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Being ‘too serious’

| Monday, November 9, 2015

At the Democratic primary forum Friday night, moderator Rachel Maddow asked Bernie Sanders about the biggest public misconception of him. “Well, people think I’m grumpy,” he responded, as the crowd erupted in laughter. “People think I am too serious. But I think what people don’t see is I have seven beautiful grandchildren who are the joy of my life.”

That Sanders would need to refute claims that he is “too serious” speaks to the huge emphasis placed on personality in U.S. presidential elections. The New York Times published a piece last week asking whether it was a problem that Sanders doesn’t engage in much of the schmoozing expected of presidential candidates: “As effective as his policy-laden speeches may be in impressing potential supporters, Mr. Sanders is missing opportunities to lock down uncommitted voters face to face in Iowa and New Hampshire, where campaigns are highly personal.”

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has also repeatedly faced the question of “likability” — a critique which is frequently gendered. Clinton’s campaign strategists have acknowledged making a conscious effort this fall to show her humor and heart. In her tour of the late-night circuit over the past few weeks, she has been easygoing and affable, willing to show that she’s in on the joke. Clinton’s campaign even tweeted a link an Onion editorial that parodied her attempts to prove that she is fun: “I have been fun on multiple social media platforms, wherein I can also be witnessed taking a carefree approach to life.”

The expectation that candidates be personable is by now an ingrained part of the American political process. Images of presidential hopefuls kissing babies and visiting small-town diners have become part and parcel of the campaign trail. Inevitably, the media will ask that ridiculous question designed to gauge charisma: “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?”

However, likability is, frankly, irrelevant when it comes to running the country. While this campaign cycle often seems like an absurd joke (see: Donald Trump and Ben Carson), we are electing a president, not a late-night host. The issues facing our country are gravely important — urgent climate change, rising income inequality, student debt, police brutality, racial discrimination, among countless others. When the stakes are this high, can a candidate really be “too serious”?


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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