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Aimee Liu Headshot

Why the Political is Personal(ity)

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How can they do that? How could they think that?

I've spent the last few years researching the answers to these questions as they apply to issues like anxiety, obsession, and identity. In the heat of the current political campaign, it occurs to me that these answers also help to explain the equal and opposite behavior of Democrats and Republicans -- and the meteoric impact of Sarah Palin on the national consciousness.

Remember: though neither religious nor rational thinkers like to admit this, we all are human animals. We have minds that respond to brain chemicals and characters that are shaped at least as much by instinct as by free will. According to Washington University Prof. C. Robert Cloninger, who studies the neurobiology of human personality, there are seven basic traits that we all have in common. This election season we would do well to understand how these traits affect our actions and reactions. Why? Because these are the traits that can lead one person to liken herself to a deadly animal, another to inspire hope, and many another to vote (perhaps unwittingly) for the qualities they themselves lack.

Four of these traits determine our temperament and are evident at birth. Is that baby easily startled and frightened? She's probably high in harm avoidance. Determined to chase after that ball no matter what gets in her way? Then she's high in persistence. Easily distracted by a new toy or game? That's a signal of high novelty seeking. And will she do anything for a smile? That indicates high reward dependence.

Each of us is born with these traits in high, moderate, or low levels, which do not change with age. One reason for Sarah Palin's instant popularity is that her temperament has been signaled through emblematic images that flash like klieg lights across America: this self-described pitbull (high persistence) and former beauty queen (high reward dependence), nicknamed "Sarah Barracuda" on the basketball court (low harm avoidance), likes to hunt, ice fish, ride snowmobiles, has five children and changes jobs every year or two (high novelty seeking).

Barack Obama's temperament, by contrast, is more nuanced and translates more subtly in his biography. (The same is true of John McCain's biography, which is why we're all focusing on Palin, rather than the top of the Republican ticket, as Obama's most dangerous opponent.) As the first African-American nominated for President (low harm avoidance); with a law degree from Harvard and a campaign for the highest office that has been running full bore now for nineteen months (high persistence); a twelve-year career as a constitutional law professor and a seven year run in the Illinois State Senate before entering the U.S. Senate (moderate rather than high novelty seeking); and as an early and outspoken opponent of the Iraq War long before it became unpopular (hardly a sign of reward dependence), Obama certainly has taken positions and actions that reflect his personality, but it is not a personality that screams at us.

Nor is Obama's character -- the portion of personality that develops slowly over time. Character consists of three traits that most of us associate with maturity. Obama's life history suggests that he is highly self-directed. A multiracial child of divorce and modest means, he has channeled his energy into a consistent and coherent career of civil rights law and political action. His work as a community organizer and his call for unity and diplomacy rather than divisiveness and violence bespeak an equally high level of cooperativeness. And his strong Christian faith and commitment to environmental preservation are two indications of self-transcendency. Clearly, he appears a man of strong character, but rightly or wrongly his campaign does not hype these traits.

The McCain campaign, taking the opposite tack, presents every shred of Palin's personality as a gleaming gold beacon of her exceptional character. In particular, we are to read her Evangelical faith, her five children, including a Down Syndrome baby, and her belief that she is an instrument of God's will as absolute proof of her self-transcendency. Never mind that the only true measure of this spiritual trait is how Sarah Palin alone feels when she contemplates God, beauty, nature, and the universe. Never mind that her eagerness to hunt animals, oppose the preservation of polar bears, deny the threat of global warming, and endorse a sport as violent as ice hockey all connote the opposite of self-transcendency.

We might interpret the size of Palin's large family, her leadership role in her Pentecostal church, and the folksy atmosphere of her mayorship in little Wasilla as evidence of her cooperativeness. But cooperative people generally are empathic people. Remember Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain"? Cooperative people don't turn policy disagreements into personal attacks or use public office to settle private vendettas. Sarah Palin, by all accounts, does.

Surely we should accept her speedy rise to the Governorship of Alaska and her "unblinking" acceptance of McCain's offer to make her his Vice Presidential running mate as proof of her powerful self-directedness. But key components of self-directedness are integrity and responsibility. This trait should not be confused with blind - also "unblinking" -- ambition. Sarah Palin was MIA so often from her duties as mayor and governor that Alaska legislators took to wearing "Where's Sarah?" pins. She was so unprepared for office that she admitted on camera barely a month before the Republican convention, "As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day?" These are not signals of self-directedness but of brazen cluelessness.

So why do we respond to Palin and Obama the way we do? Because of our own personalities. If we are fearful (high in harm avoidance), conventional (low in novelty seeking), easily seduced (high in reward dependence), and impulsive (low in persistence), Sarah's spunky, gutsy, gun-toting lipsticked pitbull persona promises to compensate for everything we miss in ourselves. If we're gullible enough to buy the spin on her character, she's our girl.

If our own personalities are relatively confident and secure but impulsive enough that we appreciate calm deliberation, and we look to our President not to satisfy our fantasies but to demonstrate the maturity and leadership we wish we possessed, then we're going to vote for Obama.

To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the future administration and, one way or the other, it is us.