Thursday, September 4, 2008

Homers in Politics: Why people lose it over Campaign 2008

Pop Quiz: Obama rally or Patriots game?
Answer at the end of the post!

Some of the smartest people I know behave totally irrationally during presidential elections. This is not particularly new news. The fact is that people don't THINK about national elections, they FEEL about them. A study in 2006 revealed that people don't apply any rational thought to their political analysis. Partisans on both sides of the spectrum were asked to review information that was negative about their preferred candidate while their brains were monitored. Across the board, negative information was not only ignored, but the brain actually rewarded itself, Pavlovian like, for ignoring that information by activating circuits normally associated with rewards:
"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," [director of clinical psychology at Emory University Drew] Westen said. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."
That sounds deeply disturbing (am I just a kind of fleshy shell my brain drives around with treats?), and is completely at odds with how we see ourselves, but as an avid sports fan, I recognize the symptoms immediately; the ability to explain away or ignore every negative trait, the tendency to overemphasize every positive. It was homerism. As an Oregon Duck fan, I am a sufferer myself. I have made every excuse imaginable for Joey Harrington's time as a floating excuse for a failed program in the NFL. Hearing it in people who have no interest in sports caused something of a cognitive dissonance in me, however, delaying my ability to properly diagnose it. 

All of this recent focus on the VPs is a classic sports homering; like arguing about how great the backup RB/QB is. As a fantasy sports fanatic in the midst of the drafting season the last two weeks, I can't tell you how many arguments I have had over the likes of Bernard Berrian and Vernon Davis. This Palin flap reminds me of when Ricky Williams came back to the Dolphins, lots of talk over something which doesn't really matter because there is nothing really better to talk about and has a interesting back story. 

All this talk of Biden's prowess as a verbal warrior is also vintage homerism; overhyping your own guy. Biden is a walking gaffe machine, given to talking so much that he is almost guaranteed to say something stupid. Similar to the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters producing Shakespeare, he just generates so many words in such a sloppy fashion, some of them are bound to offend according to the rules of probability. All of this business of raising expectations for him at the VP debate, while simultaneously lowering them for Palin, doesn't seem to me to be doing him any favors. All she has to do is not fuck up while he has to completely verbally gut her, like a moose, in order to meet expectations. Which he might do, is certainly capable of doing, but I doubt it. 

But perhaps the most important corollary to sports homerism with the VP discussion is that none of it matters. No presidential election has ever turned on the VP nominee. Ever. Despite many many colorful characters, from Theodore Roosevelt (loose cannon, force of nature personality nominated so that he couldn't cause trouble in a position of actual responsibility) to Thomas Eagleton (McGovern's nominee who had to be replaced after poor vetting failed to reveal medical records suggesting he might be Coo Coo for Coco puffs) to Dan Quayle (earned label as functional retard), they have never determined the outcome of the actual election. They will not affect this one either. 

This election is close and will remain so. Barring something dramatic, the debates will be the largest opportunity for the candidates to separate themselves from one another. If the debates are uneventful, we are looking at another dead-heat election.

Furthermore, neither McCain nor Obama is going to be much different as president. They are basically mainstream guys who tend towards the pragmatic center. There will be substantive differences, of course (I pointed to tax plans last week), but their perceived differences are largely the product of branding and advertising. There are probably differences between Tide and Cheer laundry detergents, but basically they both get dirt out of clothes. Both will be single-term presidents; McCain because he is old and Obama because the Democrats will control both houses of congress and the white house yet be incapable of getting anything done. Four years of what has happened in congress the last two years (nothing) without Bush to blame it all on will turn the country back to Republicans. Who will probably screw up again, too.

POP QUIZ ANSWER:  Trick question. Picture was from the Michael Jackson verdict, but you get the point.

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