Governor Perry Arrives: I. Americans Believe in a Believer

I am less sure than many observers that Rick Perry will sweep aside all the other Republican candidates and march triumphantly to a Presidential nomination. A national campaign is an inferno to which no state-level campaign compares, and many people who look composed and powerful in their own neighborhood wilt or burst into flames at the next level. Further, even if Perry can perform in the national spotlight, all the candidates in “Governor Perry’s space” (Bachmann, Pawlenty, Santorum) may ace each other out and let front runner Mitt Romney skate home.

That said, Governor Perry has a huge advantage over Mitt Romney in that he clearly believes certain things and says so in a simple, declarative fashion. You don’t see this so much in Europe, but in the U.S., there is a non-negligible proportion of the electorate who says “I don’t agree with him, but I’m gonna support him because I know where he stands”.

I have long wondered why this is so, as it doesn’t seem logical on its face. Once you know for sure that a candidate disagrees with you, why wouldn’t you oppose him/her vigorously? And in a democracy, why aren’t candidates who adopt a consultative style and gather information before making up their mind prized?

The phenomenon may result less from positive inferences about candidates who clearly believe something than it does negative inferences about those who, like Romney, appear to want to take the public pulse before they take a position. That is, it would be a disadvantage for a candidate to clearly believe something that voters didn’t like if s/he were running against someone who clearly believed something that voters did like. But that often isn’t the situation: In my lifetime, I have seen many races where a “straight-shooting, knows what he thinks and doesn’t need any advice” conservative clobbers a progressive who wants to “listen to all sides and bring people together”.

I suspect that many American voters, rather than liking the idea that a candidate wants to hear what they think and represent their views as President, make one of two inferences about candidates like Romney. (1) The candidate is a liar, he really believes certain things strongly and is covering them up for personal advantage, or, (2) The candidate is weak, even unmanly. He needs someone to tell him what to think…therefore he can’t lead.

The Republican nomination will probably come down to one of the 4 “believers” and Romney. Whether it’s Perry or another of them, Romney may in the end not be able to defeat a believer. If Romney does pull it out, the fascinating thing will be to see if President Obama goes for the “believer believing” vote and lays out an uncompromising, clear vision of what he thinks and where he wants the country to go.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Governor Perry Arrives: I. Americans Believe in a Believer”

  1. I think this grants too much “authenticity” (to use a word I don’t like much) to true believers. I’m sure many of them are sincere in their beliefs. It simply doesn’t follow that those beliefs grow out of some inner core of conviction as opposed to having been adopted for either personal / psychological reasons or social / political reasons simply because they “work” in some local sense, because that has been the path of least resistance.

  2. but in the U.S., there is a non-negligible proportion of the electorate who says “I don’t agree with him, but I’m gonna support him because I know where he stands”.

    Another possibility: those people are lying, perhaps to themselves. My impression is that this is far more prevalent on the right, which, if true, would mean..something.

  3. DonBoy: That’s an intriguing thought that hadn’t occurred to me. There were probably George Wallace supporters who said to themselves “I’m not a racist but…”

  4. “the fascinating thing will be to see if President Obama goes for the ‘believer believing’ vote and lays out an uncompromising, clear vision of what he thinks and where he wants the country to go.”

    It is too late for Obama to do that and be credible. It worked in 2008, but you’ve heard the fable of the boy who cried “wolf.”

  5. Having lived in both Europe and the U.S., I just find U.S. politics more childlike. People seem to want hard and fast rules, instead of seeing that things change, need nuance or that facts can trump ideology.

    At the risk of an “even the liberals agree”, it is hard to get a strong liberal to see that a stupid regulation should go. The Republicans are clearly nuts, and that is the problem. I guess I’m saying that I’d love to have the problem of talking down our nut cases.

  6. > You don’t see this so much in Europe, but in the U.S., there is a non-negligible proportion
    > of the electorate who says “I don’t agree with him, but I’m gonna support him because
    > I know where he stands”.
    >
    > I have long wondered why this is so, as it doesn’t seem logical on its face. Once you
    > know for sure that a candidate disagrees with you, why wouldn’t you oppose him/her vigorously?

    It is a fairly central point in any good management training course (of which there are very few) that for any decision of significance it is better to take firm decisive action, get moving, and later re-assess and redirect where necessary than to stand around in the death ground dithering. And I have seen several organizations badly damaged or destroyed by such dithering. If you move and take action there is a possibility you might be wrong but at least you have the potential to drive something; if you stand around worrying the chances of being wrong are much higher. If you don’t see why people find the firmer more decisive person – assuming he has a basic level of competence which W Bush clearly did not – more attractive then you might also have a hard time understanding why “some on the left” (including me) are angry with the way Obama treated the 54-46 victory we worked so hard to help him win.

