The Republican National Convention began on July 18, 2016. On that remarkable day, Republican delegates and party advocates packed Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Amid the day’s scheduled speakers and festivities, the man of the hour was introduced with immense drama, pomp, and bravado. Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played while the house lights in the arena dimmed and faded to blue. An excitement arose within the crowd. The primary focus shifted to the large stage where LED’s created a white canvas, bright lights projected onto a white scrim. A tall yet stocky figure emerged from stage right and ambled its way to near center, just after Freddie Mercury sang “we’ll keep on fighting till the end.” (Had this character executed a pleasing bisection of the light canvas, viewers at home may have forgiven some points of the superfluous entrance.) The crowd reached ecstasy. The silhouette made its way downstage to meet an ascending podium, flanked by twin teleprompter displays. Lights were turned on to reveal the figure, Donald J. Trump — the RNC’s nominee for Commander-in-Chief and the eventual President of the United States. Mr. Trump is seen clapping. Perhaps it’s for his warm reception, or perhaps it’s for himself. Images are projected behind him: people, en masse, proudly hoisting their “Make America Great Again” posters at political rallies. Over lingering applause, Mr. Trump speaks into the microphone, “Thank you, everybody. Thank you. We love you. Thank you very much.”
This is the vignette of a man in love with his supporters and vice versa. It’s a portrait of the people and their guy, the one they rooted for and the one that’s better than the other option. He ran a primary and will run a general. He will claim victory and the cheers in the halls of the arena will be echoed and amplified by millions. This jubilation will be met with an equally powerful and collective anguish. Some will win and some will lose. That’s the way the game is. This is modern politics in America.
A successful campaign, on the local or national scale, is akin to a high wire balancing act. In both scenarios, there’s a lot to lose. People are watching, illusions play out, and perceptions are different from every angle. A circus performer will very well rehearse his or her routine to nail it in front of an audience; a politician or aspiring politician will/should rehearse their talking points before a speech or debate or canvassing operation. Some spectators are wired in a way that would make it more entertaining for them to see a performer fall — in the same fashion a voter desires for the ruin of a threatening political campaign. This is what has happened: The political process in our young nation has been distilled into nothing more than a sport. The idea is simple, in that the public chooses its players (although that’s not always the case). The players are few and the public is fastened in for the ride, whether they like it or not.
Race: “A competition between runners, horses, vehicles, boats, etc., to see which is the fastest in covering a set course.”
Picture a stadium or a large race track where people are running toward the finish line. The finish line, in this case, is a political office. Like sprinters in a dash, they run for first place — toward victory. And not everyone can run. Some people don’t like it and some people just can’t. Running, in the sport of running and in politics, takes guts. It takes sacrifice and discipline and the willingness to risk almost everything for the win. The rest of us find ourselves spectating on the bleachers. Spectators play a vital role in this process, however. As we see the marathon develop before us, we talk to our fellow men & women on the bleachers. These people symbolize our neighbors, our friends, our family, our coworkers, our associates. The conversation may start at a respectfully neutral point, but what may transpire could be a cacophony of criticism from two different points of view. The conversation might happen on a social media platform, a trade of ideas in the comment section of a post. The media’s substitute in this analogy can be the paperboys/papergirls. They wave their publications in the air screaming “EXTRA! EXTRA!” In print rests a neat headline of support for someone in the race. These are endorsements, and maybe more undecided people make up their minds following the reading of this print. The coaches are campaign managers and pollsters, yelling from the dugout. After millions of spectators exchange dialogue, most of the public has decided who to root for once the race is nearing its end. Broadcasters, who aptly represent career political pundits, might forecast a photo-finish. Thus, the hype is intensified and more people flock to the stadium. More food and beer is purchased from the concession stands. In a perfect world, the best of the two runners wins the race — i.e. the most talented and prepared person wins. That’s far from reality because the reality is far from perfect; people are far from perfect. Sometimes the person who crosses the finish line first didn’t really deserve it. In a lot of races, the victor was initially a dark horse. In the end, a winner emerges. Almost half of the spectators are upset with the result. The other half is content. The gray area between these two groups represents a people who hold an odd indifference to the product.
