I'm a political junkie, which is okay because it's the one kind of junkie that people don't seem to mind having around their kids. Presidential politics is addictive in much the same way reality TV show is addictive; it's The Bachelor for the American electorate. Mitt Romney even looks like the Bachelor, what with that gorgeous head of hair of his.
Sooner or later, though, we the people are asked to actually choose one of these candidates.
That's where it gets tricky, because the primary is not really about inspiring an electorate; it's about tearing other candidates down in an attempt to be the last man standing. That's why you have to cringe when you hear a candidate say "I'm going to run a positive campaign." It's like a character in The Hunger Games promising to do no harm to their fellow competitors -- it's gonna be a spectacular failure.
Why is negativity so powerful in politics? Because negativity is rooted in fear, and there is no greater motivator than fear. (Remember that motivation is just the spark that sets you in motion -- very different from inspiration. It's the difference between running from something and running to something.)
If you can scare somebody away from an opposing candidate for just long enough, you just might steal New Hampshire. Or South Carolina. Or Florida. And that may be enough to launch you into the general election. That's good politics, isn't it? The purpose of a campaign is to win; therefore, fear and negativity seem like a smart move.
But hang on a sec.
In their book Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate, professors Ansolabehere and Iyengar argue that going negative, especially in the primary stage, makes it difficult for a supporter of the attacked candidate to switch to the attacking candidate when the general election rolls around. "For a supporter reacting to negative information," say the authors, "dropping out may be easier than switching to the attacker."
So candidates are shooting themselves in the foot if they're going too negative, right?
I don't think so. Politics are won, especially in the primaries, by motivating people to actually vote on Election Day. Consider that Iowa had a turnout of 5.4%. That Mitt Romney won the state by eight (eight!) votes.
Candidates -- who are born motivators -- are focused on a singular goal: sparking that motivation in people just long enough to get them to leave their homes and vote. How else do you explain Ron Paul?
Candidates are not going to inspire us because there's simply no incentive to inspire us. The nature of the game is to seek to elicit a single, concrete action from us -- to get us to the polling station on the right day. If the best way to do that is to tear down their competitors through fear tactics, then that's their motivating technique.
The danger comes, I believe, because candidates use fear as motivation, and they disguise this motivation as inspiration. Listen to any candidate's victory speech, bathed in balloons and confetti -- the fear has disappeared, because there is no longer any need to motivate. The truly fearless candidate would sound no different during the campaign than he or she did in victory.
If you're looking for true inspiration from these men and women, then you, like me, are a junkie -- seeking a feeling of genuine empowerment from a source that will, by definition, only provide a short term high.
So enjoy the presidential race. I know I will. But I'm going to get my inspiration from men and women who are in my life and persevering in order to provide for their families. People that try new things even when they may be doomed to fail. Especially when they may be doomed to fail. That's amazing to me.
I'll take my inspiration from those people. People that are, unlike our candidates, truly fearless.
Follow Conor Grennan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/conorgrennan