    Cranky

  7. “I suspect that many American voters, rather than liking the idea that a candidate wants to hear what they think and represent their views as President, make one of two inferences about candidates like Romney. (1) The candidate is a liar, he really believes certain things strongly and is covering them up for personal advantage, or,”

    Or nothing; Decades worth of elections have taught Republicans to recognize option “1” in an instant, and understand that the desire to represent their views will only last until the election returns are in.

  8. I’m put in mind of Bill Clinton’s observation: when people feel uncertain, they will prefer someone who’s “strong and wrong” to someone who’s weak and right.

    The trick, of course, is what it means to be “strong”. In the American context it doesn’t always mean decisive and it doesn’t always mean having an answer. But it does have to involve some element of appearance, vocal quality, and expression that projects will (for lack of a better word). Especially so now, when visuals and vocals are inescapable. The public here has been brought up on celluloid and tv images, caricatures really, that depend for the most part on appearance and carriage as signals of inner qualities. These can easily trump anything officials actually do.

    It certainly worked for Reagan, who Stockman reveals as a ditherer but who played a resolute leader as Hollywood trained him to do. And imagine the effect of Lincoln’s reedy, piping voice and rural accent in today’s world. The fact that his vocals had to be read in a resonant Sam Waterston voice get you pretty well started on answering this question, I think.

    Not to discount what Cranky O point out, but the importance of image is very hard to overestimate in American politics. And the image people want can shift very quickly. But it’s very visual and aural, much more than it is substantive.

  9. It’s not only wingnuts who can benefit. Paul Feingold was pretty far to the left of the Wisconsin electorate, but got a number of votes from moderates and conservatives who just liked his authenticity. The same is probably true, to some extent, for Bernie Sanders. I don’t think that the median Vermont voter is a socialist, or anywhere near.

  10. >You don’t see this so much in Europe, but in the U.S., there is a non-negligible proportion of the electorate who says “I don’t agree with him, but I’m gonna support him because I know where he stands”.

    I have long wondered why this is so, as it doesn’t seem logical on its face. Once you know for sure that a candidate disagrees with you, why wouldn’t you oppose him/her vigorously?

    Several reasonable possibilities occur, besides those mentioned:

    1) The predictable politician is giving you valuable information, but the flexible one is withholding it. It’s easier to plan your life around a ruler’s bad ideas if they’re fairly consistent, and you have some idea of what they are. Known faults might be less dangerous than unpredictability, brought on by either swaying with every wind, or playing some complicated game which the subject has neither the training nor the leisure to follow.

    2)Damage minimization. It’s usually more important in politics to avoid catastrophic outcomes than to chase glorious, or even quite good, ones. Faced with a politician who is lined up against me in most ways, but whose principles/supporter base won’t let them do anything me and mine are likely to find immediately shattering, I have reason to prefer them to somebody who will happily chuck us lots of fish today, but who I suspect will just as happily feed us to the sharks the moment this seems the polite thing to do.

    3) The illusion of political agency. If I vote for a politician who is somewhat locked into a consistent set of positions, my vote seems more like actual political participation than otherwise, since it more strongly determines the positions that are really taken. This is not exactly rational, but it is extremely human – and its obvious remedy, a colder-eyed understanding of the abject political impotence of the voter qua voter, might not necessarily leave the patient in better condition than the belief-fever complained of. Depression Is Dangerous.

  11. To “I’m A Believer|…”

    Rick Perry is a prime example an individual who believes the ideology that places them in the best position to add to his income and power.

    Rick was a Democrat in 1988 and supported Al Gore in Gores effort to get the Democratic nomination. Then he switched to the Republican Party when the Evangelicals in Texas took control of it, and he learned about that time that if he ever let any opponent get to the right of him the opponent would probably win.

    His beliefs are entirely those that improve his position. The image of someone who is totally inflexible is simply the image he presents to his totally inflexible largely evangelical base.

    That said, he certainly is quite locked into his ideology as far as Texas goes. But he will never run another Texas race. I’m watching for him to run to the extreme right to get the Republican nomination and then do an eye-ball jolting switch to the middle to win the election. It will be a very Nixonesque ideological move.

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