As the American presidential primary season gears up in earnest, prudent men and women would do well to steel themselves against the coming onslaught of mawkish promotionals bound to head in our general direction. A way to begin is simply to recall that it’s happened before: On the sweltering evening of August 28, 2012, at the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, a crimson-clad Ann Romney, with matching red lipstick and striking blonde locks, stepped before an audience of 15,000 air-conditioned delegates and declared, “I want to talk to you tonight not about politics. . . . I want to talk to you about love.”
And then she did. Standing on an amber-lit, publicly funded, $2.5 million hi-tech stage (the most expensive in the history of American political conventions), back-dropped by super-sized faded family photographs on enormous LED screens arranged like a stairway photo gallery, Romney told the crowd about her mate, Willard Mitt Romney, their five sons, their first home, their first car, their eighteen grandchildren, and the ups and downs of their 42 years of marriage. She recounted stories of spaghetti dinners eaten from atop a fold-down ironing board in a humble basement apartment, when she and her husband were students at Brigham Young University. She talked about how much she loved her “nerdy” companion and believed in his vision for America.
Her task for the evening: convince the voting public that her husband, often perceived as wooden and rehearsed, was a flesh-and-blood human being. Ann Romney’s appeal did the trick for this admiring Republican convention audience; alas, it did not work as well for the much larger television audience or the electorate as a whole, which soon interpreted Mitt Romney’s off-the-cuff “47 percent” remark in precisely the opposite direction. Ms. Romney’s aim was to sell not policies but character, and to do that one advertises personality traits, not political goals: “You may not agree with Mitt’s positions on issues, or his politics”, she proudly announced, “but no one will work harder, no one will care more, no one will move heaven and earth more than Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live.” Cue applause.
Were she alone in her efforts to persuade the star-spangled crowd of her husband’s electability by parading private family matters as evidence, one could chalk up Ann Romney’s performance to anxious enthusiasm sprinkled with a dash of Machiavellian sugar. But everyone did it in Tampa: Paul Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential nominee, keynote speaker Chris Christie, and darling-in-waiting Marco Rubio among them. It was the same at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with Michelle Obama taking the leading role as emotional entrepreneur.
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign message, too, is sculpted around intimate details of her life, including her upbringing by her long-suffering mother Dorothy Rodham and her rule-obsessed father Hugh Rodham. The script cries out, “I, like you, have been a victim”, a message crafted to resonate with Democratic constituencies. The New York Times eagerly assists in the effort; note the cover story of the July 19 New York Times Magazine by Mark Leibovich, “The Once and Future Hillary”, followed on Tuesday, July 21, by Amy Chozick’s front-page story, “Clinton Father’s Brusque Style, Mostly Unspoken but Powerful.”
Of course, emotional appeal has been an effective rhetorical device since the beginning of rhetorical devices. A quick glance at your Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, or Machiavelli will confirm that, like it or not (and Aristotle didn’t), pathos usually trumps logos. But the theories that mainly shaped American oratory came not from Aristotle’s Rhetoric or from Cicero’s Partitiones Oratoriae but rather from Caleb Bingham’s Columbian Orator (1797) and John Quincy Adams’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory (1810)—and, notably, from two key texts of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) by George Campbell, an Aberdeen preacher and president of Marischal College, and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) by Hugh Blair, a Presbyterian minister of the Church of Scotland.
Until the late 18th century, most thinking about rhetoric was based on Aristotle’s formal rules of logic as a means by which one could deduce truth. But as products of the Scottish Enlightenment, Campbell and Blair believed that human beings discovered truth through experience rather than through logical deduction or inference, and that effective rhetoric functioned by recreating that experience in the minds of listeners. It was the beginning of what came to be known by literary historians as sentimentalism, or the empathic ideal. “That we may reflect light on others”, Campbell wrote in A Dissertation on Miracles (1771), a retort to the skeptical David Hume, “we must ourselves be previously enlightened.”
