The feeling man’s president

A psychologist analyses Bush’s gut appeal.

Tana Dineen

Topics Politics

The war in Iraq may once have been aimed at winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqi people. But when it comes to winning the votes of the American people, President George W Bush seems to have set his sights much lower. A trust-my-gut conservative himself, Bush once declared: ‘I don’t spend a lot of time taking polls to tell me what I think is the right way to act; I just got to know how I feel.’

This focus on the gut may turn out to be the deciding factor in the upcoming presidential election. While Democrat John Kerry conveys big-city intellect, Bush radiates down-home confidence. Kerry’s dress is the executive’s white shirt and tie, with the sleeves only occasionally rolled up to portray a ready-for-work attitude, but it’s Bush whose favourite outfit is the blue denim shirt of the common man. Kerry, despite serious efforts during the campaign to appear folksy, still tends to lecture the faithful in long, convoluted sentences peppered with commas and semi-colons, while Bush talks to his followers in his own naturally relaxed manner, using simple, crisp sentences that rarely require even a period.

Some argue that this discrepancy in style is evidence of a difference in intelligence, and well it may be. But the question that needs to be asked is: what kind of intelligence?

Almost a decade ago, an American science journalist, Daniel Goleman, borrowed and popularised the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’. Claiming to ‘redefine what it means to be smart’, he promised to reveal why emotional intelligence ‘can matter more than IQ’. Tapping into a deep vein of distrust of all things intellectual, emotional intelligence (EQ) became an overnight success. Believing that ‘nice matters most’, businesses began training executives to be empathic and caring, and schools began emphasising emotional skills at the expense of academic achievement. Very quickly, it seems, the world of warm feelings rose to trump the realm of cold facts.

And that’s where Kerry and Bush differ. Not on values, patriotism or even policy, but on EQ. Kerry may be highly intelligent, but he is starchy, stiff and emotionally not as skilled. Bush, on the other hand, may not be intelligent, but he’s got that folksy, casual, lip-biting emotionality. That’s how he gets away with such gaffs as mispronouncing Abu Ghraib prison as Abu Garif. After a pause and a ‘deer in the headlights’ flash of embarrassment, he stumbles on and the people forgive him. After all, we might have done the same under the spotlight – he’s just one of us.

So different yardsticks measure the two men. It was these different yardsticks, for example, that determined the effectiveness of the advertisements about Vietnam put out by the infamous ‘527’ groups. Kerry, the intellectual, got bogged down disputing the ‘facts’ of those who criticised his military record, offering his own ‘facts’ and giving the public a lot to think about. Bush, on the other hand, managed to remain the bashful boy who should be forgiven for any misbehaving in his youth. After all, he admits: ‘I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I’m proud to tell you I’ve learned from my mistakes. And that’s the role of a leader – to share wisdom, to share experience with people who are looking for someone to lead.’

According to Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, voters filter small bits of information and then use their instincts to guide their decision – which he calls ‘gut rationality’. Apparently voters like their options clear and uncomplicated. Popkin says: ‘People don’t learn more than they need to make a simple choice. They’re choosing between two brands.’

Deepak Chopra, the guru of Eastern philosophy and medicine, supports the importance of gut instinct, going so far as to say that the mind doesn’t reside only in the brain but permeates the body. ‘The cells in your gut’, he states, ‘make the same peptides that your brain makes when it has ideas’.

Whether we take Chopra’s theory seriously or treat ‘gut’ as a metaphor, it’s clear that gut instinct is an important variable in this upcoming US election.

While Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, may lament that ‘[Americans] are not well-informed, and a lot of that is our fault’, I’m not sure it really matters. Perhaps the voters just don’t much care about all of the facts and figures.

With two candidates showing such apparent differences in IQ and EQ, this election may boil down to whether aiming at the gut pays off. Are emotions really, as Goleman claims, ‘more powerful (and important) than intellect’? The Republicans hope so; the Democrats hope not.

Tana Dineen is the author of Manufacturing Victims: What the psychology industry is doing to people, Robert-Davies, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and a frequent columnist for Canadian newspapers including the Ottawa Citizen. She is currently working on a new book, Psychocracy, released in the USA, the UK, and Canada in autumn 2005, which will look at psychology’s pervasive social influence in Western society.

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spiked-issue: US election 2004

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Topics Politics


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