I'm very defensive of Barack Obama.
I agree with his agenda to reform U.S. health care, immigration, the minimum wage and education. I also thought the Iraq war should end. But if I'm really honest about why I feel the mama bear instinct every time someone criticizes him, it's because it feels personal.
I don't just like Obama's policies, I like his character. We both fancy arugula and want to solve income inequality. I was touched when he cried while thanking his young campaign staff post re-election.
As the saying goes, I'd want to grab a beer with him.
But the fact that people's political preferences are guided by their passions is a big problem. For one, politicians on either side of the spectrum are pros at exploiting emotion. Rob Ford and Obama both stoked voter anger to get elected: the former with the notion that latte-sipping politicians don't respect the average Jane and Joe, and the latter by capitalizing on anti-Bush fury.
If politicians are expert gamers of the emotional system, then average voters are mere hostages. Without thinking we pick candidates and vote for them with the same logic we use to choose a date on Plenty of Fish.
We need to use our heads more than our hearts.
Political nerds, you are excepted. But most of us find it hard to plod through articles about policy or separate hyperbole from fact. And though it's easier to mislead less-educated demographics (many blue-collar Republicans support a party with policies that don't support them) your degree doesn't preclude you from casting an emotional ballot.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said it best in the Guardian: "Politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies."
To be truly religious, you cannot question your god.
Emotional politics is the best explanation for the fact that 42 per cent of Torontonians still approve of Rob Ford. Yes, we've given many politicians a pass for their sketchy personal lives. And Ford is not the first to lie, disrespect reporters or act like a child during a meeting. But he's definitely the first to do all those things so dramatically and still act with such intense incredulity at the prospect of stepping down.
The reason behind the continued strength of Ford Nation isn't particular to suburban voters. Most people, regardless of where they live or their political leaning, support candidates based on feelings instead of rational arguments.
Psychologist Drew Westen, who wrote The Political Brain, found that when he showed partisan men photos of their chosen U.S. election candidates as they listened to positive and negative statements about the politicians, the emotional rather than rational part of their brains lit up. When they looked at slides of the candidates' contradictory statements, the men were only able to find hypocrisy in the person they didn't support.
Our judgment of politicians closely mirrors the way we choose a new friend. Surface information matters most: demographic, appearance and demeanour. Just as with a first impression, we quickly gather this intel. Researchers found that after seeing a candidate for 100 milliseconds, voters form perceptions about them based on "expressiveness, facial structure, carriage and attitude." The data is so indicative of how a person will vote that a Princeton psychologist predicted 70 per cent of political races in 2006 senator and state governor elections from these snap impressions.
Once we've sized up a politician, we see where he or she fits in our memory. NDP candidates, for example, remind me of my mother because she always put an orange sign on our lawn. For years after I turned 18, my association of certain politicians with that lovely woman who made me lasagna after piano lessons was so strong that I felt comfortable ticking off a ballot without much reflection.
But the power of memory can also hinder candidates. There's something about Justin Trudeau with his sideways smiles, V-necks and ladies' night that reminds me of smarmy men from my past. That connection is hard to break, even though as a friend recently pointed out, he's probably the politician who best reflects my views.
As with our personal relationships, we are often blind to our favourite politicians' faults. We defend them when others bring up their shortcomings -- "You don't know the real Barack!" -- rather than accept the facts.
That's why it stung so much when I recently read a piece in the Globe and Mail titled "From messiah to lame duck: How Barack Obama fell to earth."
Like someone who denies they need glasses, I had considered the blurry version of Obama's agenda to be accurate. Details, schmetails. So long as I squinted it didn't matter that the U.S. president claimed he didn't know the extent of the NSA's eavesdropping. I'm sure he had the best intentions!
But for whatever reason, that night I had my glasses on. I saw clearly the president's lack of follow-through on immigration. His botched rollout of ObamaCare. His wasted opportunity on budget reform. His futile attempts at gun control.
My friend had messed up and it was time for an intervention with myself.
I'm not saying Chris Christie will have my support in the next election (I'm half-American, so can vote) -- far from it. But I will definitely do a more critical kind of research when I choose which Democrat to put my weight behind. I'll think less about who I want to drink with, and more about who I want to run a country.
I can only hope that in 2014, members of Ford Nation will do the same.
This blog originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.
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Toronto Rob Ford, right, gestures to Councillor Paul Ainslee in the council chamber as councillors look to pass motions to limit his powers in Toronto on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Blasting what he called a "coup d'etat," Ford said voters should be able to pass judgment on him, not his fellow councillors.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (centre) dances with participants ahead of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival in Toronto on Saturday July 30, 2011.
Toronto City Mayor Rob Ford, left, celebrates after defeating wrestler Hulk Hogan in an arm-wrestling match to promote Fan Expo in Toronto on Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 .
Twenty-two month-old Micah MacMilan reacts as he is picked up by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford while Ford was signing bobblehead dolls in his likeness at City Hall in Toronto on Tuesday November 12, 2013.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford holds up a replica Grey Cup as he attends the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats CFL Eastern Conference final football game in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford laughs with fans as he attends the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats CFL Eastern Conference final football game in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. Ford showed up at Sunday's Canadian Football League playoff game, despite a request by the league's commissioner that he stay away.