According to this “common sense” approach—so-called because the reigning philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment embraced the vernacular and eschewed scholastic language—a public speaker needed to reflect upon his own experiences in order to translate them into ideas that can appeal to the moral sentiments of others. This method helps to explain why 19th-century American orators (and, later, American pragmatists like John Dewey) stressed the importance of experience in communicating ideas, and embellished that communication with the gestures and tonalities of the stage, over and above the dutiful presentation of strictly logical argument, which was the reigning mode of academic and juridical discourse. This understanding became socially self-conscious; the sentimentalists who thrived around the time of the Founding inspired a genre of 19th-century American orators and rhetoric teachers and tutors. A review of the traditional mode of American oratory in the July 1854 issue of The United States Democratic Review summarized the genre and its appeal:
American eloquence . . . has always been and always must be addressed, mainly, to the passions or feelings in man’s heart. What could all the metaphysical subtleties of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus effect, in impelling men to action, or in accomplishing any great and grand end, when compared with that warm, gushing eloquence, coming from the heart, and going to the heart? . . . True eloquence . . . must open the floodgates of sensibility within us, and thus bring into exercise our active powers for the promoting of good or the preventing of evil, or else, its real power and utility will be of a very small amount. And such, we think, in a very grand degree, is the character of American eloquence.
While this “character of American eloquence” remains the dominant means of political appeal today, sharing the details of one’s private family life as part of that rhetoric is a curious development that’s much more recent; it has taken particular hold in American politics only over the past half-century. It builds on the foundation of sentimentalism, to be sure, but the new emotional architecture looks nothing like the old. So, how, and why, has this happened?
Some of the elements composing an answer seem clear enough; others, as usual, are more elusive. For one, self-disclosure as a trope of political speech owes its partial flowering to the ideology of intimacy. Born in the capital cities of 19th-century Europe, this ideology was part and parcel of the slow erosion of aristocratic class privilege before the rising tide of egalitarianism, and also of the slow erasure of the value of social acting. The new bourgeoisie, with its novel modern notions of individualism and romantic love, ideals shaped by Romanticism and its obsession with authenticity, longed for self-expression and distinction and, in so doing, defined its own nature and interests.
America shared this tendency—indeed inherited it through the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists—and its relatively unfettered egalitarian spirit redoubled it. The stump and soapbox were always more downhome and personal than anything Europe or even Britain put on offer in the public square. American orators eschewed the grandiloquence of aristocratic speech and instead embraced a simple, informal style befitting the democratic nature of the young country. Moreover, the ideal of egalitarianism privileged closeness over distance and treated strangers in the common culture as friends-in-the-making, a social evolution strongly fostered by the democratization of church culture. In this way, political intimacy drew much of its tone and cadence from the post-Great Awakening pulpit, when Episcopalian and Congregationalist establishments alike found themselves in competition with Methodist circuit riders and Baptist “low church” assemblies up and down the Eastern seaboard. The theatrical humility and, when appropriate, public expressions of atonement in contemporary political intimacies are dead giveaways of this ecclesiastical ancestry.
Next came the social revolution touched off by the Industrial Revolution. Its key elements are clear in retrospect: the movement of millions of people from the country to the city, where confronting strangers became the norm; the decline of social trust that came with the breakdown of traditional communities; the sacrifice of social formalities to economic efficiency; the arrival of mass fashion—a development that allowed anyone to dress any way he wanted and to create whatever impression he could (in contrast to the foregone sumptuary laws and codes of dress that visually regulated class, rank, and profession); the rise of the “spectator” as a category of social, specifically urban, existence, the consequence of which was the relegation of acting solely to the stage; the conversion of personality-in-public into a tableau to be interpreted for personal meaning rather than as a system of social signs to be navigated; and, preceding all of these, rising concern with the quotidian human self rather than the soul in a universe filled with divine mystery and fascination.
The modern currency of intimacy gained value, too, from the modern psychotherapeutic commandment—beginning in the United States after Freud’s famed Clark Lectures in 1909—which presumes that to be psychologically and emotionally healthy you must reveal parts of yourself and express your feelings, regardless of how relevant, interesting, necessary, or appropriate—and no matter what the relation of the person listening to you may be. Americans became focused on the id, not the ego—for the ego, we have increasingly come to think, is a mere construction, something not ultimately real at all when set in contrast to the id’s immediacy of unbridled wants and desires. In a society of purported democratic equals, the result has been an expectation of tit-for-tat exchanges of intimacies and a judgment that this exchange is a moral good in itself, that it makes people closer. The authors of America’s early 20th-century dime-store gothic romance novels, reveling in the darker, private sides of human affairs, readily took the new dispensation to the bank.
Upon this growing edifice of New World modernity, the pioneers of professional advertising culture created campaign consultancies. They took the raw material the culture had to offer and systematically tampered with it for fun and profit. So proficient have they been that they not only took from the general culture, but fed resources back into it. And then, perhaps above all, came television.
