “government” is some monolithic entity–is it spending most of its money on education or on the military, for example?

Then there are those who say the debate is over the “role of government”.  This is so vague that you can’t really call it a lie, but you also cannot call it terribly useful.  The role of government is to govern–the questions are, what kind of society shall it govern, and how shall it govern it?

The Democrats have made a change to Senate rules: now, it is no longer possible to filibuster confirmation of Presidential appointees.  The Associated Press article says:

Sweeping aside a century of precedent, Democrats took a chunk out of the Senate’s hallowed filibuster tradition on Thursday and cleared the way for speedy confirmation of controversial appointments made by President Barack Obama and chief executives in the future.

That phrasing strikes me as odd, especially the use of the word “hallowed”. Seems slanted against the Democrats.  Senator Reid seems to me to have been fairly reluctant to do this, and only finally did after having his hand more or less forced by the Republicans.

That said, I don’t like the decision. I understand why they did it, and from a short-term view, it makes sense.  But it is true that they may come to regret it in the future, as the Republicans are saying. (Unless, I guess, the Democrats change it back during the lame-duck session if they are voted out.)

Still, the Republicans are acting like the Democrats just did this for no reason, and not because the Republicans have been filibustering appointments for no reason.  Which, technically, they are allowed to do, but they are violating the spirit, if not the word, of the Senate rules.

So, it’s a real dilemma.  An insoluble one, perhaps.  The Republicans’ casual use of the filibuster has caused a breakdown in the functioning of government.  And the only thing the Democrats could think of to fix it was to break the functioning of government in a different way.  It is a bad trend.  It bespeaks a downward spiral in how the Senate works.

I played the end of Fallout 3 last night.  For those of you who haven’t played it, it’s a video game set in a post-apocalyptic future in Washington D.C.  Awesome setting, absolutely dreadful writing.  There is exactly one well-written character in the game, and many of his lines are just quotes from actual U.S. Presidents.

The game has multiple endings, and the one I played last night has a massive, giant, gaping plot-hole in it.  I won’t give it away–it would take forever to explain anyway–but in brief, the player is forbidden from making the most logical choice simply because the game writers wanted to force a choice on the player.  There’s a perfectly logical ending that’s best for everyone, but the game won’t let you pick it. (In fairness, they did subsequently make an add-on that will let you choose this option, but  I don’t have it.)

I’ve talked in the past on here about good and bad video game writing.  I could talk about the writing in F3 is an example of the latter, and contrast with the brilliantly constructed plot in its sequel, Fallout: New VegasBut we all have bigger things to worry about, what with the election coming up.  And it is along those lines that forced choices in Washington D.C. set me thinking.

There are exactly two real choices for President this election, as there in almost all other elections of late.  Yes, there are third-party candidates, but they cannot win, and unlike Ross Perot in ’92, are unlikely to even attract enough votes to make the real candidates take notice.  Thus, as I have written before, the question is not “is this the best person for the job?”, but, “is this person better than this other person for the job?”

I support President Obama.  I think he is clearly better than Romney.  But is he the best person for the job?  I don’t know.  Theoretically, of course, the primary system would produce the two best people for the job, but an incumbent President who faces a primary challenge is virtually sure to lose, and so no Democrat had any reason to challenge Obama this time around.  And Mitt Romney, for his part, put on an absolute clinic on how to game the American electoral system.  He discovered that he could simply say one thing in the primaries, and the opposite in the general campaign, and face no real consequences for it.  His campaign even told everyone they were going to do that, and it still worked.

It is well-known that some voters blindly give their unwavering support to one party or the other, but the bigger issue is that even when people attempt to escape from the false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats, they still allow the parties to dictate the terms on which political decisions are made. That’s why the word “centrist” annoys me so much; it still permits the parties to set the agenda, from which the “centrists” only mix and match their  selections.

I sometimes think it would be better if the system worked as follows: the politicians were all effectively independents most of the time, but during election season could choose to align themselves with some party if they felt so inclined.  In other words, the candidate would nominate the party, rather than the party nominating the candidate who has best worked his way up in the party.  (If you think about it, why should low-ranking local officials need to have a party affiliation?) But maybe this has already been done and failed.  And it does have its drawbacks–most notably, there’s still the question of how to keep the number of candidates manageable.  Elections would all end in ties if every adult were easily able to run.  So, how do you decide who is qualified to be a national candidate without involving the party system?

Well, as I said, I think Obama is the better candidate, no question.  I don’t even really understand why so many Republicans are eager to vote for Romney, as he is apparently willing to throw away their platform to win a debate.  I don’t  actually know what he plans to do, though the best guess I can make is cutting spending and causing another recession.  So, by default, I have to support Obama for President.

Here we observe one of the dangers of academic tenure…

The short version, if you don’t have time to watch the video, is like this: evidently having nothing better to do, Roberto Unger, a former professor of President Obama’s, has concluded that same President Obama must be defeated. This defeat will, so he says, “allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.”

Obviously, the good professor knows this will not happen under President Romney.  But the defeat of Obama is necessary to allow for true progressivism to return, he believes.

Let us look at history, shall we?  From 1968 until 1992, the Republicans won every Presidential election but one.  The Democrats finally got Clinton in ’92, but this was largely through the “New Democrat” strategy of adopting many laissez-faire Republican economic policies.  In other words, the Democrats accomplished their victory only by becoming much more like the Republicans on economic issues.  Not exactly what Prof. Unger is looking for.

Cast back a bit further, and we find the shoe on the other foot: From 1932 until 1952, the Republicans did not win a Presidential election. When they finally did win, it was with Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and a man so friendly to the New Deal that Republican extremists suspected him of communism.  Clearly, the Republicans had to capitulate a good deal to the Democrats on economic policy.

In recent times, there are two instances where a party lost an election and four years later returned with a more extreme candidate: 1964 and 1980.  Goldwater was more extreme than Nixon, and he was crushed.  Reagan was more extreme than Ford, and he won handily.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag.  (Not, of course, if you factor in charisma; then it is all quite explicable.)

The record is pretty clear: parties rarely favor their more radical economic policies in the wake of sound defeats.  They do just the opposite, trying to emulate and subsume elements of the winning party’s policies.  This is especially true for Democrats.  I therefore judge Prof. Unger’s plan a bad one.

(Video via Huffington Post.  Also check out this post about Prof. Unger at The Reaction.)

The Republican Party

Cut tax and spend less.

And Heed the Word of the Lord.

But mostly, cut tax.

The Democratic Party

We must tax the rich.

Unless they’re in Hollywood.

Then we’re conflicted.

Libertarianism

Cut Government Waste!

Like useless departments that

Monitor spending.

The Tea Party

We hate government

Unless it does what we want.

So… basically… yeah.

Moderate Democrats

We can disagree

On Reagan’s policies, but

His hair was perfect!*

Neo-liberalism

Globalism good.

If there’s more to it than that,

We don’t want to know.

Liberal Progressivism

We’re disappointed.

We won’t vote for Obama.

Kucinich ’16!

Moderate Republicans

We’re not Democrats.

No, really, we promise you!

Not the same at all!

The Alt-Right/”Manosphere”

We strongly believe

We’re slaves to biology.

Go build some robots.

Objectivism

We are all selfish.

It worked great in the novel.

Check your premises.

Anarchism

Why do we have to adhere to this stupid form? We will use however many freakin’ syllables we damn well please!

*Apologies to the late, great Warren Zevon for stealing this line.