Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement that she is indeed running for president and with local municipal elections in Geneva reaching their climax the election season is in full swing. The obvious question is: For whom will you vote? Behind that question, the pre-question is how to choose a candidate.
The easiest answer is to follow a political party. A lifelong Genevan Socialist might vote the entire Socialist ticket as could a lifelong Democrat vote along party lines in the U.S. Another variation on this voting-the-party line theme is to follow what local newspapers say. I vividly remember my first-time voting in New York City as people entered the voting booths holding a local newspaper which showed its preferences.
If a person was holding up the Daily News, that person was probably voting Republican. If the person was holding up the New York Post – at that time – the person was probably voting liberal Democratic. Both party voting and newspaper following show a certain lack of independence; the citizen accepts the decision made by the party or newspaper. No individual decision is involved; no crossing party line is required.
What if we make individual decisions? What if we individually choose for whom we are voting, splitting the ticket by selecting particular candidates we favor in spite of their party or newspaper endorsement. In this case, on what basis do we make our decisions? Why do we prefer one candidate instead of another?
One would hope that several factors enter into consideration, among them the positions of the candidate on major issues, his/her background, associations that the person belongs to, what type of people endorse the candidate. All of these are reasonable, rational considerations.
However, I often hear people give emotional preferences, such as: “The person appears competent.” “I was impressed by how the candidate expressed himself/herself during a debate.” “I have confidence in that person.” All of these are based on trust through communication. It is more difficult to feel confident in someone through the written word. Today, with television and social media, it is easier for a candidate to appeal through personal public relations skills.
The greatest debates in American history were the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1858 Illinois senatorial election. One has only to read them to be impressed with the seriousness of the issues and of the discussions. The issue of slavery, if not the future of the Union, were at stake.
The first great television debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon was decided by the fact that Nixon did not wear makeup and had a haggard look. Kennedy looked more lively and dynamic. If one listens to the debates, Nixon was more accurate and impressive.
Since the Kennedy-Nixon debates the importance of television in political life has become predominant. Voters are impressed by images and performance. More and more candidates look like movie stars. Francois Hollande’s saying “When I am president…” was crucial to his victory over Nicolas Sarkozy. Audiences give immediate feedback to how each candidate is doing. Debates are scored like boxing matches with each contestant trying for a knockout line – Vice-Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen telling Senator Dan Quayle “Senator, You’re no Jack Kennedy”.
What does any of these visual communication skills have to do with who we vote for? I would prefer to know more about the candidates than their public visual performances. For example, in Geneva I would like to know how each sitting candidate has voted on crucial issues. What is their record? In Carouge, I would like to know what each candidate feels about more pedestrian streets, more kindergartens, and the future of the Café du Marché.
In the United States, in spite of all the excitement about Hillary Clinton, she failed in trying to change the health care system. What did she accomplish as Secretary of State? Isn’t that more important than her relationship with Barack Obama or how she will use her husband during the campaign?
Images are important. Impressions are important. But one would hope that during this electoral season voters will choose their candidates rationally instead of based on what the candidates seem to be during their performances.