The E-Harmony Election
When did voting become like dating? And when did it become like dating yourself?
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008, at 5:34 PM
There was a time when casting a vote was an aspirational act, a way to signal that somebody out there was smart enough, competent enough, and talented enough to do some of the things you might not be able to manage after a 40-hour workweek—like decreasing the deficit or negotiating international peace treaties. But the act of casting a vote is less and less about aspiration and more and more about self-identification. It's morphed into a long, sweet smooch with the person in the mirror. We identify absolutely with our candidates; their struggles become our struggles, their suffering our suffering, their life history our life history. And if we watch the same sitcom, have the same "Midwestern values," or sit in the same wing of the same church, well now we're not just voters; we're in luuuuve. When undecided voters say they need to hear more, they don't mean they have yet to glean which candidate's health care proposal is superior; they are waiting for their aha moment. That mind-meld that happens when you and your beloved bond over the chocolate fondue. Who gets me? Who's like me? With whom do I feel a deep personal connection?
Issues? What issues? I'm voting for me this year.
This year's iteration of the overidentified voter is certainly the Hillary Holdout, who, according to an op-ed by Susan Faludi in today's New York Times, is carrying on her shoulders the entire history of her gender's struggle for equality. If that were true, of course, then the response of women who would rather vote for a candidate with whom they agree on nothing over the one who vanquished the stand-in for … well, them, would seem slightly less irrational. Unfortunately, there are problems with this theory, though it does offer a nice sisterly cover story to make sense of the senseless.
First, ours is an utterly a-historical culture, in which the 1990s are ancient history. If it wasn't in last week's National Enquirer, it might as well not have happened. Though we might like to think that this one's for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it's actually our own well-tended grudges—over that promotion or assignment or raise we should have gotten in the late '80s but didn't—that we truly want Hillary to avenge. Faludi's amble down the feminist pathways of the 1920s is a fascinating one, but the women clinging to the promise of a Hillary presidency like lichen on a rock would be doing so even if they couldn't pick Susan B. Anthony out of a lineup. This fight dredges up the past, but it's our own past, our own searing loss of the class presidency or the CEO job or the corner office to some shiny jerk who gave great meeting, rather than the suffragettes' dark days of disunity.
It doesn't hurt that in the hydroponic bubble of a national convention—when there are 50 reporters to every delegate and the Hillary Holdouts have become the only unscripted plot line—the story is recycled hourly, whether it reflects any statistical or social reality. It's all we can talk about, all we can hear about. The Hillary Holdouts are like a media slot machine that never fails to come up three bells.
And it's a mistake to suggest that the disgruntled Clinton voters are the only navel-gazers in town; this phenomenon of voting more out of emotion than reason—of seeing personal connection as more important than ideological affinity—is not uniquely or even particularly female. In this narcissistic, it's-all-about-me age, men are no less interested than women in electing a president with whom they'd like to flip some burgers or have a beer—you know, the kind of Joe Normal who's a lot like them, too. In this era of slick advertising and messaging and packaging, it's little wonder we size up our candidates the same way we do any other commodity in the marketplace: They are accoutrements, lifestyle choices that reflect our taste and sensibilities as much as our positions on policy. Which is why, to qualify for high-profile product placement in our lives, a candidate must be cool but not overexposed, feeling but with a sense of irony, competent and nice-looking but not so extraordinary as to make us feel too unaccomplished or bulky by comparison. Accessorize with Obama! Mesh with McCain!
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Hillary Clinton with her supporters by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.