Why for many politicians likeability matters far more than competence

Boris Johnson seems to have got to the top without being qualified for anything much except messing up his hair and burbling in a manner that tickles voters.

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Who is the worst American president of the 21st century? There are only three to choose from, so this shouldn’t be hard. I’m going to say Obama, purely for that beige suit he wore once. OK not him. The real answer is clear and unarguable, and it’s not the White House’s current occupant. In policy terms, Donald Trump is only an averagely awful Republican president. He has not – yet – launched a misconceived invasion and occupation, thereby setting a whole region on fire, disgracing his own country in the process. George W Bush is the clear winner of this contest and is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.

So here is a different question – who is the most likeable president of the 21st century? On this one we do at least have a clear loser. I offer no contrarian view of Donald Trump’s personality. Like most people who are not white American men, I find him almost unbearably inadequate as a human being, let alone as a president. Once we get to the two finalists, though, things become more difficult.

President Obama was certainly charming; that dazzling smile; the way he lit up around children; his expertly delivered jokes (“I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be”); the way he talked about his wife; that thing he said about Bob Dylan (what was great about meeting Dylan, he reflected, is that he clearly wasn’t the least bit impressed by meeting the president). But Obama is too easy to warm to – after all, I like his politics.

Bush presents the more interesting test case. Can you despise the politics and like the person? When he was president, I didn’t like his politics and I didn’t like him. Funny how these things align. But now, perhaps because in recent years the bar has sunk so unfathomably low, I see him differently. I think about his visit to a mosque, six days after 9/11, to talk about the need to respect Muslim-Americans and their faith; his graciousness towards Obama during the 2008/09 handover, after Obama had won an election by standing against everything he had done – and now, his look of puppyish delight when Michelle Obama hugs him.

I also recall evidence that, despite being a Republican from the right of his party, who took a stance against gay marriage to gain political advantage, Bush was an instinctively generous and open-minded man. In 2003, he hosted a reunion party for his Yale classmates at the White House. One of his fellow alumni had since become a woman and wasn’t sure how to introduce herself. Nervously, she said, “You might remember me as Peter…” Bush jumped in: “And now you’ve come back as yourself.”

So I like him, and I think he was a terrible president. Which raises the question of whether it should matter if a politician is likeable. We know it does matter – likeable candidates tend to do better than unlikeable ones.

In some cases, being liked can be even more important than appearing competent. Boris Johnson seems to have got to the top without being qualified for anything much except messing up his hair and burbling in a manner that tickles at least some voters. But should it matter? After all, we elect politicians to do a job, not to be friends with us.

The question is similar to the one faced by employers when deciding on criteria for hiring. The likeability of a job candidate has always played an important role in his or her success, regardless of how stringent the qualifications for the job.

In her 2015 book, Pedigree, the American sociologist Lauren Rivera took a close look at the hiring processes of leading law firms, banks and management consultants. One of her findings was that although they ostensibly sought to hire people on merit, in practice the employers often overlooked strong candidates from working-class backgrounds, simply because the interviewers were quicker to strike up a rapport with those who went on the same kinds of holidays they did – skiing, deep-sea diving – and read the same kinds of books.

The interviewers were not taking a conscious decision to prefer people from a similar social background to them. They were acting intuitively. Most of them would have been genuinely upset at the thought they had passed over someone for reasons other than whether they were qualified for the job. But this is the thing – whether or not you like someone does not feel like a choice. You either do or you don’t. That makes likeability appear a neutral quality, when in reality it is a loaded dice.

The academic research shows that likeability matters more for one group of politicians than another; you can probably guess which. Political scientists have consistently found that voters will support a male candidate they do not like, if they think he is qualified, but are less likely to vote for a woman they dislike. That means men have the option to present themselves as gruff rather than compassionate; as fighters instead of huggers, while women are more constricted in their choice of self-presentation. They have to smile a lot. In the age of authenticity, it’s harder for politically ambitious women to avoid pretence.

Employers who want to overcome the problems of unconscious bias have been advised to drop the free-form interview and focus more tightly on a candidate’s track record and abilities. There is a case for making our approach to politics more impersonal too. But politics isn’t just about doing a job, it’s about making an emotional connection with voters. Trying to banish likeability from that equation is futile. What we can do, though, is be a little more thoughtful about who we like and why. Politics will be better when everyone can come as themselves. 

Next week: Jonathan Liew

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler