Your Brain in the Voting Booth

[29 August 2011]

By Meta Wagner

Lately, millions of Barack Obama supporters seem to be saying, en masse:  “We’re just not that into you… anymore.”  In the episode of Sex and the City that made the phrase famous, “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little”, Miranda found it liberating. I doubt President Obama has quite the same reaction.

It’s as if there are 64 million Michelle Obamas out there, rolling their eyes, and sighing their sighs, and wondering why the man they fell in love with seems to have disappeared. 

“Why can’t you be more expressive?” she’s probably asked him on more than one occasion.  “Why do you always have to be so reasonable?  Why do you need everyone to like you?  Why can’t you put down your Blackberry at dinner and just talk to me?”

It’s the age-old story of how, when you’re in love, all you see and hear is what you want to see and hear, not necessarily what’s there, plain as day, in front of you.

Back in November 2008, many Obama supporters were convinced he would fight a Robert Kennedyesque fight on behalf of the poor in this country. But why? Has he referred much to the poor or spoken about the need to raise people out of poverty? No, his concern is and has always been about the middle class.

Supporters felt fairly confident Obama would come out in favor of same-sex marriage—despite his repeated support for civil unions but not marriage…at least not yet.  Maybe they thought, because he’s part African-American, then he knows what it’s like to be discriminated against. Think again.

They believed he’s a pacifist who would bring the troops and bring ‘em on home from Iraq and Afghanistan, thus putting an end to the deadly, unethical, financially devastating George W. Bush wars. But the record speaks for itself: Obama consistently insisted that Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan is the right one. 

Although some detractors claim that Obama is a radical, a socialist, the fact is that the man is not even a liberal. And my point is this:  He’s never claimed to be. In fact, he’s pretty much exactly who he showed he was during the presidential campaign: a centrist.

President Obama is a smart, thoughtful, conciliatory, cool, rational, witty, self-deprecating, sometimes inspiring person. And people still like and admire those qualities.  But, he doesn’t “feel your pain”. He doesn’t kick ass. He doesn’t slap backs. He rarely tears up in public (he’s no John Boehner, thank goodness). He doesn’t suffer fools gladly (and never in the history of the republic have there been more fools in Congress). He’s just not that kind of guy. 

But everyone knew that. He made it clear in not just one, but two, memoirs. He made it clear in his campaign speeches. He made it clear in the debates. But people sometimes see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. Who can blame them? They were in love, after all.

Of course this surprise and disappointment that a president has not turned out to be who voters convinced themselves he was is nothing new. 

There were people who thought, back in 2000, that George W. Bush wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but was “a nice guy”. They liked his folksy charm and frat boy past and imagined how fun it would be to have a beer with him. (That last point clearly proves they were deceiving themselves; after all, everyone knew Bush no longer drank.)

They probably figured, no harm done in voting for him—better than that eye-rolling egghead Al Gore. And surely he’d surround himself with smarter, more experienced people but wouldn’t let himself be railroaded by them. 

But, then, were they truly  surprised when he got us into a war with Iraq under false premises?  Even though it was widely known he felt Daddy didn’t get the job done with Saddam Hussein back in 1991?  Even though he surrounded himself with neocons during the campaign?  Even though he chose one of those neocons, Dick Cheney, as his vice presidential running mate?

Going back a little further, some people were shocked (shocked!) at Bill Clinton’s impropriety while in office. They’d somehow convinced themselves, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was a reformed bad boy. I guess they really must have fallen hard for him. Let’s face it, if any president was going to have “sexual relations” in the Oval Office, who was it bound to be? Richard Nixon? Rutherford B. Hayes? No!  Bill Clinton, of course!

Why do we all sometimes idealize candidates instead of accepting them for who they are? Neuropsychiatry may have the answer. According to Dr. Louann Brizendine, in Oprah Magazine, “The anterior cingulate cortex is a whole system in the brain that allows for critical thinking—it’s the reason why you’ll buy one brand over another or shop at one store over another—that part of the brain is turned off when you’re falling in love with somebody.”  (“Where Did You Go? How Not to Lose Yourself When You Finally Meet Him”, by Marlene Kelly, 13 August 2009)

You see? It’s not our fault that we can’t think clearly when we’re standing in the election booth!

But, there’s still one person in America whose anterior cingulated cortex is in fine working order and who’s not allowing his emotions to cloud his capacity for critical thinking.  Who, you ask?  Why, President Obama, of course. He may not be everything people’s brains deceived them into thinking he was, but he’s who he said he would be all along.

In this summer of our political discontent, that’s something to be grateful for.

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/146144-your-brain-in-the-voting-booth/