By its very nature as a technology, television strove to create illusions of intimacy in order to deflect the reality of its profoundly distanced mediation, mightily compounding the self-disclosure trope in the culture. And in an age where issues have become too numerous and complex to motivate most voters’ preferences, the importance of the televised political personality has largely displaced more substantive discourse. Media culture has since thrown in the towel as well, dumbing down its standards in pursuit of market share, focusing on the indelicacies and personal lives of candidates rather than on ideas, and infusing “reporting” with adjectives intended to guide viewer emotional response. Print media culture, too, has become increasingly dominated by images instead of print, privileging emotion over reason. Aristotle would not be amused.
If that were not enough, fast on the heels of television came the Sixties. Before the convulsive social changes of that long decade, meetings between strangers were mediated by social protocol and shared forms of address. Over the course of the world-exploding 20th century, however, particularly in America, the idea that these forms should mediate between people fell before the values of liberation, self-expression, unmasking, sincerity, and intimacy. All these elevated values urged more “real” and “authentic” interactions because the world had somehow become false. Inspired by modern art’s push for unmediated, informal expression, the cultivation of an expressive authentic personality appeared to be an antidote to the soul-crushing humdrum world of bureaucracy and commerce. Life, then, should reflect art.
We’re all very chummy now, and anonymous waiters and clerks think nothing of calling their elders—even their own parents sometimes—by their first names. Bank branches direct employees to greet customers as they walk in the door; telemarketers located in who-knows-where ask you how you are and how your day is going. Americans are engulfed in mass-produced fake sincerity, corporate-normed and scripted friendliness, and manufactured intimacy wherever they turn. Television offers the likes of “Dating Naked”, a reality series that sees strangers take off their clothes and go on a first date; “Married at First Sight”, in which “expertly paired” strangers begin their relationship by getting married; the short web film “First Kiss”, which portrays total strangers kissing, and the photo book Touching Strangers, by Richard Renaldi, which features strangers hugging each other immediately after meeting. In all of them, the idea is to overcome alienation through instant intimacy. So how is this a problem?
For starters, “Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people”, as Theodor W. Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia, in 1951. A pretense of intimate sharing is the opposite of actual intimacy, in other words, because intimacy is what occurs between people who know each other very well, not between strangers. What we get is a radically mediated and premeditated form of intimacy. And the more forced the intimacy, the more real the alienation.
Yet the presumption that others’ intimate and private lives are ours for the gawking has become so second-natured that, in many cases, it may not even be instrumentalized as a strategy to manipulate others. Rather, the sharing of one’s intimate life and private family history with strangers is now become part of the larger trend in American social and, by extension, political life: Imparting intimacies and vulnerabilities is now widely perceived as a way to build interpersonal trust and reliance. It is a mode of thinking that follows—or, more accurately, led to—social media like Facebook. Communicating one’s feelings to others and sharing intimate moments with them in the hopes of forming an emotional bond has rendered the exchange of intimacies a pseudo-moral good in itself.
What has been going on in the general culture has clearly spilled over into American political culture. Over the past several decades voters have become familiar with, and even inured to, campaigning methods that go far beyond mere self-disclosure, and that aim instead to forge an emotional bond between a political candidate and an audience. They do so by trying to recapture the supposedly close emotional camaraderie of bygone days when (white) Americans from all social levels encircled the stump to listen to a speaker and engage in a vibrant public life: the small town-hall meeting, the local-diner drop-in, the factory tour and handshakes with employees, the take-out order with generous gratuity, the living-room visit, or the call to a single voter just to say thanks. (Just a few hours after Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for President on April 12, 2015, the New York Times reported that her next move would be “a series of intimate but critical campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire.”) These homespun events and national media coverage of them have aimed to again bring Americans closer to their political leaders—both physically and emotionally. The purpose is to entreat voters to see them not as elected officials with impersonal representative roles to play, or even as elevated, charismatic leaders with political passions calling them to action, but rather as everyday folk with tastes and feelings, setbacks and triumphs, just like you and me.
The concern with emotional closeness between politicians and voters has spawned another tactic of intimate politics in use over the past several decades: the deployment of storytelling tropes featuring real personal troubles that “give a human face” to otherwise unwieldy and complex topics. By making concrete what are often referred to abstractly as “the issues”, personalized stories reveal the material consequences of decisions made in private conclaves, whether boardrooms, back rooms, Congress, or the Oval Office. By displaying empathy for the citizenry by showing an ability to recall specific details about a particular person—(“Then there is 55-year-old Mary Miller of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who couldn’t pay her mortgage and whose disability checks were not enough to keep the lights on. . . . ”)—the contemporary political speaker positions himself as someone who cares deeply about this person not as a voter but as a fellow human being.
