Who Cares If a Politician Is Likable?

NBC / Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the election-season clichés that has been a standby in previous cycles, and that has been obliterated in this one, is the Beer Question. Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? Who, basically, do you find engaging, and interesting, and on your level? Who would you want to have over for a pint or two?

It’s the question at the heart of “Game On,” the West Wing episode that finds President Bartlet in a climactic, live-televised meet-up with his Republican challenger, Florida’s Governor Ritchie. The episode may only loosely feature beer; it revolves, though, around the qualities the Beer Question really tests: matters of “relatability” and, with them, “authenticity.” The question is about the gut feeling voters have about the people who put themselves forward to be their leaders. It’s about the tricky paradox that candidates have been navigating ever since the Washingtons welcomed that first eager traveler to Mount Vernon: Americans want leaders who will lead them, but who will also not be above them. They want the world’s most powerful elected leader to be a regular guy. Or a regular girl. They want … a peer.

So “Game On”! Ritchie, here, is very clearly the candidate you’d want to have a beer with. He’s folksy and charming and plainspoken. He probably has thoughts about the Dolphins’ defense. Bartlet, on the other hand … probably does not. He’s the know-it-all, the nerd, the snob, the kind of guy who probably eats a lot of quinoa (and who knows that it’s pronounced “KEEN-wah,” and will totally tell you so when you marvel at how ubiquitous “kin-OH-a” has become). If you came over to hang out with him, let’s be honest, he’d probably offer you a cheeky Zinfandel.

And “Game On” is not subtle about laying any of this out. (The episode is, perhaps relatedly, part of the last season of West Wing episodes to be written by Aaron Sorkin.) Indeed, throughout the televised campaign, Bartlet versus Ritchie, these blunt oppositions have been the stakes: smart versus not, educated versus not, thinking with your head versus knowing with your heart. George H.W. Bush versus George W. Bush.

The stakes are, to be clear, extremely glib: Ritchie is essentially a walking (well, dais-grasping) straw man, standing in for a great many of the stereotypes within which progressives are fond of packaging conservatives. During the debate, Ritchie talks about “Eskimo poetry.” He calls “unfunded mandate” “a big word.” He seems confused. He seems unprepared—not just for the debate, but for leadership. It is simply not a fair fight.

And that, of course, is the point. As Sam and Will are savoring Bartlet’s victory after the debate, Will registers his surprise about how forthrightly superior Bartlet was as it played out. “I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial!” Will says.

“So did we,” Sam replies. “But then,” he adds,

we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning at 3:10, my phone rings, and it’s Toby Ziegler. He says, “Don’t you get it? It’s a gift that they’re irreversibly convinced that he's arrogant ‘cause now he can be.” If your guy’s seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.

Again: so smug. Smuggity smug smug. We can acknowledge our own superiority, without shame or retribution! But I think there’s something hopeful in it, too.

The Beer Question, after all, is the wrong question to ask. Do we really want a leader who is on our level—or is it better, actually, to have a leader who is demonstrably above us? My money’s on the latter. And so is The West Wing’s. You can read “Game On” as a lot of things—smarmy, strawmanny, overly convinced of a single debate’s ability to sway the electorate’s affections—but it also makes a pretty good argument for choosing leaders according to their skills and their knowledge, rather than their charm. Political stagecraft, as Matt noted of The Candidate, offers a mix of benefits and drawbacks; I think one of its most significant failings is the way it has of emphasizing charisma—not interpersonal charisma, but telegenic charisma—over things that are less readily translatable to the screen. It prioritizes the best performance over the best person.

“Game On” aired in 2002, before the founding of Facebook and Twitter; it is not about social media. But in another sense, I couldn’t help thinking as I watched the episode, it is entirely about social media. It is about the performative, personality-driven demands the public makes of its politicians. It is about the way we ritualize the lowering of our politicians so they will meet us within our own averageness. Under the current regime, candidates must be photographed and filmed and Instagrammed as they gnaw on pork products at the Iowa State Fair. They must share their Spotify playlists, and the mixes must be full of selections that are whimsical but also relatable. They must constantly be performing—not just as public servants, but as actors in the great dramedy of American democracy.

“Game On” is in the end, I think, about all of that. It is about how, in the interplay between “person” and “persona,” the American campaign apparatus is biased in favor of the persona. It is essentially a 43-minute long condemnation of the role that beer plays in the American political system—and, at the same time, a reminder that we are all under its influence.