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!
Every time you see a commercial that reminds you of your long-ago brush with violent crime, that time you were declined for health insurance, or the day your red phone rang at 3 a.m., you're being reminded that your own life narrative is more important than that of the candidate. And we are all so obsessed with finding a candidate who feels our pain, mirrors our experience, and validates our stories that we've forgotten that doing so is shrinkingour national political universe down to fit us. Anna Quindlen suggests this week that the campaigns jumped the shark even before the conventions. Which is not surprising, really; even 14-year-olds get bored after seven months of looking meaningfully into the mirror.
The problems with voting for the candidate in the looking glass are myriad. For one thing, it alienates us from candidates who are smarter than we are (too intellectual), more charismatic (too messianic), or even more famous (too much of a celebrity). For another, the voter seeking to validate his own life story is conflating political issues with personal problems. Men who see themselves as victims of an affirmative action firing in the '80s become the ancient mariners of affirmative action. Women who were asked to make coffee in 1991 are still reliving the humiliation.
This year in particular, women do stand to suffer disproportionately from behavior that plays into the age-old stereotype of the hormonally challenged, boil-the-bunny crazy lady. And the ultimate giveaway that all this has less to do with Hillary Clinton than with her voters is not just the fact that she cannot get them back onto the reservation. The real proof that this is about us is that the individual who stands to lose most if the Hillary Holdouts help to elect John McCain is, of course, Clinton herself. It's she who'll be held accountable if her followers don't fall in line. A glittering political career will be reduced to a punch line: Clinton will become the queen of the bunny-boilers. She who Sherpa-ed her flock to Crazyville.
We know, we know. It's not about anger; it's about issues. It's not about feminism; it's about the process. It's not about the primary; it's about Hillary being passed over for the vice-presidential spot. It's not about what Obama did; it's about what he didn't say when they did bad things to her. But that's the problem with umbrage. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
So the Hillary Holdouts are speaking out, making waves, being heard. And some proportion of them will ally themselves with the man who laughed and said, "That's an excellent question" when asked during the primaries, "How do we beat the bitch?" If they think they feel unheard, disrespected, and cast aside now, just wait until President McCain moves into the White House. Because not only will he not want to hear their complaints, but neither will we.
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.