“It’s all emotion”, admits Republican political strategist and pollster Frank Luntz, “but there’s nothing wrong with emotion. When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional. . . . My job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion.”1 That is why during the 2012 GOP national convention in Tampa Romney campaign handlers brought an elderly couple up on stage to tell the story about how Mitt once helped their dying son write his will. And that is also why, in case you were wondering, nearly every State of the Union Address in recent decades has included a sudden vignette about some ordinary person who did a good deed or suffered a tragic visitation—and there that person is, usually in the first row of the Capitol balcony, on your TV screen. The cameramen know well in advance when to pan up there; it’s in the script.
These kinds of stagings and stories partake in a widespread cultural nostalgia: Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the notion goes, the emotional intimacies of the past have been slowly eradicated, replaced by the estrangements of modernity. We have been led to think, through decades of middlebrow entertainment and high-minded social criticism, that the post-agricultural world is devoid of emotion, that the impersonal mechanisms of post-industrial capitalism have been nefariously crushing the cozy human spirit. People used to be closer because of the necessities of everyday survival at the farm, at the local store, and at the local school and church—but over the course of the 20th century we have drifted apart and hence become less emotionally close to others.
Actually, the opposite is true. The trend toward political intimacy feeds off an illusion of recreating a golden past that never was. While social relations were generally closer in the premodern era, particularly outside of urban centers often teeming with immigrants, emotional relations—the revelation of one’s intimate feelings to others—were far more restrained by social convention and tradition than they are now. The kinds of behaviors that mediated and demarcated social relations since time immemorial—manners, protocol, deference, interpersonal remove, playful social roles—are what have broken down, leading in the 20th century to what Richard Sennett called, in The Fall of Public Man (1977), “destructive Gemeinschaft.” Sennett means by this phrase the idea that psychological and emotional self-disclosure does not actually bring people closer together. Instead, it further alienates them by sabotaging the shared symbols and modes of communication that enable us to interact with our emotional clothing still on. Since the human capacity for genuine intimacy is quite limited, but we need to interact with many more people than that to make our way in the world, we require a means to do so without getting skin-on-skin with everyone we encounter.
Social conventions are thus necessary for a public or professional sphere even to exist. Social masks, common expressions, play acting, and irony all keep our private selves shielded from the impositions of the political or commercial world, a form of protection that enables us to act both freely and purposefully in such worlds. Social masks are also and particularly required for a healthy liberal democracy to flourish precisely because they allow for impersonal engagement with others. They allow us to work with others on likeminded political interests without having to share distracting details of our private lives that would per force personalize the public realm and depersonalize the private realm, harming both. This, in practice, is what it means to be social without being emotional, a distinction contemporary Americans find increasingly difficult to conceptualize.
Social conventions and proprieties also keep our heads clear of other sorts of distractions. In the haze of unmasking we have forgotten what the literary historian Amanda Anderson once called “the powers of distance”—the role of personal detachment in the aesthetic and scientific cultures of the modern era.2 The cultivation of detachment eventually led to the modern, cosmopolitan style of being that underlies the ironic modes of modernism and postmodernism, and it also reflects elements of the Enlightenment tradition of disinterestedness. The cultivation of distance was a way to keep critical thought immune from the influences of popular culture, political and economic ideology, religious indoctrination, and the pressures of business—pressures that can exert tremendous manipulative power upon subjective agents and trounce independent critical thought.
The distinction comes clearer through a comparison of earlier and latter-day American political oratory. The ability to role-play in order to keep our public and private selves separate was what gave 19th-century American orators their larger-than-life auras. Speakers cultivated a definable oratorical style that, in turn, gave shape to public symbols and political discourse. Listeners knew that political oratory was a stylized activity, not fictional like a stage play but also not the same as ordinary conversation. Audiences would travel hours to hear a speaker of note. The public lecture made famous as a form of 19th-century entertainment, sponsored by local lyceums, ranged from topics on health and social reform to literature, history, and aesthetics—and, of course, the major political debates of the day. Speakers packed social authority because they were educated, worked to be eloquent, and more often than not were genuinely committed to advancing public interests and civic virtue. Between 1820 and 1870 America experienced a “golden age of oratory”, as attorney Edward G. Parker’s 1857 bestselling book of collected speeches expressed in its title.
