Likability in America

Whose big idea was “likability,” anyway? Historian Claire Potter says it was a guy thing.

As Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and others jumped into the race, each seemed to affirm the new power of women in 2019, a power that was born when President Trump was sworn into office, exploded during #MeToo and came into its own during the 2018 midterms.

But no female candidate has yet led the polls. The men keep joining — Michael Bennet this week, Joe Biden the last — and keep garnering glowing press coverage. Although Mr. Biden fumbled two previous presidential bids, we are told he has “crossover appeal”; Bernie Sanders has been admired by this newspaper as “immune to intimidation”; and Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay man nominated for president, is “very authentic.” By contrast Ms. Harris is “hard to define”; Ms. Klobuchar is “mean”; and Ms. Warren is a “wonky professor” who — you guessed it — is “not likable enough.” Seeing comments like this, Mrs. Clinton said wryly in January, “really takes me back.”

It turns out women just aren’t likable. God knows everyone has tried – tried and tried and tried – but it’s hopeless. Women always have something wrong with them. You can’t always quite specify what it is, but you know you don’t like her.

As presidential candidates put advertising experts in charge of national campaigns, perhaps it was inevitable that likability would jump explicitly to politics. In 1952, some of the first televised election ads sought to highlight Dwight Eisenhower’s likability. The advertising executive Rosser Reeves put Eisenhower in controlled settings where his optimism, self-confidence, humor and nonpartisanship could be emphasized over his political inexperience and what Reeves viewed as his “inept” speaking style.

So he doesn’t know jack shit about governing, so what, he’s called Ike, he’s likable!

Yet if the history of likability in America tells us how important it has become, particularly to politics, it also teaches us there is nothing immutable about a concept that was created and refined by men from Horatio Alger to Dale Carnegie to Roger Ailes. Women haven’t benefited much from the likability standard as it stands. But to recognize that it’s an invention is to dream that they could.

What would it mean if we could reinvent what it is that makes a candidate “likable”? What if women no longer tried to fit a standard that was never meant for them and instead, we focused on redefining what likability might look like: not someone you want to get a beer with, but, say, someone you can trust to do the work?

The overwhelming success of female candidates in the 2018 midterms is a sign that this might already be happening. It was, for many people, a turn to a new kind of member of Congress — female, of color — who could be trusted in the face of a White House that can’t seem to get its facts straight and a president who had proclaimed Washington to be a swamp only to put his boots on and wade right in. If Americans can learn to like and trust women in Congress in record numbers, maybe they can learn to trust women as presidential candidates too — and maybe even like them.

Well let’s not go crazy here.

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