Is Michele Bachmann Popular Because She's Not Angry?

What Women Really Think
July 1 2011 4:51 PM

A Nation's Pundits Wonder: What Is It About Bachmann?

Photograph of Michele Bachmann by Steve Pope/Getty Images.
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Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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Reporters trying to make sense of Michele Bachmann’s popularity seem to be coalescing around the idea that she has that certain something, the indefinable je ne sais quoi, that mojo, that all great politicians have. Is it charm? It’s more than charm. It is looks? It’s more than looks. Is it countless small things and more? Yeah, that’s it. Especially the more.

In the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza writes of Bachmann’s likeability, using as evidence her recent revelation of how her own miscarriage solidified her anti-abortion stance. This revealed her to be a “personal populist — someone who not only feels your pain but has lived it,” Cillizza writes. He contrasts her with Mitt Romney, who can seem inauthentic.

[P]articularly in a primary fight where the candidates largely agree on the major policy matters of the day, the “feel” factor weighs heavily.
Which candidate gets it? Which candidate seems to best understand the hopes and anxieties that you have?

On a New Yorker blog, John Cassidy hauls out the bullet points to explain Bachmann’s appeal. She’s a woman, he writes, which “partially inoculates her against the charge that she’s an extremist,” and she’s good-looking (with great teeth), and she’s “running as a ‘Reagan Democrat,’ ” to better appeal to voters across the political spectrum. Her gender, Cassidy adds, allows her to be as provocative as a Glenn Beck without seeming as angry.

Anger, I think, is a key point in any discussion of Michele Bachmann, because if the Minnesota congresswoman hopes to make it past the primaries she’s going to need to find a way to appeal to Americans on the other side of the cultural divide. The anger of the Glenn Becks and the Bill O’Reillys is good only for preaching to the converted, and it meanwhile deepens the opposition of liberals and moderates. Sarah Palin tapped into much of this anger in 2008 – sarcasm and an us-against-them message were her calling cards, and if anything she’s become more brittle since then. She may have made that anger palatable by feminizing it, and cutesifying it, but it was palpable.

Bachmann has a history of far more provocative comments than Palin – and yet her style is smoother, more inclusive and more appealing to those who aren’t naturally inclined to her politics. On paper, her quotes make her look like an angry American, but when she speaks it’s with a good dose of warmth and humor. This is to her benefit. Anger may be the currency of the day, but I don’t think it takes you very far in presidential politics.