In contrast to this 19th-century model, the modern American politician has become “warm, homey, and sweet”, as Sennett wrote in the mid-1970s. Once separated by the distance of the lecture hall or stage, once able to maintain an intrapersonal distance between a private self and a public role, once appearing larger than life and once conscious of the performative nature of public life, the American political figure has over the past five decades become a kind of elevated everyman. Call it the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” phenomenon, after the famous 1939 film. The modern political figure now feels compelled to share a personal life with the public is embarrassed by explicit performance, and desperately tries to show naturalness in order to garner votes. The last thing he wishes to come across as is authoritative, even in the quest for authority.
Again, this is not entirely new. The American frontier experience—and every place started out as a frontier for European immigrants to North America, an experience that invariably left a cultural mark—was inherently “low church” when it came to political rituals. Everyone knows how Davey Crockett went to Washington to “fix up the Governments” and then northwards to “patch up the crack in the Liberty Bell.” But the recent surge of intimacy politics reflects a further broadening of an egalitarian sensibility at the expense of the minimal authority structures required to ensure basic institutional order in any society. After all, if we are all totally equal regardless of experience, education, or virtue, then the logic of anyone obeying anyone else—parent, teacher, employer, clergyman, policeman, judge—for any purpose weakens dramatically. Since political order is just that—an order—it presumes some kind of hierarchy and authority structure or it cannot function.
So how do politicians in a radical egalitarian democracy get and stay elected? They fake it by persuading enough people that they’re not fakers. And they have lots of help doing so. Groucho Marx’s famous quip that if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made invariably comes to mind, and not just because it’s funny.
“The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind”, wrote Clem Whitaker, co-founder with Leone Baxter of the world’s first political consulting firm, Campaigns, Inc., in 1933. “He doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen. But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign”, Whitaker and Baxter advised. A candidate can put on a fight or put on a show: “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW!” Whitaker wrote. “And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”3
That had been true of American politics at least since the election of 1840, the first to promote showmanship above issues—at least in the victorious, hard-cider-propelled Whig campaign of William Henry Harrison, who quipped at the time, “The more you talk the less you should say.” Whitaker and Baxter simply saw through the reigning sanctimony and turned it into a thriving business. Campaigns, Inc., perhaps unsurprisingly, doubled as an advertising agency. Whitaker and Baxter believed “every voter, a consumer.” Politics was a business; or, better stated, a show business.
Of course, it was around this time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats created the nationwide impression that the President of the United States was reaching into Americans’ very living rooms. FDR’s kind of direct personal appeal had only been possible heretofore on a small scale, in person—which is why rare gatherings like state fairs had been of such values to the leather-lunged politicians of the pre-radio era. But thanks to the radio, the potential for intimacy went national. Every American president since FDR has delivered periodic addresses to the American people: first on radio, then on television, and now online.
Aware of the power of this development, Campaigns, Inc. advised capitalizing on the growing sense of closeness between the political figure and his or her constituencies. One of the first methods for doing this was to have the candidate photographed with his family, a tactic Whitaker and Baxter tested on the otherwise grim Earl Warren in the 1942 California gubernatorial race. Seeing the intellectual, patrician Republican attorney with his brood humanized him to voters. Warren captured 57 percent of the vote.
Whitaker and Baxter set out on political campaigns in America at a time when the ethos of self-help was booming and the adult generation of the 1930s and 1940s was enjoying new media like radio and film—and generating a novel degree of cultural self-awareness in the process. Newly developed organs of “public opinion”, such as George Gallup’s polls, issued from the American Institute of Public Opinion, reflected back to Americans what they were thinking and feeling, and, consequently, what they valued. For the first time, Americans had empirical data on what they felt or thought about a specific issue, creating a new sense of national cohesion and a new way of thinking about the nation’s political spectrum.
Even the radio soap opera, as Warren Susman’s classic 1983 essay, “The Culture of the Thirties”, observed, “played a role in reinforcing fundamental values and in providing the intimate experience of other people’s lives so that millions of housewives knew they were neither alone nor unique in their problems.”4 Moreover, new “diseases” could be cured with a range of new products entering the market. Bad breath, body odor, stained teeth, and dishpan hands all found remedies in advertising that promised to help consumers achieve success by cultivating a more presentable self. Campaigns, Inc. simply transferred the logic of this appeal to the advertorial mode of campaigning that continues to this day.
