Richard Erlich: Forget about having beers with your candidates

I really like William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” a rigorous tragedy and a rigorously logical work, but one whose ethics are ultimately sentimental: To see how to behave properly, one must feel; to act decently, we must have the compassion “to feel what wretches feel.”

That said — at the start of the 21st century, we’re in the midst of an Age of Sentiment, and in its political manifestation, it really bugs me.

“I don’t like your attitude” is what you say to wise-ass kids when they’re moving toward a swat; it’s also what we often think about politicians before deciding to vote for their opponents — but after which thought we should think again.

Ordinary Americans should learn to think like people with money and clout: It’s not whether you like politicians or they like you; it’s not their attitudes or whether or not you’d want to have a beer with them. What counts are your informed guesses about future behavior and policy: If elected, what are these jokers likely to do for us? What are they likely to do to us? And “us” here starts with you and moves out to your family, friends, community — and then as far as relevant for the office, and as far as your compassion and concern can stretch.

There are limits: You don’t want to elect pathological liars or habitual betrayers or people you just despise. Still, within such limits, it’s not character or attitude or verbal gaffes that count; it’s probable actions, e.g., votes on policy; so, as the rule goes, “Look at the record, look at the record, look at the record.”

I’m reviewing the obvious, you say — you “strategic voter,” you. OK, consider the thought experiment, “Which Candidate Is Now in More Trouble (especially with liberals”)?

Candidate A has on stage with him several highly visible blacks, expresses his love of African-Americans and other members of the African Diaspora, and states his confidence that African-Americans reject the condescension of even discussing reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.

Candidate B says, “Well, I don’t know all that many colored people, and don’t like or dislike races as such; but we white folks owe the descendants of slaves a debt of honor, and we need to figure out what the modern equivalent is of ‘40 acres and a mule’ and find a responsible way to pay our debt.”

All else being equal, I’d say liberals and blacks should vote for Candidate B: You don’t like his attitude or his language, but he promises to get serious on the central historical issue between black and white Americans. Guilt isn’t inherited, but the loot is, and before we turn the page and get to other issues, the descendants of slavery and Jim Crow can demand what, if anything, white folks intend to do about returning some of the loot.

Ditto for American Indians, although “the casino maneuver” seems a pretty effective method of returning money to the Indians.

Or consider the case of Juan Williams getting fired by National Public Radio.

Arguably, Williams did exactly the right thing in an Age of Sentiment: He got in touch with his feelings, expressed them as best he could, and then tried to deal responsibly with his feelings, in this case, occasional fear of Muslims.

The causes of Williams’ firing are complex, but for sure the occasion was his feeling negative feelings and saying so.

An Age of Sentiment isn’t just about having feelings but having the right feelings — and remaining silent about any that are wrong.

Alternatively, consider the hassles President Obama has faced for being too cold and analytical. “Get in touch with your feelings, Barack (the correct ones, the ones we agree with) and express them!” — or do so until we complain that “No Drama Obama” is insincere or has again overstepped his mandate.

So enough already with demands for cuddly politicians, emotional but with cojones, pols with character and the right attitudes, gals and guys we’d like to chat with and who really care about us every day.

Feh! Let’s have brief, honest campaigns where voters make clear they don’t care what politicians are feeling and politicians make clear it’s none of our damn business: Let’s talk policy and start thinking like political sophisticates, but responsible sophisticates. Not, “Would I like to have a beer with these candidates?” But, “If I were rich and could afford to buy a couple of them — and I actually loved my country and community — where would I invest?”

Richard D. Erlich is professor emeritus at Miami University in Oxford. He is retired and lives in Ventura County, Calif.

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