Canadian recording artist Drake, left, and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford laugh at a news conference announcing that Toronto will host the 2016 NBA All-Star game, in Toronto, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford displays a milk moustache as he takes part in voting with city council members in Toronto on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford watches from the sidelines near the Argos bench during a CFL football game between the Toronto Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders in Calgary on Saturday, August 18, 2012.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford poses for photographs inside a giant shark mouth while attending the grand opening of the Ripley's Aquarium of Canada in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. After two years of construction, delays and (Canadian) $130 million in costs, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada opened to the public Wednesday.
City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford poses for a photo opportunity with other dignitaries in a shark's jaws at the opening of Ripley's Aquarium of Canada in Toronto on Wednesday, October 16, 2013.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is hoisted into the air by his Don Bosco Eagles team after winning the Metro Bowl quarter-final at Birchmount Park in Toronto, Thursday Nov. 15, 2012. A civil trial hearing in which the mayor is accused of libel against a restaurant owner went on without him.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (center) smiles as he officially opens the refurbished Sunnydale rink with Toronto Maple Leafs' coach Ron Wilson (right) and other dignitaries who were on hand as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs who practiced on the outdoor rink in Toronto on Wednesday, January 4, 2012.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford grabs the Grey Cup by the handles during a parade celebrating the Toronto Argonauts victory in the Grey Cup final in Toronto on Tuesday November 27, 2012 .
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/31/rob-ford-butter-sculpture-ex-cne_n_1846616.html" target="_hplink">Toronto Mayor Rob Ford comes face to face with a butter sculpture of himself at the Canadian National Exhibition</a>.
As part of an exhibition at the CNE, Toronto-based artist Olenka Kleban has made a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/24/butter-rob-ford-sculpture_n_1828527.html" target="_hplink">butter sculpture of Toronto's mayor</a>.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford hoists the Grey Cup on stage with Toronto Argonauts players while celebrating the team's Grey Cup victory in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, Nov.27, 2012.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford stands at the door to his office as he waits for an elevator in Toronto on Thursday November 14, 2013.
Mayor Rob Ford speaks at city council in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.
Nov. 13 2013. Toronto mayor Rob Ford during the afternoon session as councillors continued to debate a motion asking mayor Rob Ford to apologize to Torontonians for misleading therm about his use of crack cocaine.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford speaks to his Don Bosco Eagles team during the Metro Bowl quarter-final at Birchmount Park in Toronto, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.
In this Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 file photo, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford holds a bobblehead doll depicting him at Toronto City Hall. An electoral map of the 2010 mayoral election shows that Ford's voter base resides mainly in a more conservative constituency than the downtown electorate.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (left) and city councillor Michelle Berardinetti (right) smile on stage during a performance of the Nutcracker in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford jumps on stage dressed as a Cannon Doll during a performance of the Nutcracker in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford acts on stage dressed as a Cannon Doll during a performance of the Nutcracker in Toronto on Saturday, December 10, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit)
City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses the media outside office in Toronto on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, after the release of a video. A new video surfaced showing Ford in a rage, using threatening words including "kill" and "murder."
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford emerges from his office holding slices of a birthday cake to offer to members of the media at city hall in Toronto on Tuesday May 28, 2013.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford arrives at City Hall in Toronto amid allegations of crack cocaine use on Friday May 17, 2013, in Toronto. Published reports say a video appears to show Ford smoking crack cocaine. Ford called the allegations ridiculous.
Toronto City Mayor Rob Ford watches players from Don Bosco Eagles, the High School team he coaches, warm up before they compete against the Huron Heights Warriors in the Metro Cup in Toronto on Tuesday November 27, 2012 Those whose antics threaten to besmirch the party name normally don't get a second chance with Canada's federal Conservatives. Not so, it would seem, for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford carries the Pan American games flag in Omnilife Stadium during the closing ceremonies of the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. Toronto will host the games in 2015.
Toronto City Mayor Rob Ford reacts after Don Bosco Eagles, the High School team he coaches, lost 28-14 to Huron Heights Warriors in the Metro Cup in Toronto on Tuesday November 27, 2012.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford talks to a staff member at city hall in Toronto on Wednesday November 6, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses reporters at City Hall in Toronto on Tuesday November 27, 2012.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford briefly takes the stage to greet the crowd as part of the New Years Eve celebrations at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Monday, December 31, 2012.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sits on the back of Chicago's First Lady as he takes in an architectural boat tour on the Chicago River Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. Ford was visiting the city on a Toronto-Chicago Business Mission.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/21/rob-ford-fall-gif-video_n_2170653.html">Rob Ford was at an event to promote the Grey Cup when he fell while hamming it up for the press. A GIF of the fall went viral on the Internet</a>.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, makes a light hearted comment as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford laughs during the signing of a new "sister cities" declaration Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012, in Chicago.
Toronto Mayor-elect Rob Ford, centre, raises his arms with his wife Renata, right, and mother Diane, left, as he speaks to supporters in Toronto on Monday, October 25, 2010.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, top right, waves to photographers during a boat tour with members of the Toronto-Chicago Business Mission on the Chicago River waterfront Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012, in Chicago.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/22/dave-chappelle-rob-ford_n_1822240.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-politics" target="_hplink">Comedian Dave Chappelle met briefly with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford</a> on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/14/rob-ford-reading-driving-car-gardiner_n_1776183.html" target="_hplink">Rob Ford is seen reading while driving</a> in this photo from Twitter.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/07/30/rob-ford-will-ferrell-zach-galifianakis-sketch_n_1719420.html" target="_hplink">Rob Ford meets with comedic actors Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis</a>.
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