Whose Flag is Bigger?

[quote] This is a tremendous suit you have…an electable suit.  I would vote for that suit. --- David Letterman to Barack Obama [/quote]

We vote based on issues, not appearances.  Right?

Visual politics are as important as personal voting records in building confidence and trust, communicating competence, and gauging electability.  We vote for the man (and sometimes the woman), to some extent, because they look the part.  But what does it mean to look presidential -- or, as David Letterman put it, “electable”? Here’s my breakdown of the 4 main characteristics we look for in our elected officials and how those qualities are visually communicated: 1. Virility. Whether we want to admit it or not, as a nation, we love an alpha male. We want our leaders -- and especially our presidents -- to be strong and virile  And though the “Commander-in-chief” is giving orders and not physically on the ground executing them, we need to believe that his physicality is capable of commanding that sort of authority. How it’s displayed? Virility was perhaps most prominently displayed this year during the second presidential debate. Size plays a central role in the town hall format, as the candidates are allowed to roam about and physically square off for some political chest-beating.  Fortunately, both men are around the same height (Obama: 6’1; Romney: 6’2), so they were evenly matched in stature, but physical signs of aggression were central in this suited alpha male display -- leaving David Brooks of PBS to wonder, “Is somebody going to throw a punch?...The alpha male competition works when you're talking about something. When you're just trying to be Mr. Alpha, it looks boyish.”  (But don’t tell that to Jon Stewart, who in his mock debate with Bill O’Reilly used a lift behind the podium to even out the height differential and allow his 5’7 frame to occasionally tower over O’Reilly’s 6’4 prominence.)

Paul Ryan’s fervent athleticism gives a whole new meaning to “body politic.”  The GOP vice presidential candidate has been repeatedly criticized for wearing ill-fitting, oversized suits, but maybe he’s subconsciously attempting to fill those suits with the chiseled physique he’s so publically pumped up.  The Ryan workout photos released by Time magazine indicate that size DOES matter to Ryan (and now there’s even a Twitter account dedicated to Paul Ryan’s bicep).  But are those images a demonstration of political virility -- or more akin to the sort of physical training one associates with a 90’s pop star? 2. Patriotism.  Two men are competing to become president.  But the real competition -- the one that’s central to every debate and speech -- is the fight for who loves America more.

How it’s displayed? Patriotism flows largely through a single accessory: the flag pin. Since the 1960’s, it’s become customary for candidates to wear a flag pin, lest anyone question the candidate’s love of country (as Obama was questioned during a 2008 debate, due to his inconsistency with the pin).  And, as Time so eloquently put it, “Short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism.”  (Big and glittery, Sarah Palin’s flag pin at the 2008 vice presidential debate seems to be not only a testament to her patriotism, but also an extension of her persona.)  In this year’s first presidential debate, Romney’s pin was twice as large as Obama’s, for which he received some criticism that it was “too large.”  But can a flag pin really ever be too large?  Indeed, it cannot.  God bless America. 3. Relatability (or being “of the people”).  Real men get dirty.  Real men understand the value of physical labor.  Real men own power tools.  Admittedly, it’s unlikely our presidential candidates so much as own a screwdriver, let alone a circular saw, but we like to think they’d know what to do with it if the situation presented itself.  Our candidates must visually communicate that they’re not only real men, but “everymen.” How it’s displayed? The rolling of sleeves is a metaphor for preparing for hard work -- so what better way to signal to constituents that you’re up for the challenge of repairing America to its rightful glory (see: “#2. Patriotism” above) than by literally rolling up your sleeves? On the campaign trail, Obama consistently wears his “electable” suit, but often takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves, sending a message of both polish and hard work.  Attempting to out-perform his rival in his “of the people” status and simultaneously detract from his personal wealth, Romney ditches the suit and tie, rolls his sleeves, and has been known to wear jeans (in fact, he wears them so much, there’s an entire Tumblr page dedicated to Mitt Romney’s jeans).  These candidates are clearly men who understand the working class -- or at least they play one on TV.

4. (Bi)Partisanship: How red (or blue) is your blood?  In addition to God and country, candidates must also demonstrate their loyalty to their respective parties -- while still communicating that they’re able and willing to work across the aisle. How it’s displayed?  Ever since Tim Russert popularized the division of Republicans and Democrats via “red states” and “blue states” in the 2000 election, the color of a candidate’s tie matters more than ever. These colors divide us into political “teams” and indicate the side we’re playing for (a sporting rivalry complete with mascots, and sometimes, cheerleaders). In the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate, the candidates (and Michelle Obama) stayed true to their team colors. (Ann Romney opted for white. A symbol of neutrality? Purity?  Your call...)  But during the second presidential debate, the candidates switched teams -- or at least neckwear -- in an attempt to demonstrate that they can relate to the other party.  Meanwhile, their wives both turned up in hot pink and Obama’s been sporting a pink bracelet to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- a not-so-subtle visual attempt to appeal to Team Women.

Chances are, you’re not running for anything this term.  But that doesn’t mean your appearance doesn’t affect politics.  Here are a few items you can slip into and use to shake up the vote (or at least inspire some interesting conversations):

Less concerned with partisan politics and just want people to get out and vote?  Sport a “vote” bracelet in the coming weeks as a gentle reminder of our civic duty -- or opt for something less subtle, like this Motel Rocks body-conscious dress in the Rock the Vote print. It may not be particularly “electable,” but it’s likely to drive some people wild -- and possibly even to the polls.