Do Looks Matter in Politics?

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On the face of it, it would seem incredibly superficial, shallow and irresponsible as a means of determining who you like from whom you dislike, especially in a sphere such as political activity. But the more one delves into the subject, the more it becomes apparent that policy can sometimes lack the substance required in a voters eyes for them to be considered a good candidate, and looks can in fact be more important. But is this human nature? Are we intrinsically programmed to look at appearance as a direct sign of aptitude? A history of ‘looks in politics’ may offer a better view. Whilst you could go back thousands of years to discover links between appearance and popularity in political scenarios, what appears to be the ‘water-shed’ moment in our apparent shift from substance to style in modern politics came in the 1960 Presidential Debates in the USA.

A fresh-faced John F. Kennedy took on an ever increasingly haggard Richard Nixon, and whilst those tuning in by radio polled saying Nixon triumphed in the ‘debates’, T.V viewers comprehensively chose Kennedy; “Among television viewers, Mr Kennedy was regarded the outright winner of the first debate. He appeared tanned, confident and well-rested”[1]. As noted, the clear reason many picked for Kennedy as the victor in the TV debates was based solely on his appearance; whilst policy and mannerisms may have played some role, it was looks that got Kennedy his victory.

Further than this, the debate is seen as fundamentally important in shifting precedent further to appearance rather than substance[2], and distinctly altered the dynamic of what is necessary to be ‘electable.’

We have seen this continue through to the present day, whether it be the touched-up pictures of David Cameron on election posters, or the chastising of Gordon Brown demeanour, the 2010 British General Election proved that appearance can matter to some extent.

But is this human nature? Is this an intrinsic facet of how we act? Rather than to outright declare human nature a cause or not here, we must make two distinctions between the affect looks have on our viewing of a political candidate.

The first ‘type’ of appearance would be on a simple scale of subjective ‘beauty’; do people intrinsically support better-looking and more ‘beautiful’ people? My answer would be no; not necessarily to supporting people who better looking, but rather that it is a product of our human nature. This would actually seem to stem more from our production, particularly in the West, of a culture that focuses on beauty being an objective we must all strive for.

Whether it’s the focus of ‘sexualisation’ of women in fashion and an emphasis on beauty, or just regarding ‘looking good’, we are engrained in an apparent ethos that beauty and looking good is necessary. This would be a better explanation for why the appointment of candidates such as Sarah Palin have taken place, as her credentials in the campaign did not suggest she was picked on experience nor on knowledge; Iain Hislop (whether he meant to or not) summed up this attitude of looks by regarding her as ‘the first good looking person in politics for a long time’[3].

The focus was not on her policy, lack of experience or character, but looks; the first remark former VP Dick Cheney made about her qualities when interviews on McCain’s choice of running mate was that she was an ‘attractive candidate’[4]. This seems to purely be a creation of culture, not of nature.

On the other hand though, appearance could actually be a factor in our own inherent nature that helps us choose candidates. This would be more biological, than superficial, however. In this age of modern media, the pressures on ordinary politicians is forever increasing, and the exposure that the public get to the practices, affairs and day to day activities of all politicians has gone up exponentially.

With this, the general populous are being forever reminded of characteristics of certain candidates, and the pressures extolled on them. Potentially, a reason that candidates such as John McCain in the USA, or Gordon Brown in the UK, have in previous elections not seemed electable is not because of their appearance, but the realisation they may be too old.

Of course, to simplify electability from a myriad of reasons to one for an entire range of people over a certain age is slightly fantastical, but people, with the help of the media, are more than ever aware of the role of top flight politicians and the stresses they carry, and primitive associations of old age and a degeneration in stamina, memory, and a whole host of other areas may lead some people to act in such a way.

To conclude, to say that appearance doesn’t matter is ludicrous; if David Cameron turned up at a conference and gave an incredible speech in jeans and a polo shirt, the main talking point would be his attire. But the extent to which these factors will actually determine someone’s electability are much smaller, and as a result this maintains the notion that, actually, policy trumps presentation.