The race analogy isn’t ideal for every situation. A lot of other sports come to mind, depending on the political climate or event. Ads on the television play out like a tennis match, a back-and-forth of defense and offense. Debates are billed like boxing matches; two days before a meeting between two candidates, news outlets display, adjacent to the “LIVE” notice, a countdown. These digital clocks are striking, often showing how many seconds are left before liftoff. (Bombs come to mind too.) And it’s effective marketing. Whether you watch the news daily or are waiting in an airport terminal for your next flight, the counting down grabs your attention because it’s always moving. By the time the numbers hit zero, you better have the popcorn ready. You had two days to get it ready.
The anticipation has built like the moments leading up to a really good movie. Ding, ding, ding! The athletes are in the ring. They’re energetically bouncing in opposite corners with their boxing gloves before them, ready to strike or defend. Their trainers are behind the boxers. They are shouting words toward their athletes and by the time these words reach the boxers’ ears, they’ve reduced to nothing more than an infruriating disarray of sounds. The “debate moment” is the much awaited and decisive blow that turns the fight in one of the athlete’s favor. It’s the uppercut that throws the crowd into a frenzy. The moment will be captured by history and people will talk to each other about it in the future and remark, “I remember where I was when it happened.” A winner is crowned by the press, the electorate, the fact-checkers, and historians.
Post-debate, the competitors and their representatives will meet in a large hall that is known as the “spin room.” This setting is where the opposing sides will either cement their victory or spin their loss into a tie or slight win of their own. The spinning is all done by speech, although body language does have its say. Incredibly, it’d be fair to say that this is the fight after the fight, for both politicians and the press. The politicians will attempt to succinctly make their case for victory, or try to distance themselves from apparent defeat. Journalists will elbow their way through the swarm of reporters to shout questions and hopefully receive some answers. There certainly is an art to spinning. The core of the art is smooth and painless deception, coolness and nuance. Some people are just better at twisting the truth than others. For that reason, the answer as to who won a debate is often — you guessed it — up for debate.
“Clothes make the man.”
Looks matter in the political world. The taller the presidential candidate, the better their odds are at winning the White House. The historical odds are surprisingly high. This height index captured the attention of a political science professor, Gregg Murray. He’s now at Augusta University in Georgia. During his tenure at Texas Tech, he was intrigued by the facts: “The taller of the Republican and Democrat candidates emerged victorious in 58 percent of US presidential elections between 1789 and 2008.” The taller of the candidates also won the popular vote in 67% of those elections. Murray went on to ask volunteers (467 students) to draw leaders and ordinary citizens. The depicted leaders were taller than the citizens 64% of the time. In those instances, the leaders were 12% taller than the citizen. While most of the students who partook in the survey were from North America, some of them came from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This pointed to an opinion, perhaps subconscious, that pointed to the universal belief that taller people make better leaders. There’s more depth to this, however; it’s a matter that concerns evolution. Dr. Murray explains: “Our ancestors lived in groups that were constantly engaged in conflicts that were resolved through physical violence. If you are in a group and the enemy hordes are coming over the hill, what you want them to see is the big person out front so they know they face a tough battle.”
Bringing it back to sports, digest the following numbers.
Avg. height of NBA PG: 6'1.1"
Avg. height of NBA C: 6'9.7"
Avg. height of the current top five male tennis players: 6'3.2"
There are benefits to being taller in sports, politics included.
The color red plays a role in sports. In politics, the iconic red tie of a president sends a message before a word is spoken. It’s a striking — maybe even intimidating — image to behold, a woman in an all red paint-suit. Red has a curious place. Whether you’re superstitious or not, research backs the idea that the color benefits whoever is wearing it. Research conducted by Russell Barton and Robert Hill in 2004, during the Olympic Games in Athens, showed that athletes wearing red in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman-wrestling, and freestyle wrestling were more likely to win than those athletes not wearing red.“The effect is the same across the weight classes in each sport: 19 of 29 classes had more red winners, with only six classes having more blue winners.” Interestingly and apparently, Olympic staff randomly assigned red or blue to each competitor. The suggested red advantage is not only bound to 1v1 sports, but teams also fare better while wearing the color.
