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.
Why is this? In part, because it is simply natural for us humans to carry childhood longings into adult life and inject them into the political world we create. But the extent to which we let ourselves do this depends on how mature and reasonable we are. It is a mark of maturity to be able to temper primitive longings with reason and realism, to make important choices based on the way things are, not the way we would like them to be. Unfortunately, voter maturity seems to be in short supply these days. Parker observes “the undertow of hysteria” in crowds chanting “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma!” He is the embodiment of hope, she notes, and that belief makes us feel better, even if it’s just good imagery for the kids among us.
But if Obama is the new man of hope in our lives, Hillary is the new embodiment of parental government in our lives. In her December campaign ad, we saw mother Hillary reviewing her Christmas presents for Americans to be sure she hadn’t forgotten anyone. Again, two weeks ago in the New Hampshire primary, she was all maternal concern: she tearfully fretted that America will “slip back” (i.e., not vote for her) before she can give us all the “opportunities” she has for us.
All of this plays to the needy–and greedy--child in us. The mommy or daddy candidate who promises the most goodies is likely to get the most votes -- and this despite warnings from the few adults still hanging around. Art critic Robert Hughes’ admonished us several years ago that Americans had better stop looking for their inner child and start looking for their inner adult … and stop acting like the former.
Hughes was right. When reason controls our childish fears, our inner adult tells us that what we ought to want in a candidate is a wise man or woman who will defend our country and protect our freedoms, not an indulgent parent who will promise us the moon. Hillary Clinton promises us big mothering through big government healthcare. Barack Obama promises us a new world of hope, unity and brotherhood.
But “hope is not a policy,” as Kathleen Parker observes, and neither is wishful thinking. In the real world, Obama cannot be our savior (chants or no chants), Hillary cannot be Earth Mother (presents or no presents), and Government cannot be our longed for parent providing everything for everyone (good intentions or not). A government committed to individual liberty cannot at the same time be a nanny state; the two functions are mutually exclusive. The word “change,” which has become the dominant buzzword of the 2008 campaign, needs a change of its own: it had better mean a return to the original principles that made America great. Those principles, designed for adults, not children, imply limited government with limited control over limited domains, not unlimited government with extensive control over most domains. To the child-voters going to the polls this year with images of big-government sugar plums dancing in their heads, let’s ask Dr. Phil to trot out his favorite mantra one more time: “Get Real!”