Why do we vote for those for whom we vote? David Brooks has an interesting column that has been getting some play. Brooks emphasizes a rivalry within the educated class between "knowledge" and "manager" types.
Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution...
Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas...
This is fine as far as it goes. But I think there's a broader point to be made. First, I'll take a detour through the economics of outsourcing. Then I'll get back to politics.
One of the reasons outsourcing has not been a serious problem in the U.S. (despite the rehetoric in some circles) is that there are many tasks for which skilled U.S. workers are uniquely qualified. (Call centers do not exploit this comparative advantage in skilled workers, and so it is not surprising that these jobs have been displaced). For example, though workers overseas put together Nike athletic shoes, the research, design, and marketing of the shoes takes place in the U.S. Selling shoes these days has more to do with aesthetics, with the ability to capture the imagination of consumers, than with any demonstrated ability to manufacture better shoes. Design and marketing are the decisive inputs, and these are supplied domestically.
As Virginia Postrel emphasizes, much of what we consume is aesthetic in nature. We purchase products as much for the "feeling" they give us as for their practical function. We define ourselves through what we buy. What we are buying, then, is self-definition. Postrel thinks this is fine. It is a human need and may well raise utility, as it were. On this point, I am agnostic. I am neither willing to condemn the consumer who wants to spend his or her extra money on something trendy, fun, and harmless--nor willing to celebrate the vain quest for self-definition through *things*. (Shouldn't we define ourselves more through how we think and act, than through what brand of shoe we wear?) But the fact remains, we often purchase things for the image they evoke. The fractured syllogism goes like this: Michael Jordan wears Hanes underwear. I wear Hanes underwear so that I will feel more Michael Jordan-ish.
(I mean this rhetorically: I am embarassed to admit that I don't actually remember what brand of underwear I wear).
On to politics: I think we tend to choose political parties in the same way. Political parties are brand names. We choose a party because of the way it makes us feel about ourselves. Voting is like buying underwear. What matters is not so much the positions the candidate holds, not his performance or function. What matters is the how I feel about myself when I picture myself voting for him. Parties are a brand. I define myself as a Democrat or a Republican, a Coke guy or a Pepsi guy. I derive utility from that. Issues matter only in a peripheral way. A good Coke slogan, say, might make me switch over from Pepsi.
How else do we explain the illogical and inconsistent arguments that both sides use to criticize one another? Consistency would seem to require that those inclined to celebrate the moral imperative to save Kosovars from ethnic cleansing would be sympathetic to an action that might free Iraqis from similar opression. Likewise, one might expect that those who considered intervention in the former Yugoslavia to be meddlesome and too dangerous would think the same of intervention in Iraq. But huge numbers or Democrats and Republicans simply reversed themselves on these points and argued the opposite of what they had argued a few years before. Yes, there are nuances and particularities that could lead, logically, to such reversals. But these are almost never articulated. The huge sweeping arguments both sides employ do not often rely decisively on the differences between these conflicts.
Politics is a team sport now. If you're a Laker fan, you think the officials did not call enough fouls on Detroit. If you define yourself as a Pistons fan, then the officiating was splendid. In neither case is the performance of the officials really the issue. The team you favor is the decisive input that determines your view of the facts.
Does it really raise one's sense of enjoyment to take sides? Absolutely. It is hard to watch a great game without starting to root for one team or the other. It makes things more fun and more dramatic. Gives you a stake in the outcome. Perhaps it was always this way. Honest evaluation and the search for something true may always have been a secondary purpose in civic debate. Perhaps it was always about self-defintion, about picking a team and then blinding oneself, permanently, to any and all inconvenient facts.
But I believe it has grown worse lately. Just as we have come to care more about the brands of shoes we wear, independent of their function, we have also come to care more about ideological brands, about the tag on the political underwear, than about ideologies themselves or their relationship to fact and reason. It's a shame.
But why? After all, it can be great fun listening to raving cretins like Michael Moore or Ann Coulter. What's wrong with politics as an underwear competition?
(Not to put to fine a point on it.... )
Because millions of lives are at stake. It might be time to stop looking at the labels.