During the Euro International Soccer tournament, the performance of five teams was examined when they wore red and other colors (blue & white). All five had better results (i.e. scoring more goals) while playing in red. Robert Burton remarks, “There is now good experimental evidence that red stimuli are perceived as dominant and that they cause negative effects on performance in those viewing them.”
On a final point regarding the red phenomenon in sports: There is some truth to the idea that referees and judges favor competitors wearing red. German sports psychologists at the University of Münster conducted an experiment where video clips of tae kwon do fights were shown to forty-two experienced referees. One athlete wore blue and the other wore red. The psychologists then manipulated the same videos to swap the colors on the athletes. The fighters wearing red were given an average of 13% more points than when they were in blue.
This oddity with red can perhaps be simply answered through evolutionary psychology. Red is a color closely associated with aggression and dominance. Suddenly the feeling of being intimidated around that bright red pant-suit makes some sense. The real question concerning fashion in politics, however, is asking why there isn’t a decisive dress code in Congress. The rules and unspoken rules of the way Congress operates is riddled with arcana. (Senator McConnell seems to be the only guy in town who knows how to play by or break the rules.) Before Democrats reclaimed the House in 2018, Speaker Ryan — in the July of 2017 — pledged that House officials would review the chamber’s dress code.
Per Reuters: “The dress code requires men to wear suit jackets and ties in the House chamber and speaker’s lobby, which is just outside it, and women are not supposed to wear sleeveless tops or dresses without a sweater or jacket.”
This was met with understandable objection by the women representatives, both liberal and conservative. Speaker Ryan doubled down by remarking, “Decorum is important, especially for this institution. And a dress code in the chamber, in the lobby makes sense.” He continued, “Members should wear appropriate business attire during all sittings of the House, however brief their appearance on the floor may be.” Pelosi answered, “These unwritten rules are in desperate need of updates.”
Women didn’t wear pants on the Senate floor until 1993. Former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun was met with gasps while clad in a pantsuit on her first day at work in the Capitol. Senate doorkeepers can purportedly turn anyone away deemed inappropriately dressed. The doorkeepers of the House and Senate work under their own bosses in the different chambers, the Sergeants at Arms. They are the highest-ranking federal law enforcement officers in Congress. It’s comically fitting that the Sergeant at Arms is the guy at the center of the women’s “right to show arms” debate. I also find it funny that the congressional dress code largely exists to preserve the dignity of the legislative chamber — the institution. Translation: Politicians wear costumes. I think new costumes are well overdue. Maybe something more 21st century-y. Maybe spacesuits. Or perhaps just red and blue jerseys, so we can all see what team our politicians are on. Something in the likes of NASCAR jackets would work well too. McConnell would have a big NRA patch over his heart.
In a 2013 article (On the Face of it: The Psychology of Electability) from Maria Konnikova, New Yorker contributor, the subject of a candidate’s appearance is examined. She takes a look at two major studies regarding the physical appearance of candidates and elected leaders. The first study is from Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov. The second study was also conducted by Todorov, in tandem with psychologist Nikolaas Oosterfhof.
In 2003, Todorov suspected that one of the factors that contribute as to why we vote for a particular candidate deals with our perception of them. The hypothesis: Competence can be judged by a simple glance at someone’s face; the qualification and capability of someone can be determined by the way they look. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
Through the fall and subsequent spring of 2003, Todorov showed pairs of portraits to nearly a thousand people. He asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the sample, they were looking at congressional candidates in 2000, 2002, and ’04. The competency query predicted the real election outcomes 66% — 73% of the time. “Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers.” This snap judgment is what the psychologist Nalini Ambady calls the “thin-slice judgment: the ability to make any number of social judgments from a seconds-long experience.”
If and when the underlying factors (there are a lot) are controlled in a race, research shows that “thin-slice judgment” remains legit. “It emerges as the single strongest predictor of victory beyond external factors such as broad economic data, like the unemployment rate; personal data, like age or gender; or any other single political measure, like whether someone is an incumbent or how much has been spent on the campaign.” A few years after Todorov’s initial study, he concluded that even a single second cutoff was unnecessary. “The judgments that people made after a mere hundred milliseconds predicted election outcomes just as accurately as if they’d had an unlimited time to look at the photographs.”
