Is Politics an Aesthetic Competition?

On Sept. 26, 1960, the first-ever televised political debate ushered in the era of celebrity politics. The story is well-known: the debonair and polished John F. Kennedy dominated the haggard and clammy Richard Nixon, and the United States revealed the extent of its bias towards the aesthetically appealing. Radio listeners, blind to the politicians’ respective appearances, favored Nixon, while television watchers favored Kennedy.

In psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as the “halo effect,” in which a person’s overall positive or negative impression of another extends itself to other aspects of their character. It is most prevalent as the result of perceived attractiveness; studies have shown that people consistently assume attractive individuals to be more kind, intelligent, and competent than their less attractive counterparts. Although considered somewhat problematic in everyday life, the halo effect is especially damaging in politics.

In the most recent presidential election, persona and aesthetic appeal seemed to receive a disproportionate amount of attention compared to previous years. The comments came from all corners—the public, the media, and President-elect Trump himself. Hillary Clinton received significant backlash for her voice and manner of speaking, some calling it shrill and abrasive. Trump commented that she didn’t “have a presidential look” and noted that he “was not impressed” by her appearance.

Trump’s aesthetic and persona were not left unscathed by the public and media, either. His decidedly orange complexion, dubious head of hair, tiny hands, and exaggerated facial expressions and pronunciations all made him an easy target for derision, a temptation which Hillary admirably resisted. Trump, on the other hand, notoriously disparaged not only Hillary, but also a multitude of other public figures, a tactic which did not cost him the election, shockingly. Rather, his bullying and self-promotion seems to have succeeded in detracting from his own mediocre aesthetic.

This increased focus on persona and aesthetic is jarring largely because of the brazen manner with which it was established. Never before has a presidential candidate been known to publicly speak with such overtly aggressive and lewd language about the appearance of others, and sexism is undoubtedly to blame in part for the the public's receptiveness to such behavior. It is a testament to the times that such a candidate was elected.

However, the human tendency to judge based on appearances is not new. Politicians have been subject to the halo effect and its negative counterpart, the “horn effect” since the dawn of their profession. For the people of a nation to cast a ballot based on an unfounded and fallacious judgment is presumably undesirable. It should go without saying that an aesthetically appealing leader is not necessarily a competent one, and an aesthetically unappealing leader an incompetent one.

Yet, the United States continues to select their representatives in such a way that voters are completely susceptible to these biases. Celebrity politics has taken a grasp of democracy in the United States, and with potentially disastrous results. Although entertaining, perhaps impressive in some manner, President-elect Trump is by no means overqualified for the position. Only time will tell what a Trump presidency entails, but with such a diminutive political track-record, his course of action is unpredictable.

With so much of America painfully uneducated about politics, government, and the world as a whole, celebrity politics is too accessible of a way for the ignorant to formulate unsubstantiated opinions about politicians. For many, it is an easy out of becoming truly educated about the platforms and issues that constitute the substance of politics.

Eliminating the role of image, aesthetics, and persona in politics would be an arduous and complex task, involving far greater change than the Constitution allows for. Until such a task is possible, much of the United States will continue to elect its leaders based on persona, aesthetic appeal, race, and gender rather than competence, ideology, and character. The next four years may prove just how perilous is this way of choosing our leadership.

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