Politicians thus had new ways at their disposal to make themselves more appealing in an increasingly chummy popular culture. The booming business culture of the 1940s put a premium on cultivating a likeable self that was unguarded, friendly, and accessible. Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller How To Win Friends and Influence People, a landmark in the history of American popular culture, stressed flattery and taking a seemingly genuine interest in other people as an ideal recipe for having them think fondly of you. That same year, Henry C. Link published the bestselling The Return to Religion, which joined traditional worship with pop psychology “to promote not ego strength but surrender.” The book’s most important message was the development of “personality.” Link’s work in psychological testing led to a measurement of personality assessment he called “PQ”, for Personality Quotient, a faculty he saw as more important in determining success than IQ. The key to success was to get people to like you. To do that you needed to learn how to fit in and develop a set of skills that “interest and serve other people.”
Link’s focus on personality is but a small example of the well-established observation by historians of the period that the early 20th century, with all its shiny modernity and new media, shifted the American ideal of personhood from the development of character—adhering to a set of externalized, traditional moral principles—to personality, to the cultivation of the self’s unique subjective needs. C. Wright Mills’s study of American managers and salesmen, White Collar (1951), traced the development in the 1940s of what he called a new “personality market”, where the individual businessman instrumentalized himself rather than the quality of his product line as the best tool for selling. With deliberate insincerity, Mills wrote, “the Successful Person . . . makes an instrument of his own appearance and personality.”5
Television, of course, irretrievably changed how the American voting public related to its elected officials, and how they conceived of modern politicians. Because of the audio-visual presence of political leaders in the private sphere of the American living room, those politicians came to be over a period of months or even years as people one seemed to actually know. Television and radio increasingly focused on the power of the charismatic personality, and citizens came to know their political leaders as they knew their friends: intimately. Or at least they supposed they did.
The great American sociologist David Riesman witnessed this momentous shift toward personal affect—both in the media and among voters—in the postwar period. Riesman wrote, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denny, in The Lonely Crowd (1950), that voters had begun to demand more emotional closeness from political candidates “in part as a desire to escape from cynicism and apathy into commitment and enthusiasm.” Even the hardheaded political bosses in America had learned the importance of the personal appeal, “enduring their experience of Franklin Roosevelt”, Riesman wrote, “to take these appeals into account; the wider the electorate, of course, the more glamor needs to displace issues or old-fashioned patronage considerations.”This led candidates, in turn, to seem more emotionally available, generous, honest, patient, courteous, and, most importantly, sincere—qualities, he argued, that came directly “from the grocery store.”6
The ensuing feedback-loop led Riesman to the conclusion that the more the public focused on a political personality’s expressiveness, the less it critically engaged with issues of the quality or prudence of a candidate’s actual policies and proposals. The staged way in which a candidate expressed himself had become evidence for Riesman, concerned with the decline of independent critical thought, of “how little listeners can trust themselves or others in daily life.” The outward traces of a candidate’s inward state, in other words, were gaining the upper hand over the topics he was explaining. Form trumped function, delivery trumped content, personality trumped policy. Erving Goffman’s influential 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, codified the lurking suspicion that everyone in public spaces was in the impression management business, more or less full time. Only in hermetic privacy did the masks come off, and sometimes not even then.
The pivot toward proper modes of expression and the ideal accessibility of personality created, in turn, the expectation that voters were actually supposed to know more about the inner lives of candidates, and to gain that kind of knowledge became a marker of upward mobility in the 1950s. But the relationship between the modern political persona and the audience is obviously one-sided, as in the theater. Only the stage persona can act; the audience is passive such that a relationship cannot be developed mutually. The burden of creating the plausible imitation of intimacy therefore falls entirely upon the political personality in front of the camera.
Alas, the wiles of impression management soon dawned upon the innocent targets, and Richard Nixon’s role in Watergate had plenty to do with bringing down the tent on the first generation of professional impression managers. The political personality striving to achieve a certain image must to some degree believe in his own performance—each mask he dons becomes a test of character. Nixon ultimately flunked the test and in doing so pulled down the curtain on the original wizards of spin.
That set the stage for the next layer of political impression management, one that absorbed the blow of Watergate and the accumulated distempers of the late 1960s. And that effort, thanks to the mainstreaming of the counterculture, had to contend with the newly strengthened demand for authenticity. What did the heirs of Campaigns, Inc. come up with? The anti-Washington pitch, the one that elected both the Democrat Jimmy Carter and the Republican Ronald Reagan.
