What’s the Big Idea?
Although we’re all focused intensely on the serious issues involved in the 2012 presidential race, and although the economy continues to limp along, making this an especially sober political season, let’s face it – presidential elections are always something of a fashion contest. The candidates’ appearances, gestures, and words are carefully curated to communicate specific messages in shorthand: Reliability. Earthiness. Honesty. Success.
What makes the fashion aspects of this fashion show somewhat less engaging than, say, the Oscars’ red carpet is the fact that no matter the politics, the cultural background, or the gender of the politician the message is always more or less the same: Reliability. Earthiness. Honesty. Success. We get the folksy locutions (“I’m not gonna sell you a load of bull”). We get the weekend shots in jeans-and-polo-shirt and the power suits the rest of the time.
In fact, says the redoubtable fashion critic Simon Doonan, author of Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, a unique appearance is a political liability in the United States. Mitt Romney, he observes, is “so handsome that he runs the risk of looking too “plastic…like a TV anchor.” In the 2008 race, he notes, this harmed John Edwards, whose expensive haircuts led to the public perception that he was vain.
[VIDEO] Simon Doonan on Mitt Romney’s attempts to “rough himself up a bit”
Mitt’s handlers are aware of the danger, says Doonan: “There’s a lot of shirt without a tie, there’s a lot of slightly wind-blown hair, because he doesn’t want to look like a lounge lizard for exactly the reasons that we talked about. He can’t appear to be self-involved.”
What’s the Significance?
Before our readers rush off to write “small think!” all over Facebook and the comment threads, we’d like to remind them that of such superficial stuff are presidential campaigns made or broken. Voters’ psychological perceptions of a candidate’s character are often shaped by their clothes or mannerisms (Gore is a robot! Bill Clinton feels our pain!) and these emotions powerfully influence our voting decisions.
As ridiculous as it may seem to suspend discussion of taxes or the economy and focus on Mitt Romney’s hair, you’d be surprised at just how superficial sober, educated voters can be. It’s useful, therefore, if your goal is to vote for the best candidate for the best possible reasons, to step back and consider the ways politicians and their campaign advisers have learned to control our perceptions.
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