Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Psychology of Popular Politics

My company had me in one of those seminars yesterday, the kind where you are expected to radically change your perspective of the world – again. This is not to say that the experience was not worthwhile, but I am one of those people who questions the claim that anything is “revolutionary” just because the guy selling it wants you to be impressed. The experience did get me to thinking, however, about how people in general think and act, and in this case I thought about the development of political opinion. I think it may be fairly said, that popular opinion of the major parties and candidates is seen in the context of their perceived focus and pace with relation to the dominant issues.

One exercise in the seminar discussed the “SAFE” analysis of personality. Without going into too much detail, this measurement considered two axes of time and focus. That is, while specific cases vary, a person will either tend to be people-focused or task-focused, and will either prefer a fast pace or a slower, deliberate pace. It should be understood that this consideration is separate from a “right” or “wrong” consideration, as each position holds both strengths and weaknesses, and the desirability of a certain characteristic depends on the specific need. For example, medical procedures should be prompt but deliberate, and accuracy is more important than speed. On the other hand, legal proceedings tend to be slow but also deliberate. Taking care of children requires strong interpersonal skills and is necessarily slow-paced, while a fighter pilot must make quick decisions with as little emotion as possible. In political decisions, we see the same disparate needs. One of the major reasons why the recent immigration reform bill failed, aside from specific qualities in it, was that it failed to attract the majority of any of the groups. One large group disliked the bill, because it appeared to be full of errors and ignored some important problems. One large group disliked the bill, because it appeared to be unfocused, trying to apply small solutions while ignoring the big picture. Many disliked the bill, because it appeared to be rushed, ignoring questions and shutting out debate and necessary improvements. All of this, beside the basic character of the bill itself.

I am not writing about the bill as the focus here, but about the effects of political attention. As an example, at one time President Bush enjoyed a Job Approval rating in the polls of over 90%, but now stands at about 32%, where he has been for more than a year. Obviously, there are things which have changed that opinion, but what? In some cases, a political position affects the opinion, but examined objectively, this does not explain long periods of high or low approval. The quick answer, of course, is that polls are notoriously subjective and not truly a good barometer for electoral viability (see the 2004, 2000, and 1996 elections for examples), but I think there is a character reflected which should be seen in the context of the time frame. A good example of this would be Franklin Roosevelt, who was largely isolationist before 1939, moderately interested in supporting the Allied effort from 1939 to December 1941, and strongly militant after December 7, 1941. The difference between the ’finger in the wind’ style of some modern politicians and the attention to context of FDR, shows up in understanding that a paradigm shift occurs, and the statements and decisions, even where they are the same as before, must be couched according to the new conditions, or else even sound decisions will be opposed because of the way in which they are presented. Accordingly, the ground conditions for the 2008 elections do not depend on the experience of a candidate or their portfolio, nearly so much as they depend on the ability to understand the priorities of the nation and communicate their intentions in terms which will be received. This would appear to work to the detriment of Clinton and McCain, but to the advantage of Obama, Romney, and Fred Thompson.

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