Today’s in-person campaign events and public expressions of personal feeling are the outgrowth of this recent history and the logic it spurred: carrying onto the stage or into the living room or local diner the tactics gleaned from the early days of television. The transference of these proto-televised strategies, derived as they are from the real world, are then re-injected into the real world, lending them a quality of misplaced unease, an actor deprived of a role. They bespeak a consciousness of performance not just of the public self but of a public self striving desperately not to seem rehearsed. The confused overlaying of performance and naturalness, of self-consciousness and self-revelation, falls over itself and fails as often as not. The impression-management game thus tends toward multiple regression, losing impact with every new layer, and ultimately spawning widespread cynicism about all political speech.
Since the 1990s, American politicians’ publicly shared accounts of their own lives, tragedies, and tribulations have been an increasingly present fact of American political life, but one whose enactment has delivered diminishing returns. That is the template with which we can usefully recall how, during the 1992 campaign, Al Gore openly spoke about his son’s near-death after being hit by a car; how Bill Clinton discussed his impoverished, single-parent upbringing and his brother’s battles with drug addiction in 1992; how in 2004 both George W. Bush and John Kerry, flanked by Laura Bush and Theresa Heinz-Kerry, appeared on separate occasions on the Dr. Phil show to discuss the private details of their home life.
Such interviews by now have become psychological litmus tests for fitness in high office by showing the candidate’s relation to mainstream American psychological and emotional mores, and not much is off limits. American daytime television talk shows—Oprah, Dr. Phil, Sally Jesse Raphael, Montel Williams, as well as younger, hipper versions of the same, like the podcast WTF with Marc Maron—have infused the general atmosphere of self-disclosure on the side of the interviewee, and with what is permissible to ask on the side of the interviewer. Combined, these expectations have gradually moved American audiences over the past forty years into more thirstily seeking the private demons of strangers—beginning, of course, with famous strangers.
Such spectacle cannot but have seeped into an already porous American political culture. In 1992 Charles Krauthammer coined the word “Oprahization” to refer to the increasing tendency of politicians to discuss the ways in which they and their families have suffered, and thereby, he wrote, “endearing the candidate to the nation as a man of sensitivity and caring.”7 Arkansas governor Bill Clinton crystallized this ethos in a single, memorable phrase: “I feel your pain.”
The spectacle of Oprahization and the culture it nurtured in turn made it that much easier for the 1992 Star magazine story about presidential candidate Clinton’s past affair with Gennifer Flowers to appear on the front page, readying the reading public for the Lewinsky Affair of 1998. This event, which helped to define Generation-X, then led the American public down a rabbit hole of awkward confessions and befuddling legalese that has yet to end, as the desultory cases of Gary Condit, Jack Ryan, Mark Foley, John Edwards, Brian Doyle, and Anthony Weiner—to name just a few—clearly attest. From all appearances, we have yet to hit the bottom of the burrow.
Some of what has happened to American political culture in recent decades is common to Western democracies generally, and some is not. On the one hand, there is evidence of a general personalization of politics in Western democracies over the past three decades. In Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands there has been a increasing focus on the personality of a political figure: his personal preferences, consumer choices, how he looks, behavioral tics, psychological and emotional makeup, personal histories or private family affairs.
This shift signifies, first, that the personal lives of politicians are no longer considered private matters; and second, that the accepted buffer of privacy that once surrounded politicians has slowly dissolved, even if in many of these democracies exactly this privacy is wisely protected by law in order to shield the dignity of civic life from the misbehaviors of individuals. A violation of these laws used to be punishable by a significant fine, particularly in politics-proud France. Now, however, profit logic has dictated to publishers that paying fines is cheaper than not selling lots of magazines and newspapers. Finally, and most depressingly, the tabloidization of politics and an increased concentration on the private lives of political leaders indicates—in the words of German communications scholar Patrick Rössler—that the public realm decreasingly “has anything to do with civic commitments.”8
Though certainly there is civic good that comes of knowing that an elected official is laundering money, lying to the citizenry about matters of the public interest, or defrauding taxpayers, it is unclear if knowing about politicians’ private affairs actually matters in their conduct of affairs of state. Europeans tend to think it does not; politicians are not asked to share the intimate details of their private or emotional lives because those details are deemed irrelevant to politics. But Americans tend to think it does. The common argument, and specifically with regards to Bill Clinton, has been that an upstanding personal morality is a prerequisite for good state stewardship, and that any transgressions in one’s personal life stand as evidence of unfitness for high office.
