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Voting for Dummies: The Myth of the Regular Joe Politician

Posted: 09/16/11 04:04 PM ET

As we enter another election season here in Ontario, there are a few things I am sure we can count on: things will get ugly, there will be people who are upset with the outcome, and, at some point in the election, politicians of all political stripes will attempt to identify themselves as the "everyman."

It happens in virtually any election over any territory in any jurisdiction: politicians try to present themselves as "every day" people in an effort to win the popular vote; attempting to speak to some abstract notion of "the blue-collar work ethic" by appearing more down to earth.

You can call it the plea for "small town values," or "getting in touch with the Regular Joe," but I'll continue to call it what it really is: Voting for Dummies.

Every time some politician poses awkwardly in an expensive suit with his or her family at a cheap fast food restaurant, or gets down in the dirt for a photo op with some manual labourers, holding a tool he or she has never actually held before, that politician is assuming that you are a dummy, and in turn, it leads people to vote for dummies.

The argument could be made that it happened here in Toronto in the recent municipal election. A city that had had enough of some perceived notion of elitist politicians reacted with sweeping popularity and a massive victory for a working class guy in ill-fitting suits with a less-than-stellar public-speaking record, and Mayor Rob Ford rode a wave of "regular-folksiness" right into City Hall.

And it definitely happened in the last few Canadian federal elections where we often saw the word "intellectual" thrown around as if it were something sinister; encouraged instead to cast a vote for a candidate whose education was somehow more mainstream, presumably; a candidate who claimed not to be interested in his own political career.

It's surely a tactic that reached a nauseating crescendo in 2008 when American vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, strutted onto the stage of the Republican national convention, droppin' her Gs, winkin', and just down right bein' folksy.

Certainly rolling up your sleeves and loosening your tie has been a mainstay of politicking with the common-folk since as long as there have been ties and sleeves, but Palin capitalized on the power of the "everyman" like no one before her. She tapped into that inexplicable need some voters possess to root for the candidate that is most like them and a swell of "Shoot! She tells like it is!" turned Palin into an overnight sensation that has arguably changed the face of politics in the United States since (see: The Tea Party).

Palin, and others like her, have tapped into some obscene attraction to the idea of the working class politician; a sort of desperation to cast a vote for that rare political entity: The Regular Joe.

People, it seems, like to vote for candidates that are most like them.

Many Rob Ford supporters this past election, just like during Palin's unsuccessful bid for the American vice presidency, noted that one of the main things they liked about the candidate was that he was "just like them."

And it makes no sense to me.

Politicians are not inherently capable of leading people simply by virtue of being like those people. If you got kicked out of school, or you just got out of prison, or you can't hold down a job because of your drug habit, or your only source of information is tabloid journalism and you're holding a racist and misspelled picket sign at a rally about some policy issue you only barely comprehend, do you really think the ideal candidate for public office is "just like you?"

No.

Call me crazy, but I happen to think that relevant experience, intelligence, and ability should all be prerequisites for public office. In fact, far from being put off by a candidate's extensive education, I'm actually more likely to vote for the person with extensive knowledge of world issues and a vast array of political experience. I actually think that the person running a city, province, or country should be the smartest and most experienced candidate available -- not the person who sweats like me or drives the same minivan.

And that's not even the most irritating part about the Voting for Dummies strategy. The worst part is the notion that these politicians are working-class folks is, of course, entirely fiction.

There aren't really any Regular Joes in politics. With the possible exception of Sarah Palin, who had about as many credentials for public office as the guy who mopped up after the Republican convention, these politicians aren't really "every day" people. In fact, they are actually the very "elite" they so often claim to rally against.

They are politicians.

John McCain (with Palin in the sidecar pointin' and winkin') rode the "Straight Talk Express" dangerously close to the most powerful office in the world with support from the Joe the Plumbers of America. Yet McCain has been a politician for 30 years and has an estimated net worth of about $40 million.

Similarly, Toronto's mayor, who enjoyed a groundswell of support with his bid to crack down on the spending of career politicians, is himself a career politician. He has been on city council for 11 years. His father was an MPP and his brother is also a city councillor. Furthermore, Rob Ford is still a principal shareholder in his family's label company, Deco Labels, a company worth around $30 million with locations in Etobicoke, Chicago, and New Jersey.

Tim Hudak, as he "fights for hardworking Ontario families" this election, probably won't talk a lot about his Masters degree in economics. And you can bet you'll see a few clips of Dalton McGuinty and Andrea Horwath chatting with some regular folks in aprons or hairnets over a double-double at a Tim Hortons at some point this fall.

And it's just plain silly.

Yes, it is important that our politicians have the ability to communicate and understand the needs of people from all walks of life. But to assume that their similarity to working class people makes them inherently qualified to lead is dumb. And to believe that these orchestrated attempts to make them seem more common are anything but fiction is similarly dumb.

Politicians and we the electorate really need to rid ourselves of this notion that being qualified, educated, and experienced somehow makes a person unfit for public office; because to continue to value candidates based on the idea that they seem just like us, is to continue a foolish strategy of voting for dummies.

 

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