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The Politics of Tears

January 9, 2008

Hillary Clinton's victory in the New Hampshire primary is being put down to her display of "genuine" emotion. DW-WORLD.DE's Jefferson Chase says this is a further example of US politics descending into self-parody.


"Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice," New York Senator Hillary Clinton said after pulling off her narrow comeback win over Barack Obama in the New Hampshire Democratic primary.

But what sort of voice is it? With Clinton's victory partly being attributed to the sympathy she garnered from a televised moment in which she seemed near tears, the answer is apparently: a maudlin one.

The history of American politics is dotted with moments of empty sentiment designed to tug at the heart-strings -- from Richard Nixon's mushy "Checkers" speech in 1952 to the saccharine "Man from Hope" ad campaign that helped get Bill Clinton elected four decades later.

But the apparent effectiveness of Hillary Clinton's misty-eyed moment reinforces the impression that soap-opera sentimentalism is the dominant force in American politics. Can it really be true that a candidate can win over an electorate by telling them "If you don't vote for me, I'm gonna cry?"

The president occupies a unique position in American culture. He or she is the only politician with whom citizens compulsively need to identify. That gives the presidency a power far in excess of any of the state responsibilities sent aside in the Constitution for the office.

Emotions will always play a role in an election. The disturbing implication of the New Hampshire spectacle is that they may have tipped the balance over rational considerations such as what a given candidate says he or she is going to do, or how well he or she seems likely to deal with the pressure of the job.

If getting to know the "human side" of the candidates is to become be-all and end-all of American presidential politics, why not just put them all in a Big-Brother-style container and let viewers vote them out one at a time?

It's an absurd scenario -- but one that underscores the increasingly surreal quality of US elections.

There has been speculation about whether Clinton's emotional moment might have been staged, but who really cares? Rather than looking for "genuine" moments of emotion in the lives of candidates, the US electorate and the US media would be better served searching for genuine ideas about where America should be headed and genuine strategies for realizing those goals.

Realism is all the more important in this election since Americans are choosing a successor to a president who often prioritized faith over analysis. That president now enjoys record low levels of public approval, making it all the more curious that the electorate in the New Hampshire primary seems to have reverted to a tendency of feeling first, thinking second.

A few pundits are putting a feminist spin on Clinton's comeback. But the idea that the New Hampshire vote reflects modern, liberated women's endorsement of "female" emotionalism is counter-intuitive -- and probably vaguely offensive to many feminists.

Whatever the case may be, the race for the Democratic nomination is shaping up to be a two-candidate affair. It would good if voters in the remaining 48 states looked beyond made-for-TV moments of sentiment and did some serious thinking about whether Clinton or Obama has more to offer America and the world.

Jefferson Chase works for DW-TV and DW-WORLD.DE.