Whether one prefers European or American sensibilities in such matters, political leaders are not just ordinary beings like you and me. They have willfully entered public life and, in a representative democracy, agreed to accept the responsibility of adopting a representative public role within it. They have agreed, in effect, to perform for us. They are therefore charged not with disclosing their personal feelings about certain subjects but with achieving what their constituents want them to achieve. This is why politicians in democracies are also known as “public servants”, an arrangement we too often forget, or from which we have been distracted by the culture of political celebrity.
After all, democracy involves giving up some things you want and begrudgingly accepting some things you don’t. And since getting things done is what we expect of our politicians, we ought to focus less on how “sincerely” a politician holds a given belief and more on how effective he is on achieving the ends with which he has been tasked. Indeed, “sincere” beliefs can beget opposing ideological rigidities so powerful as to make pragmatic compromise all but impossible. So a statement like, “You may not agree with Mitt’s positions on issues, or his politics . . . but no one will work harder, no one will care more” is precisely the kind of deflection from policy to personality that is profoundly unfriendly to democratic deliberation. Not agreeing with candidates’ positions is precisely why you do not support them, no matter how hard—or rather because of how hard—they will fight to achieve them.
Perhaps the most daunting problem with the treadmill of political intimacy is that one is reluctant to enter into conflict with a supposed “friend.” One cannot as readily dispute, argue against, and critique someone with whom one supposedly has established intimacy. Worse, the advent of disagreement very nearly presupposes personal animus where there is supposed to be default intimacy. Everything gets personal, and in politics that means that everything gets intransigent. “The reigning myth today”, Sennett wrote in 1977, “is that all the evils of society can be understood as the evils of impersonality, alienation, and coldness.” To overcome these hindrances, one should personally cultivate closeness, openness, and emotional transparency. Everything is reduced to the personal and hence to the affective side of human nature. And so “one of the great problems of our age”, as Margaret Thatcher famously observed, “is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.” Meanwhile, across the pond, her ally Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, proved her correct by becoming what voters came to see as the most sincere President in American history since Lincoln.
During the past three decades the distinctions between interpersonal and impersonal distance, ideas and feelings, actions and emotions—once taken together as the default face of public life—have been recast as cold and unnatural, evidence of some kind of emotional blockage or psychological hang-up. Distance, even with a smiling face, is now cast as a dehumanizing side effect of business culture, capitalism, modern society, or alienated labor. In all cases, wherever it appears, distance is something ultimately to be overcome, and so the default manner of social interaction and political presentation yearns for the parts of a person that are “underneath” the public and social parts. It seeks intimacy; it seeks to make a emotional beeline to what is personal and close rather than stop at the level of what is social and civil, and hence what is by virtue of distance possibly soluble through the arts of compromise.
We have forgotten, it seems, that politics has always been at least in part a performance, as America’s great 19th–century orators understood as well as their audiences. In a deeper sociological sense, as Goffman argued, it has to be that way. We would be wise to remember that a performing self only becomes “fake” when the standards and qualities set for the private self are substituted into the template for the public political self. It would be better, and it would, by extension, generate less fakeness in the end, if we simply removed the expectation of wanting some of the positive qualities we set for the private self—authenticity, genuineness, sincerity—from the category of the public, political self altogether. We should instead demand other qualities from the political self that have nothing to do with private subjectivity: a strong work ethic, clarity of expression, sound judgment, and even objectivity. Rebuilding the wall between the two kinds of selves and understanding that this demarcation holds is not only morally advisable but would help reinvigorate public life. It would also free politicians from the tyranny of the sense that they must attempt to be intimate with strangers—even if they are voters.
1“The Persuaders”, Frontline, PBS, November 9, 2003.
2Amanda Anderson, The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (Princeton University Press, 2001).
3For an account of Campaigns, Inc.’s early days, see historian Jill Lepore’s superb retelling in the September 24, 2012 New Yorker, “The Lie Factory.”
4Warren Susman, “The Culture of the Thirties”, in Culture as History (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003), p. 160.
5C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (Oxford University Press, 1951), p. 182.
6David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, 1961), pp. 192, 195–6.
7Charles Krauthammer, “The Pornography of Self-Revelation”, Time, August 10, 1992.
8Patrick Rössler in Media Society and Its Myths (University of Constance, 2005), p. 170.