The second study, with Oosterfhof, looked at what features translated to the character judgments that were previously observed. Thanks to computer analysis, the two found that rankings of faces came down to “two principal components: valence, or trustworthiness, and dominance.” Trustworthiness tells us about how approachable someone is. Dominance tells us about someone’s strength. This latter trait also most closely associates with the appearance of competence. “Softer faces, rounder chins, and higher foreheads” appear more trustworthy. “More masculine faces that were narrower, with more prominent chins and wider noses” appear more dominant. Again, this can be traced back to the way we have evolved.
How We Got Here
The sport of politics is a direct result of the two-party system that America seems to be locked in. The brief history of political parties in the U.S. start with, namely, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Anti-Federalists who associated with Thomas Jefferson were the Democratic-Republicans. Andrew Jackson, a Democratic-Republican, changed the party’s name to “Democrats” in 1828. People who had once been Federalists joined anti-Jackson Democrats and became the National Republican, or Whig, Party.
Scholastic: “Northern Abolitionists — people who wanted to abolish slavery — left the Whig party. The Whigs also lost voters to the “Know-Nothing” Party, a new party that violently opposed Roman Catholics and foreigners. The Whig Party began to go to pieces.”
Around the same time, issues of slavery and states’ rights divided Democrats into Northern and Southern branches. In 1854, anti-slavery forces and Free Soil Forces formed the Republican Party. By 1860, voters had a choice of four major parties — Northern Democrat, Southern Democrat, Republican, and Constitutional-Union Party, which drew some ex-Whigs. Republicans captured the White House with Lincoln’s win and the Civil War began shortly after. The Southern Confederacy’s defeat proved damaging for the Democrats, who were commonly associated with the Southern cause; Republicans found themselves in comfortable majorities across the Union.
The two major parties saw further division in the wake of the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, oversaw the country during the economic collapse. Voters put their trust behind Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal Programs. He was a believer that American prosperity would come as a result of help from the government, and he was elected to four terms. FDR’s presidency gave the U.S. Social Security, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the Emergency Banking Relief Act, the Civil Works Administration, legislation beneficial to unions, and dozens of other laws and programs.
Republicans believed the government was getting too big, heading toward a welfare state. Enter, the conservatives — people & politicians who believe in limited government, limited interference, and less federal spending. By this definition, there is no such thing as a modern conservative Republican. And since there are/were conservatives, there are liberals. Everything coexists.
“There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each arranged under its Leader, and concerting Measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble Apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil, under our Constitution.” — John Adams
The Third Party
There is always the option of voting for a third-party candidate, for those who don’t align with either of the major two party candidates or platforms. The famous Ross Perot, at his best (1992), captured 18.9% of the vote in his presidential bid. Still, he didn’t earn a single electoral vote. He ran again in 1996 and received 8.4% of the vote and no electoral votes. In 2000, Ralph Nader received 2.7% of the vote — which is more of a percentage than what split the main two candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore. The margin that separated Bush and Gore was half a percentage point, of which Al Gore had more of the votes. Bush would grasp victory through the electoral college. Sixteen years later, history rhymed. Gary Johnson captured .99% and 3.3% of the vote of the vote in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Jill Stein earned 1.06% of the vote in 2016. The last person elected president who wasn’t a Republican or Democrat is Zachary Taylor, a member of the Whig Party. He was sworn in on March 4, 1849.
Due to these numbers, the facts, the history, the back-and-forth of two political parties, and Citizens United, the third party candidate in almost every race is viewed as a spoiler candidate or a long-shot. Their track record is poor; they have little to no wins in their column. And if there’s one thing about Americans, it’s the fact that they like winners. It’s hard to fall in love with losers. We are the product of a successful revolution. This mentality says, “Get in line. Pick a side and don’t be lazy.” It’s one of the reasons independents and libertarians are scoffed at and dismissed. Incidents like the “What is Aleppo” question doesn’t help their image either. The reduction of third-party enthusiasm and interest only serves as a boon to the established Republican and Democratic parties. This is dangerous because it doesn’t encourage a significant amount of the electorate to vote for their logical choice. Therefore, the two major parties drift further apart over time as their ideologies intensify with the lack of competition.
