Personality politics distract from political problems

Personality politics. You have Chavez in Venezuela, Kibaki in Kenya, Ahmadinejad in Iran, Obama in the United States. I know grouping Obama with this gang of nefarious characters is bound to raise an eyebrow or two. The only point I am making though is that these figures enjoy power partly or primarily because their personalities appeal to voters. It is impossible to deny that Obama’s personality was a significant factor in the 2008 election.

The song went “I’ve got a crush on Obama,” not I’ve got a crush on economic revitalization, wealth redistribution, and health care reform (though that is a song I would certainly sing if someone came up with a catchy melody). Obama was “the one.” “The one” is only a slight modification of “the chosen one,” putting Obama in a crew with Harry Potter and Anakin Skywalker.

Sarah Palin’s resurgence following her departure from her governorship of the state next to Russia is also a factor of personality politics. After clearly demonstrating a lack of insight and awareness of significant political issues in the election, many Americans’ respect of the hockey mom heightened to adulation and worship. I don’t think that after eight more months governing Alaska, Sarah Palin gained a great deal of insight with respect to state leadership.

Many political scientists argue that as democracies develop, they usually mature in tandem with vibrant political parties and institutions that diminish the public’s concern with the personality of leadership figures. Technocrats often efficiently manage massive bureaucracies. As countries develop, their bureaucracies often grow to manage more complex economies and distribute increased revenues. As a result of the process of globalization, markets seem to be developing almost everywhere. Will this trend called “the rise of the rest” by Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria and “global flattening” by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman suffocate personality politics?

It certainly doesn’t seem to be happening in the United States. This concerns me and I think it should concern all of us. Our country is faced with complex, difficult problems that require insightful, nuanced solutions. Regrettably, our electorate seems to care less about delving into specifics than adoring or condemning our vibrant political personalities. Rather than a real debate on global warming, we audit the energy use of environmental spokesmen. We’d prefer to question the patriotism of our leaders than discuss security policies. Outside the world of James Bond, we all know that a lapel pin on a blazer will not prevent another 9/11.

Josh Kornfield is a junior majoring in international studies and political science. He may be contacted at