Ford Nation Should Stop Listening To Its Heart

I'm very defensive of Barack Obama.

I agree with his agenda to reform U.S. health care, immigration, the minimum wage and education. I also thought the Iraq war should end. But if I'm really honest about why I feel the mama bear instinct every time someone criticizes him, it's because it feels personal.

I don't just like Obama's policies, I like his character. We both fancy arugula and want to solve income inequality. I was touched when he cried while thanking his young campaign staff post re-election.

As the saying goes, I'd want to grab a beer with him.

But the fact that people's political preferences are guided by their passions is a big problem. For one, politicians on either side of the spectrum are pros at exploiting emotion. Rob Ford and Obama both stoked voter anger to get elected: the former with the notion that latte-sipping politicians don't respect the average Jane and Joe, and the latter by capitalizing on anti-Bush fury.

If politicians are expert gamers of the emotional system, then average voters are mere hostages. Without thinking we pick candidates and vote for them with the same logic we use to choose a date on Plenty of Fish.

We need to use our heads more than our hearts.

Political nerds, you are excepted. But most of us find it hard to plod through articles about policy or separate hyperbole from fact. And though it's easier to mislead less-educated demographics (many blue-collar Republicans support a party with policies that don't support them) your degree doesn't preclude you from casting an emotional ballot.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt said it best in the Guardian: "Politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies."

To be truly religious, you cannot question your god.

Emotional politics is the best explanation for the fact that 42 per cent of Torontonians still approve of Rob Ford. Yes, we've given many politicians a pass for their sketchy personal lives. And Ford is not the first to lie, disrespect reporters or act like a child during a meeting. But he's definitely the first to do all those things so dramatically and still act with such intense incredulity at the prospect of stepping down.

The reason behind the continued strength of Ford Nation isn't particular to suburban voters. Most people, regardless of where they live or their political leaning, support candidates based on feelings instead of rational arguments.

Psychologist Drew Westen, who wrote The Political Brain, found that when he showed partisan men photos of their chosen U.S. election candidates as they listened to positive and negative statements about the politicians, the emotional rather than rational part of their brains lit up. When they looked at slides of the candidates' contradictory statements, the men were only able to find hypocrisy in the person they didn't support.

Our judgment of politicians closely mirrors the way we choose a new friend. Surface information matters most: demographic, appearance and demeanour. Just as with a first impression, we quickly gather this intel. Researchers found that after seeing a candidate for 100 milliseconds, voters form perceptions about them based on "expressiveness, facial structure, carriage and attitude." The data is so indicative of how a person will vote that a Princeton psychologist predicted 70 per cent of political races in 2006 senator and state governor elections from these snap impressions.

Once we've sized up a politician, we see where he or she fits in our memory. NDP candidates, for example, remind me of my mother because she always put an orange sign on our lawn. For years after I turned 18, my association of certain politicians with that lovely woman who made me lasagna after piano lessons was so strong that I felt comfortable ticking off a ballot without much reflection.

But the power of memory can also hinder candidates. There's something about Justin Trudeau with his sideways smiles, V-necks and ladies' night that reminds me of smarmy men from my past. That connection is hard to break, even though as a friend recently pointed out, he's probably the politician who best reflects my views.

As with our personal relationships, we are often blind to our favourite politicians' faults. We defend them when others bring up their shortcomings -- "You don't know the real Barack!" -- rather than accept the facts.

That's why it stung so much when I recently read a piece in the Globe and Mail titled "From messiah to lame duck: How Barack Obama fell to earth."

Like someone who denies they need glasses, I had considered the blurry version of Obama's agenda to be accurate. Details, schmetails. So long as I squinted it didn't matter that the U.S. president claimed he didn't know the extent of the NSA's eavesdropping. I'm sure he had the best intentions!

But for whatever reason, that night I had my glasses on. I saw clearly the president's lack of follow-through on immigration. His botched rollout of ObamaCare. His wasted opportunity on budget reform. His futile attempts at gun control.

My friend had messed up and it was time for an intervention with myself.

I'm not saying Chris Christie will have my support in the next election (I'm half-American, so can vote) -- far from it. But I will definitely do a more critical kind of research when I choose which Democrat to put my weight behind. I'll think less about who I want to drink with, and more about who I want to run a country.

I can only hope that in 2014, members of Ford Nation will do the same.

This blog originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.