Watching Politics From the Pew: Gingrich, Romney, and Personal History

As the Republican nomination devolves into the mud-slinging match we always knew it would become, it is instructive to observe the differing opinions about personal history and what personal history means for the future. In the course of this primary, we have had the following suggested to us by various characters in the drama:

-If you made a lot of money and obeyed government tax law, that reflects negatively on your candidacy.

-If a gigantic company paid you money to give them advice about maneuvering in governmental circles, and that company later needed a bailout because they followed the same bad business practices everybody else was following, that reflects negatively on your candidacy.

-If you cheated on your wife–well, two of your wives–that reflects negatively on your candidacy.

-If you get angry about people questioning you for cheating on your past two wives, that reflects positively on your candidacy.

-If you think each problem is new and should be thought about in a somewhat different way each time, that reflects negatively on you.

-If you fired someone, ever, that reflects negatively on your candidacy.

-It is bad to be a successful businessperson.

-It is bad to be a career politician.

-If you were a successful businessperson who then became a successful career politician, that’s bad.

-If you are angry at the media, angry at your fellow candidates, and angry at your party leadership, that reflects so positively on you that you might just be a frontrunner.

I’ve heard it suggested recently that we are essentially made up of two things: our memories, and the predictions that our minds make on the basis of those memories. In many ways this is true of a presidential candidacy, as well. It takes on a character of its own, rooted in its history, its actions, and the collective predictions and expectations of those who vote for or against the candidate. Sometimes, like Obama, the storytelling power of a candidacy is so powerful it can’t help but fail to fully deliver. Other times, as in the case of Romney, even things that were once thought of as positive qualities are turned into negatives.

Too often we allow ourselves to be caught up in gut reactions, jerked here and there by the most recent or loudest argument.  But wisdom would suggest that we carefully consider what a person’s history tells us about them, and that we choose someone for whom doing the right thing in the critical moment is a life pattern rather than unsubstantiated rhetoric.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://newbreedofadvertisers.blogspot.com/ Sam Van Eman

    Interesting approach to a call for wisdom. I wonder how much of an element is fear in all of this. “What if that history or this history will be bad for our future?” I ask. We have very little way of knowing, but in such a complex system, we fear that any one of thousands of components could be the one to sink us. So everything is questioned.

  • Ben Bartlett

    I think you make a really good point, Sam. We have a tendency to scrutinize a million little factors, looking for indicators of a deeper problem.

    I think the danger there is a natural tendency humans have called availability bias or the availability heuristic. This is where we make predictions about the likelhood of things based not on data, but instead on how easily we can call examples to mind. So, if it’s easy for us to remember examples of Mitt Romney being a flip flopper, we assume he must do it all the time, when in fact he is a pretty consistent person in his approach to problems over time. Similarly, if we have an easy time remembering instances of Newt Gingrich being a fighter (easily accessed because of the many debates this year), we find it easy to project or predict him being a fighter when running against Obama… and we forget his long history of disorganized and unstable governance when he has actually held leadership positions.

    So, to me, one piece of wisdom is looking for ways to overcome our tendency to read too much into minute indicators, and to place more trust in the totality of a person’s history.


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