With pop psychology now decades old and a comfortable part of our everyday conversation, it is not surprising to find pundits and pollsters psychoanalyzing the current political scene. A quick look around suggests there’s plenty to analyze, and it’s not just candidates that are on the couch. The mental machinations of voters, too, are fair game for today’s would-be shrinks, expert and novice alike.
Among the better contributions to this genre are recent columns by National Review Editor Jonah Goldberg and syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, both of whom have some interesting things to say about us voters. In his piece “Voting in the Age of Dr. Phil,” Goldberg observes that what we want most in our candidates is something already in our personal experience; “I’m for that guy because he’s angry like me.” Or, “I’m backing her because she’s a woman, too.” In her column “That Obama Feeling,” Parker suggests that what we want most is to have our needs met, our worries soothed and our “better angels mirrored.” Regardless of what we say we want in a candidate, both of these authors know that we’re not really looking for somebody with competence or experience, or knowledge of “the issues.” What we really long for in our heart of hearts, they suggest, is somebody to make us feel good.
Of course the idea that we seek comfort instead of statesmanship in our candidates is not new. Indeed, to those of us who study the psychology of political process, it is no surprise that, consciously or unconsciously, most of us are looking for a mommy or daddy to make everything alright. Bill Clinton’s political mastery has rested for years on his ability to tell us in effect: “Not only do I feel your pain as if it were mine, I care deeply about it, and I can alleviate it. Just give me your vote … oh, and your money, too.” It is a simple fact of life that we the people are strongly inclined to vote for candidates who make us feel good, not for those who are most competent, or most knowledgeable, or most committed to rational public policy.