Tribalism and Identity politics are symptoms of the two-party system and they are factors of the political sport. At its simplest, tribalism is the state of being organized by tribes or tribal lifestyles — a way of thinking or behaving in a way where people are loyal to their social group above all else. Lena Felton, of The Atlantic, writes, “Tribalism describes the human instinct to want to belong to a group of people who are like you.” (Maybe tribalism isn’t the best term for this brand, however. The word “clique” works as a fine substitution; perhaps “Clique-Politics” is a better term for this genre of politics.) When people resort to tribalism in their politics, whether they know it or not, (i.e. exclusively read a publication, exclusively watch a certain news outlet) they do more speaking as a result of closing their ears. They align with certain people and a certain ideology that makes it difficult for them to listen to dissent; empathy is impossible. In their minds, they are always correct and always righteous. The mentality leads to a curious situation known as “reactive devaluation.” This is what happens when we discover something that we agree with that was actually said by the other side, and we suddenly withdraw our support for the hitherto agreed subject, topic, or idea.
Dr. Daniel R. Stalder writes, “Maybe we don’t want to admit that the other side has a good idea because we don’t want to be criticized or rejected by our own people. This is part of groupthink. In Congress, politicians don’t want to be primaried out of their next election. Maybe we can’t admit the other side has a good idea because of our own egos, especially if we have publicly criticized the other side and rallied for our side. When it comes to ego protection, it’s easy to misperceive or reinterpret a good idea as bad.”
Clique-Politics’ immediate cousin is Identity Politics. If you ask Google for a definition of identity politics, it’s this: “A tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” It’s a foundation of practicing or playing politics on how you or social groups identify — e.g. “As a Catholic, I’m going to vote for Catholic candidates.”
Identity politics is tricky, though. Identity itself is subjective. It can include, religion, education, race, social class, occupation, culture, disability, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, and political party affiliation. Well then…what isn’t identity politics?
Identity politics has been utilized as a means to shed light on marginalized people, often minorities. Using identity as the backbone, this form of politics has been used to confront unpleasant aspects of American society and history. In a lot of cases, its goal is inclusiveness — a way to be recognized. But the “US vs. THEM” psychology only works for so long. In no time, a key objective is lost and the end result is the antithesis of the original intent. Identity politics isn’t just inclusive, it is sometimes exclusive. There’s an engrossing article from The Guardian that examines the exclusivity of identity politics and its relation to cultural appropriation.
Here are a couple of quotes from the piece to mull over:
“Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition.”
“As a progressive Mexican American law student put it, ‘If we allowed ourselves to be hurt by a costume, how could we manage the trauma of an eviction notice? Liberals have cried wolf too many times. If everything is racist and sexist, nothing is. When Trump, the real wolf, came along, no one listened.’”
Identity politics and tribalism, partially results of the two-party system, have fed truth to the narrative that people vote with their hearts over their minds. People vote party over candidate. And there is great risk in this. The two-party system is in dire need of a shuffle. There needs to be fair political competition because the two parties are drifting further apart. Due to this drifting, there is a growing void where independents and other people in the middle used to be. The electorate in the middle should decide more elections to serve as an impartial and unwavering voice of reason — the adults in the room. The political sport has run amok. There’s too much money involved, there’s too much promise, there’s too much confetti, too much waste, too much noise, too much drama, too much vitriol, too much division. But the game is so good. The pressure to cave is almost cozy. We throw money behind people, causes, and ideas. We watch these people fight it out on the television. We hear their voices on the radio and we see their names in print. We fall for it because when everything is stripped from us, we are naked and vulnerable animals — and our evolutionary biology allows for fear to dictate parts, if not all, of our lives. We are like the boys in Lord of the Flies, turning our heads to the sound of a conch whose clamor pierces through the muggy island air. We follow the sound because humans need direction. Some of us want to be led, even if the destination is madness itself. Unlike the boys in the book, no one is coming to save us.