Dr Capable or Mr Charm?

Should we like politicians who send the charm meter off the scale, or those who have decency and good judgment?
Alma Acevedo | Oct 23 2012 | comment  

Which presidential candidate leads in likeability polls is almost as newsworthy as who wins each debate. The likeability factor seems to be a major electability criterion. Yet why should integrity and competence be attributed according to perceptions of niceness? Why should the vote for POTUS be based on the so-called beer test? Are Americans about to elect a college buddy, a bartender? The nation’s leader or a rock band’s? In an ideal world, the best candidate would be competent and likeable. If only this conjunction were the norm! But, when there are only two possible choices…

Nobody is advocating obnoxiousness. After all, working with people, communicating, and motivating are part of the president’s job description. Does political acumen, however, require excelling at the charm meter or, primarily, basic human respect, decency, and good judgment?

Likeability, though, has turned into the tinted lenses through which many facts are filtered. The so-called likeable candidate’s “trivial mistake” becomes the less likeable’s “blatant lie.” The former’s charming wink is construed as forced grin in the latter. The more likeable’s frowns are labeled “intellectual”; the other’s “awkward.” The first’s gaffes are merely “clumsy”; the second’s are “insensitive.” One is “living to his full potential”; the other is smug. The first’s millions were hard-earned; the second’s, the result of privilege. One evolves, the other flip-flops.

Need I go on?

Politics is not the only field in which likeability exerts its weight. In education, for instance, likeable instructors tend to be more positively assessed by colleagues and students, regardless of research and teaching performance. In religion, likeable and easy going preachers often command a steadier following than their stauncher but less appealing counterparts.

Even in medicine… Yet, should we choose doctors based on cheerleading, or on the likelihood of getting effective treatment? We all have had our share of likeable doctors. Reassuringly, they prescribe hope. We feel better, but the germs fester on.

The doctor-in-chief must tend an ailing economy, mend relationships with foreign allies, heal the nation’s wounds. When facing only two choices, should we prefer the one who feels our pain? Or, instead, the one most likely to alleviate it or, at least, less likely to aggravate it?

Moreover, did the candidates build it? Did they build their perceived niceness mark? Often, this brand of likeability is created by doting media rather than earned by real achievement. Speech writers and image makers also do their bit.

Unlikeability is, too, largely thrust upon candidates. Mr Not-Quite-as-Fun is depicted as stiff. Yet, your monitor does not freeze when he is interviewed. Instead, it displays a reasonable, down to earth, even affable looking guy. His I/Me count is well within the normal range.

The mainstream media has successfully reinforced the demagogical doctrine that we should “like” more someone portrayed as disadvantaged and to stigmatize one portrayed as wealthy, irrespective of the true circumstances. The “democracy (and justice) as classlessness” creeds have been promoted as politically correct. Questioning these dogmas is attacked as racist, elitist, or unfair. Their socialist pedigree goes unheeded. What about effort, merit, and contribution? Evidence and logic, reliable accounts and right judgment, are conveniently set aside.

Electability-as-likeability may also be part of the legacy of a touchy-feely education that prizes self-esteem and popularity over discipline and rigor. Of a culture that tends to value fashion over substance, where friendships are tallied by mouse clicks, and quality by the number of “likes.” Perhaps it is an outcome of the pervasive relativism that shuns reality, while constructing a world according to its own, whoops, standards.

Shouldn’t electability imply being worthy to be elected and, similarly, likeability imply worthy to be liked? The suffix -able suggests capacity, ability, fitness. Shouldn’t likeability, then, be based on a sound personal core of intellectual and moral virtue, as demonstrated by policies, worldview, and knowledge of national and international affairs? Instead of trusting someone who is likeable, how about liking somebody who is trustworthy?

In particular, someone whose executive decisions—affecting education, health, funding, Supreme Court composition, and so on—will more likely be framed within the respect for human life and dignity?  

I do not know how George Washington and Abraham Lincoln fared in the likeability meter. I know, though, that Bill Clinton rated high… It is time to revisit Dr Capable instead of swooning over Mr Charm.

Alma Acevedo, PhD, teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.

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