Did Men Invent “Likability?”

Hillary nominated

Check out historian Claire Potter‘s piece at The New York Times: “Men Invented ‘Likability.’ Guess Who Benefits.”  She reflects on the origins of the idea of “likability”  advertising culture and, eventually presidential politics.

As Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and others jumped into the race, each seemed to affirm the new power of women in 2019, a power that was born when President Trump was sworn into office, exploded during #MeToo and came into its own during the 2018 midterms.

But no female candidate has yet led the polls. The men keep joining — Michael Bennet this week, Joe Biden the last — and keep garnering glowing press coverage. Although Mr. Biden fumbled two previous presidential bids, we are told he has “crossover appeal”; Bernie Sanders has been admired by this newspaper as “immune to intimidation”; and Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay man nominated for president, is “very authentic.” By contrast Ms. Harris is “hard to define”; Ms. Klobuchar is “mean”; and Ms. Warren is a “wonky professor” who — you guessed it — is “not likable enough.” Seeing comments like this, Mrs. Clinton said wryly in January, “really takes me back.”

Likability: It is nebulous, arbitrary and meaningless, yet inescapable — and female politicians seem to be particularly burdened with it even when they win and especially when they run for president.

In a recent interview on CNN with Michael Smerconish, Potter challenged the audience to find one female candidate in the 2016 race who has been called “likability.”

Here is another small taste of her piece:

Americans were also taught that being likable was a quality that could be cultivated as a means to get ahead. In 1936, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” warned that those who tried too hard to be liked would fail: Theodore Roosevelt’s naturally friendly greetings to everyone he passed, regardless of status, Carnegie noted, had made it impossible not to like him, but Henrietta G., now the “best liked” counselor at her office, had been isolated until she learned to stop bragging. (Though looking back, we have to wonder: Would Henry G. have needed to hide his accomplishments?)

As presidential candidates put advertising experts in charge of national campaigns, perhaps it was inevitable that likability would jump explicitly to politics. In 1952, some of the first televised election ads sought to highlight Dwight Eisenhower’s likability. The advertising executive Rosser Reeves put Eisenhower in controlled settings where his optimism, self-confidence, humor and nonpartisanship could be emphasized over his political inexperience and what Reeves viewed as his “inept” speaking style. The animator Roy Disney was commissioned to make a cartoon spot with a catchy jingle: “Ike for President,” the song repeated, cutting to Uncle Sam leading a parade down the streets. “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike,” the chorus sang as Eisenhower’s smiling cartoon face passed.

Read the entire piece here.

2020: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

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Journalist Ross Barkan reflects on the “eternal presidential sweepstakes” with the help of Neil Postman.  Here a taste of his piece at The Baffler:

The Beto/Trump hand gesture skirmish—Trump jerks and floats his arms and hands around in even odder ways—was another inanity of this 2020 campaign, one that is sure to be followed by many more. This is because a campaign of this length demands programming. As cable channels peaked in the early 2000s, TV producers realized they had a lot of dead-time to fill and only so much money to spend filling it. Hence, the birth of reality TV: SurvivorAmerican Idol, and, to the detriment of our future selves, The Apprentice. They were all aspirational, promising us stardom, great wealth, or the kind of self-discovery that can keep any average schmuck alive on a desert island.

Today, the hours, days, weeks, and months of the perma-campaign must be filled, too. Beto’s hands, Amy Klobuchar’s salad comb, Bernie’s head bandage, Elizabeth Warren’s beer chug, Cory Booker’s girlfriend, Kamala Harris’s musical tastes while she smoked pot in college. No triviality is too trivial for an underpaid journalist somewhere to bundle into an article, video, or meme in the hopes of attracting attention and driving fleeting dollars to a collapsing media ecosystem. The perma-campaign is the apotheosis of reality TV because the stakes are so high—we are choosing a world leader with the power to drop civilization-annihilating bombs, and therefore every plot twist in the extended marathon can be justified in the solemn, self-satisfied way a political reporter will defend just about every absurd practice of the profession. 

Beto, Bernie, Biden, Kamala, and more—these are characters the American people must get to know through their TV screens and social media. This year and next, they are all Democrats, and they are auditioning for us. They will speak to us, rally for us, and construct events in states ten months before a vote. Why? Well, the show needs content. And if you aren’t producing content, you are irrelevant. Imagine a presidential candidate deciding to take April, May, and June off, arguing that an entire six months of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses is probably enough to win votes. The horror! What will be tweeted, Instagram storied, Facebook lived, and packaged into lively, anecdote-addled reporting for a New York Times political memo?

