Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Zones of Comfort Elect Presidents

The pundit class spends countless hours analyzing the actual or proposed policies of the presidential candidates. The candidates spend millions of dollars explaining themselves. In truth, the vast majority of votes are cast based upon the voter’s zone of comfort and have little or nothing to do with a substantive analysis of the issues.

I was talking with a friend’s wife. I saw her rarely and the conversations were mostly brief. This time the discussion turned to politics. She liked President Clinton in his upcoming re-election bid. She liked him, she explained, because of his educational policies and how they affected her two grade-school-aged children. I asked tentatively, “what particular policies, how do they affect your children?” An uncomfortable silence did not ensue; she responded quickly and cheerfully, “I don’t know, really, I don’t know any of his policies. But I like them. I like him. He cares about education.”

She was perfectly aware of and at ease with her oblivion. She knew she had to have a reason (even if only the penumbra of a reason) to take a stand, so she found one. She persisted in her ignorance regardless of her intellect. I learned with concealed amazement that facts or knowledge did not matter to her on certain issues.

I have since seen other, more broadly shared instances of conscious oblivion. One quick example: Who won Florida in the 2000 Presidential Election?

Urban legend: The USSC gave the election to Bush. He lost Florida. If only they counted and recounted every vote, the truth of Gore’s victory could have been declared.

Documented fact: The votes were counted and recounted – and by organizations antagonist then and now to Bush. Bush won the popular vote in Florida.

If the legend is so demonstrably false, then why the herd mentality by intelligent, educated, caring people? To dispel the easy analysis: just because facts are available doesn’t mean that they are sought, learned, or believed. The common thread joining the above observations is that people prefer their zone of comfort, regardless of its dysfunction, above anything else. A person’s zone of comfort is similar to family – it exists irrespective of your desires, you have little control over the selection or behavior of its members, and you will defend it to your last breath even as you inwardly resent the very notion.

It doesn’t make them less intelligent, less educated, or less caring. People make decisions – in politics and fixing cars – based largely upon instinct. Sometimes “experts,” like first-cousin Nick or a veteran news commentator, are consulted. But in the end, instinct prevails. If the car runs fine thereafter, we stay with the mechanic; if not, we change and factor in that knowledge in the next selection.

The zone, I suggest, determines voting patterns for the overwhelming majority of voters. Piercing the veil to enter a person’s zone, then, is crucial to electoral success. But when one commercial, one speech, or a single headline can result in movement in the polls, then it seems rather easy to do so. In reality, it is very difficult – it requires an emotional investment, trust, and commitment. Polls change because people haven’t reached the point of inclusion or exclusion yet; they are still guessing or have chosen to not pay attention until some later time (if at all).

Once established and even for the most erudite of citizens, zones invite strange bedfellows. It feels comfortable, as a supporter of a woman’s right to choose abortion, to oppose legislation that prohibits partial-birth abortions or that gives homicide-victim status to a fetus. After all, any intrusion on the issue of choice or status is like the elephant’s trunk under the tent – there is much more to come. What is ignored is the undeniable savagery of terminating a full-term pregnancy by picking apart a functioning human brain; and the cessation of life by culpable murder with impunity. It is not a position those same people would advocate if the fetus – in either case – was their soon-to-be-born granddaughter, in whom they had invested immeasurable emotional capital.

It feels comfortable, as a supporter of lower taxes, to commit to high-dollar contracts to build military power and prisons. After all, lowering taxes will provide an incentive for increased economic activity, thereby raising overall revenues. What is ignored is the timely, age-old wisdom inherent in J. Wellington Wimpy’s statement: “I’d gladly pay you Thursday for a hamburger today.” It is a position those same people would frown upon if found in the personal finances of their newly emancipated children.

In the voting booth, when zones dictate which lever gets pulled, it leads us into dangerous territory. We vote to oppose as often as to support. Literally millions of citizens will cast their vote on November 2 for “anybody but Bush.” Millions will also cast their vote against that “French-looking liberal with the bad hair and disheveled wife.” These are not votes “for” anyone – they are votes against someone – someone who happens to belong to another family, someone outside the voter’s zone of comfort.

This helps to explain why politics can function in spite of a palatable lack of depth: a nod-and-a-wink is given to a paper-thin veneer of seriousness. Ask someone to explain Kerry’s position on Iraq and in almost pulpit-worthy tones you get “long-overdue foreign involvement in the affairs and redevelopment efforts in Iraq.” Does anyone really think that the Saddam-supporting French will be welcome in any measure in today’s Iraq? If Kerry wants to extricate us from a “quagmire,” then how is that furthered by telling the Iraqis how to run their affairs? The veneer can be compromised quickly. But the zone is family, and Kerry supporters will ignore the analysis. Family trumps all. Family ipso facto provides the illusion and security of depth.

President Bush tried for a time to escape this vacuum of intellect. He almost succeeded in changing the course of politics. Recall his pre-September 11 speech when he explained the science, his reasoning, and his decision regarding the use of stem cells in medical research. It didn’t matter if you agreed with him – he shared the depth of his analysis. There was substance; there was a there there.

While the zone mentality is always present, it seems heightened in the midst of an election cycle. Substance becomes irrelevant, perhaps even inappropriate. Conservatives cringed when Bush spoke appreciatively of Senator Specter’s “service to the party” during the primary campaign in Pennsylvania. But Specter is family regardless of his Republican-in-name-only status. President Bush was reminding Republicans to vote for family; it worked. Did you notice how vocal Senator Robert Byrd was during the impeachment and Iraq War discussions, and how he is muzzled during national campaigns? We can let him speak his mind when the choir is active, but when we need to be seen as a party of the future, we can’t let an 86 year-old and ex-KKK member be seen. We have an image to convey. There’s a time when the patriarch needs to be locked in the attic for the good of the family. We all understand.

Sometimes politicians play too heavily into the veneer. Kerry seems to be desperately searching for a campaign theme. It changes constantly because it is not him he is introducing, it is a theme. So instead of substance, we get labels: Benedict Arnold CEOs yields to the Misery Index to the Jobless Recovery to Let America be America. Now, in a sign of structural fatigue, he adopts someone else’s label: Two Americas theme is now getting some play. Kerry is so focused on the faux-finish that he has forgotten a fundamental issue: if a person presents their inside then the outside will define itself. He is rapidly becoming like the new boyfriend at his first family picnic trying too hard to be liked – no one can put their finger on a specific reason, but everyone is getting rather tired of his presence.

Ironically, while zones of comfort decide who will lead us, we are governed best during a second-term presidency. Veneer gives way to substance; our leader sets aside any pretense of pleasing the voters and focuses on his elected job with the full force of his intellect. The paradox is that it takes a few well-vetted sound bites to get there.

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