Does personality matter in politics?

In the end it all came down to makeup.

Vice President Richard Nixon’s chances of winning the 1960 election began to diminish with each line of sweat that snaked down the pasty contours of his face during the Great Debates. Recorded on September 26th the presidential debate marked the first in American history and brought both candidates into the homes of an estimated 74 million viewers.

Despite being offered cosmetics Nixon stuck with Shave Stick powder, a pancake mix which masked his perpetual six o’clock shadow but provided almost no protection from the baleful spotlights whose unblinking glare lit the stage. By contrast his Democratic opponent, a relatively unknown senator by the name of John Kennedy, was made up to look brown as a nut. As the then President of CBS Frank Stanton commented  “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully . . . Nixon looked like death.”

It didn’t matter that Nixon was in many ways the superior candidate. A working class background, impeccable credentials as a Cold War ‘warrior’ or eight years of service as vice president counted for little against Kennedy’s Harvard wit and his, seeming, physical vitality. Television reduced the life of each man to little more than the sum total of their performance on stage. Nixon exuviated sickness while Kennedy embodied success. The debates subsequently propelled the young senator into the national spotlight and paved the way for a narrow Democratic win that November.

This marked a watershed in modern elections after which the personalities of the candidates seemed to be as relevant as their political agendas. Note thereafter the increasing significance of scandals to American politics; think Watergate, Iran Contra and Monica Lewinski with all the connotations of mendicity these carried for the incumbent president.

Personality remains a perennial feature of British politics to this day, with the recent general election probably being the nation’s most ‘presidential’ to date. As in the 1960 American race much of the campaigning in 2017 election focused on the personas of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, with their respective parties reduced to a blur.

The Tory campaign presented May as an iron surgeon whose sheer willpower would anesthetise public fears over Brexit, while Corbyn cultivated his image as a political outsider. An old hand was pitched against a new broom, the home counties against urban centres, reaction against reform. With both denied a parliamentary majority, many concluded that neither character had provide an entirely convincing pitch to their electoral ‘Dragons’.

While personality does matter perhaps the current hung parliament says more about ourselves than it does about our current political leaders.

An election is at its simplest a vote on the future and what kind of future we want it to be. However if politics are to transcend the past a new prophet is needed. As James Barber notes in The Presidential Character “The president is expected to personify our betterness in an inspiring way”. Voters therefore invest individual politicians with personalities which embody their own hopes and aspirations.

Nowhere was this more true than in 1960’s America where a young journalist named Norman Mailer attended the Democratic convention in Cleveland and managed to express the choice which faced the nation in the upcoming election. As Mailer saw it “they had chosen one young man for his mystery, for his promise that the country would grow or disintegrate by the unwilling charge he gave to the intensity of the myth, or had chosen another young man for his unstated oath that he would do all in his power to keep the myth buried and so convert the remains of Renaissance man as rapidly as possible into mass man. One might expect them to choose the enigma in preference to the deadening certainty”.

This wasn’t just a choice between Kennedy or Nixon but rather a referendum on the American dream. Would America capitalise upon the adrenaline shot of economic growth and political supremacy on the world stage? Or would the tendrils of social liberalisation be supressed, regulated and stamped out? Either way the celebrity of Kennedy and turgidity of Nixon came to personify a vision of the future for both their respective supporters and opponents. Aesthetics were important in 1960, but they largely served to confirm what Americans already believed about their candidate.

The personality which any given voter associates with a party leader is therefore a reflection of that same voter’s own worldview. As far as personality is concerned Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn could not be further apart. With a hung parliament and both leaders slugging it out in the polls we can only conclude that the future Britain imagines for itself is still very much undecided.

Article by Mattias Jarosz


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