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But what, you ask, does all of this have to do with predicting a McCain victory over Obama? For this I turn to my own guide to American culture, my friend Dr. Clotaire Rapaille. The man who, as mentioned awhile back, is famous for designing the Chrysler PT Cruiser, getting Americans to drink vast quantities of Folger’s coffee and serving as a cultural consultant to companies like GE, AT&T and Boeing, among many others. Before the 2008 campaign got under way, Rapaille had similarly applied his culture theories to presidents and presidential campaigns, his conclusions as startling as they were accurate.
What is it that makes Americans choose anything the way they do? And specifically what does this mean when it comes to choosing presidents?
First, he explained to me, we should understand that every human has a brain divided into three parts. The cortex is the seat of logic, while the limbic deals with emotions. It is what he calls the “third brain” — the “reptilian brain” — that unmistakably dominates the other two. It houses a person’s fundamental instinct for two and only two things: survival and reproduction. While every human walking the planet has these two instincts, some people are more “reptilian” than others. Those others could be depending more on their “cortex” — the part of the brain that is home to logic, that controls intelligence. Or they can seem to run mostly on emotion. Yet without question, the research shows again and again that whether the subject is picking cars, coffee or presidents, people respond with their instincts. When this fact of life is overlaid with culture — in the case of voters for president of the United States, American culture — the result is easy to see.
While other cultures put a premium on thinking (the French) or order (the Germans), Americans want our presidents to respond just as we do in our culture — with their gut. An American presidential candidate, Rapaille says, “doesn’t need to be extremely reptilian, only more reptilian than his opponent is.” In particular, and he says this in terms of a cultural observation as opposed to a subjective condemnation, Americans are not culturally disposed to thinking. We prefer, as the Nike commercial has long said, to “just do it.” We are a culture of action, of rebellion, of instinct. When Europeans or American liberals deride a George W. Bush or a Reagan as a “cowboy,” they think they are hurling an insult. Yet most Americans see cowboys as heroes, so the insult effectively backfires. When it comes to choosing between two candidates for president, we gravitate instinctively to the one perceived as more “reptilian.” Rapaille puts it this way: “We don’t want our presidents to think too much.”
Rush Limbaugh has made the observation that when Obama is away from his teleprompter the candidate’s soaring rhetoric stumbles into a non-stop succession of hems and haws. Lots of “ahhhhs” and “uhhhhs” and “uhhhh…ahhhh…uhhhhs.” To illustrate in entertaining fashion Limbaugh has even assembled a tape of Obama’s hemmings and hawings from a solitary press conference, stringing them together to hilarious effect.
Rush is on to something here, a big something. What, after all, is Obama doing while he stutters around in verbal no man’s land? The next time you see Obama in an unscripted TV appearance watch his face as he does this and you will see it in a flash. Obama is…yes…thinking. Telegraphing in utterly unconscious fashion to voters precisely what Rapaille says they do not want: a potential president who “thinks too much.” Thinking translated here as indecisiveness, weakness, dawdling, timidity.
Remember Reagan on his philosophy about ending the Cold War? “We win, they lose,” he said. The Soviets, he said, were “an evil empire.” Nothing complicated. No Carter-esque agony of thought. Just a simple and direct use of the reptilian brain. If the striking air traffic controllers didn’t stop breaking the law and get back to work pronto, Reagan said he would fire them. Pure and simple. They didn’t — so he did. His poll numbers shot up. Remember all those “thinkers” over at the State Department who kept eliminating a specific phrase from Reagan’s now famous speech in front of the Berlin Wall? Reagan kept putting it back. On the interesting grounds that it was he who had been elected president, not some State Department bureaucrat. The phrase: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The moment is now enshrined in American historical memory. Recall FDR on the Depression: “The American people want action and action now.” Or Teddy Roosevelt demanding the return of a hostage by sending a telegram stating his expectation of the hostage-taker in the following fashion: “This government wants Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
In each case, this was the bottom line of the survival instinct, the reptilian brain at work in a president. It is no coincidence that Reagan, FDR and TR were three of America’s most popular presidents.
ONCE I UNDERSTOOD Rapaille’s point, I went back in American presidential history to look for myself at the outcome of every presidential election. Without question, unless there was some extraordinary circumstance (like a secret back room deal in the 1824 Adams-Jackson election) like clockwork the American people had elected the more “reptilian” candidate of those available as they perceived him to be. Issues came and issues went with the centuries, but the American tendency to go instinctively for the guy who seemed the most instinctively action oriented appeared time and time again. A roll call of winners perceived by the voters of their day (in direct comparison to their opponents) as action oriented, candidates who fearlessly went with their gut, include Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, Ike, JFK, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush. The sharper the image of a candidate as a serious thinker, a man who hesitates or who is perceived more as a talker than a doer, the more certain his defeat — as with a John Quincy Adams, a Thomas E. Dewey, an Adlai Stevenson, a McGovern, Dole, Dukakis, Gore, or Kerry.
And, my bet is, Obama.
What, after all, are among McCain’s supposed liabilities? His temper — an action indicator if ever there was one. His support for the Iraq War — war being the ultimate call to action. In the acknowledged asset column is McCain’s own war record, the epitome of the reptilian American brain at work. This candidate flew directly over the heart of the enemy capital to drop his bombs, then gets captured and tortured, with the great good luck of having his enemies film his literal fight for survival for full display in a later presidential campaign. For that matter, what, after all, was McCain in his youth? A fighter pilot. Or, as they say, a “flyboy.” A modern equivalent of the American cowboy. And what is the cowboy to Americans? A hero. Batman in a hat.
Take note of the difference in the McCain and Obama reactions to the crisis between Russia and Georgia. McCain instantly refers to “the invasion of Georgia.” Obama says he wants to “condemn the outbreak of violence.” The difference between the two is vivid. McCain, listening to his gut, is sharply blaming the Russians. He wants them the hell out of there ASAP. Obama is once again the “thinker.” Careful not to offend, he refers not to an “invasion,” which would imply fault, but an “outbreak of violence,” as if both the Georgians and the Russians are equally to blame. And what does Obama’s foreign policy adviser Susan Rice say of McCain? She criticizes McCain for “shooting from the hip.”
Who in American culture shoots from the hip? Cowboys, of course. Heroes. John Wayne. Gary Cooper. Wyatt Earp. Matt Dillon. One has to ask of Ms. Rice: Is she a secret plant being paid by the McCain campaign to say these things? One can only laugh at the utterly unconscious inability of Obama and his fellow eggheads to understand their own fellow countrymen, let alone human beings around the rest of the world. All things being equal, who do you think most Americans would prefer to see dealing with the big bad Russians in Georgia? Barack Obama — or Batman?
THESE COMPETING IMAGES of McCain as the man of action and Obama as the egghead thinker are slowly sinking in with the American electorate of 2008. The same electorate that has rewarded Batman and Rush with millions of viewers, listeners and dollars. The same electorate that gets up every single day in this country and looks in the mirror to see their own personal hero or heroine, their own version of Batman or Rush, someone who is fighting with everything they have in their reptilian brain to survive and thrive.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online