Thirty-four years ago, the media theorist Neil Postman published a book that is distressingly relevant today. Amusing Ourselves to Death was a prescient indictment of TV culture that drove to the heart of the matter in ways few academic texts ever do. Postman’s problem wasn’t so much with TV itself—people have a right to entertain themselves—but with how the rules of this dominant technology infected all serious discourse. He fought, most strenuously and fruitlessly, against the merger of politics and entertainment.

We’ve only metastasized since Postman’s time, with the internet and smartphones slashing attention spans, polarizing voters, and allowing most people to customize the world around them. What’s remained constant, at least in certain quarters, is the principal of entertainment: most political content operates from this premise first, that it must captivate before it informs. The image-based culture triumphs. Beto told you in a crisp three minutes and twenty-nine seconds why he wanted to be the leader of the free world.

Read the entire piece here.

What Do Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson Have in Common?

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Fillmore, Pierce, and Johnson were sitting presidents seeking reelection who failed to win the nomination of their political party.  And it almost happened in 1980 as Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination.

Could it happen in the GOP in 2020?

Jon Ward of Yahoo News discusses Kennedy’s challenge to Carter in his piece “Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and a lesson from history for President Trump.”  Here is a taste:

The heightened anxiety of the time—from gas lines, to rising costs for basic goods, to unemployment—was reflected in the public’s desire for a stronger form of leadership in the White House. More than half of the country—55 percent—still thought Carter was honest in a June CBS News/New York Times poll. But 66 percent said they wanted someone “who would step on some toes and bend some rules to get things done.” Democrats in the poll overwhelmingly said they wanted Kennedy to be their nominee in 1980, with 52 percent for Kennedy to 23 percent for Carter, and 8 percent for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Beyond economics, Americans were worried that their country was “in deep and serious trouble” because of “moral threats which cut right through the social fabric,” according to one survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart in Wisconsin. Hart’s results showed widespread concern over “a lack of morality and religion and the breakdown of the family structure.” People said they were “afraid that people have become too selfish and greedy, that the people are apathetic and just don’t care.”

Hart’s survey in Wisconsin showed a desire for “a reemergence of the more traditional approach to life and a turning away from the more publicized free-wheeling attitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s.” This should have given the Carter White House some reassurance that Kennedy, whose life bore all the hallmarks of excess and privilege, might not be as formidable a foe as the polls showed. But when things are going badly and you’re getting blamed, it’s hard to think clearly, and the Carter White House was spooked.

The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker noted that many of those polled about Kennedy supported him despite holding less liberal views than he did on health care and government spending. “He is a glamorous figure with a great name,” Wicker wrote. “Those who are trying to draft him are looking for a winner.”

Carter remained publicly defiant about his political future, despite his tanking popularity. One day after the June numbers appeared, he hosted several dozen congressmen at the White House for a briefing on the Panama Canal treaty, which was struggling to gain support. The House members were seated at round tables, in groups of ten or so. Carter went from table to table. While he spoke to one group, he was asked by Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut how he felt about the 1980 election. Carter claims that Moffett asked him if he was even going to run for reelection, “which was kind of an insult to an incumbent president.”

“Of course I am,” Carter told Moffett.

Moffett persisted. “What about Ted Kennedy?” he asked.

“I’m going to whip his ass,” Carter said.

Representative William Brodhead, a Michigan Democrat, was taken aback.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” he said.

Moffett cut him off. “I don’t think the president wants to repeat what he said,” he told Brodhead.

Read the entire piece here.  And check out Ward’s new book Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party

Michael Kazin on the Fate of Presidents Who Didn’t Win a Majority of the Popular Vote

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John Quincy Adams

I have said it many times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home: historians cannot predict the future.

But they can provide much needed context.

That is what Michael Kazin of Georgetown University does in his recent Washington Post op-ed “No matter what he does, history says Trump will never be popular.”

Here is a taste:

…American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.

The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.

Only George W. Bush seemed to escape this fate, for a time. But his temporary success had more to do with the acclaim he received after the attacks of 9/11 than anything else he accomplished in office. And this crisis-induced honeymoon didn’t last: During most of his second term, Bush’s rating stalled far below the 48 percent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a million more Americans preferred Al Gore.

The three other presidents who lost the popular vote all lived and governed in the 19th century. None managed to overcome his initial political deficit or to enact any of the major policies he desired. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 percent of the popular vote. The conditions of that contest have never been repeated: Adams was one of four candidates, all of whom nominally belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. Because no man won an electoral-vote majority, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Adams triumphed, largely because he agreed to appoint Henry Clay, one of his erstwhile rivals, as secretary of state. Andrew Jackson, whose popular-vote count had easily topped that of Adams, screamed that his rivals had made a “corrupt bargain”; if citizens accepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their freedom.”

Read the entire piece here.