One of the best lines in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is about how Rob, Hornby’s avatar in the story, had determined some years ago that it wasn’t so much what you were like that mattered, but what you like. To wit, you could judge a person by their musical taste well before you had to waste a lot of time getting to know them, only to find out they were the sort of dullard whose musical knowledge extended only as far back as Britney Spears’ second top-ten single. He eventually recants this particular belief, realizing that there are people out there worth knowing who still have Spandau Ballet tapes in their actively played collection.
Now, I will freely admit I do it, too (“Hi, I’m Paulette…Oh, you want to see Swimfan again? Right. I’ll be going over there now.”) but that’s because I’m a snob. I have also grudgingly admitted in the past that I don’t have to give up all hope when someone tells me they don’t get the Flaming Lips or that they really loved the last John Grisham novel. I just need to spend a little time educating them or steering them to other, less personally painful topics.
But the fact is that we are a nation that judges people on what they like, rather than what they are like, especially when it comes to competitions such as elections where it would be infinitely too difficult to spend time understanding the candidates’ history and attitudes vis-a-vis the important issues of the day. But we can fool ourselves into believing that we have developed a keener understanding of them by judging their qualifications to lead us based on our interpretations of their preferences for certain important things such as boxers or briefs. Or, as Brent Kandall points out in Washington Monthly, on their stated choices of reading material.
Of course the candidates all know that we judge them based on what they say they like to read, so they try to come up with answers that convey the image they want us to have of them, thus rendering the entire cleverness of judging them on their tastes pointless because, well, stated preferences and actual preferences frequently bear little resemblance to one another. (“Uhm, yeah, my favorite movie was The Seven Samurai. No, I don’t have a copy of it on DVD. Oh, yeah, I don’t know how all those Adam Sandler movies got on that shelf there.”)
So, perhaps we need to make this whole judging by preference thing a more sophisticated science. Rather than ask a question or two about prefereces, we need to confront them with a battery of carefully chosen preference questions and then look at their answers on the whole and have some statistically-minded (David?) folks cross-reference the answers and tell us how to interpret what the candidates actually like versus what they would like us to think they like.
I guess I’m envisioning something not unlike a dating questionnaire (uhm, not that I would actually know first hand what a dating questionnaire would look like, but you know, think of it as an educated guess) with questions about their favorite books, movies, songs, wines, whether they eat raw oysters and veal, five things they’d have to have with them if stranded on a desert island, and maybe something about what we’d find in their desk drawer. I don’t feel much of a need to know the answer to the boxer or brief question, and frankly, for the most part, I’d really prefer not to know. Those are mental images I could do without. But maybe we could ask them their idea of the perfect Friday night and like, a sentence to complete, maybe along the lines of “[blank] is good for the economy; [blank] is even better for the economy.”
Surely we can outinterpret them that way and best make our determination of the perfect candidate, no?