Critical Essay #4: Could Lincoln win an election today?

Abraham_Lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

Could Lincoln be elected to the office of President in the world of today? A world with 24-hour news coverage. A world of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. A world that often times focuses more on a politician’s image, than their actual message. Could Lincoln, hailed by a consensus of historians as one of the nation’s greatest Presidents, actually survive as a candidate in this world? It could be fairly argued that the answer to this question is a flat out no. Why is this the case? Because despite the seemingly timeless and universal greatness of this man, what we emphasize of value in today’s society via media coverage of candidates is simply too shallow, too surface level a game of public image for a man as deep and complex as Abraham Lincoln to survive as a contender for the Oval Office. By examining the factors of attractiveness and electability, stigmatization of mental illness in politics, and the importance Americans hold a candidate’s educational background and religious beliefs, it becomes evident that Lincoln would face a struggle in his path to the Presidency. 

Studies show that in the eyes of voters today attractiveness translates to electability. In a study published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosciencejournal, researchers using MRI imaging technology found a correlation between emotion and attractiveness when participants were shown pictures of candidates. Negative emotion was associated with uglier candidates who had lost past races, and likewise positive with more attractive candidates who won (Breyer). Psychologist attribute this to the “halo effect”, the phenomenon where people associate positive qualities with people who are better looking. It is theorized that this goes back to our primal instincts of associating attractiveness with healthiness, and thus a healthier person is fit to be a better leader (White, Kenrick). The fact all candidates are bombarded in constant media attention of various forms, from television to print, and now social media simply amplifies this effect. Their faces are literally everywhere. And appearance is constantly critiqued on both a conscious and subconscious level by media consumers.

Unfortunately, to Lincoln’s disadvantage he was not an attractive man. Joshua Speed, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln described him as follows in his book Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln: Mr. Lincoln’s person was ungainly. He was six feet four inches in height; a little stooped in the shoulders; his legs and arms were long; his feet and hands large; his forehead was high. His head was over the average size. His eyes were gray. His face and forehead were wrinkled even in his youth…” (Abraham Lincoln as a Speaker). Based on this description, Lincoln would be a tough candidate to sell to a national television audience. Though this may not be entirely debilitating, it would serve as a major weakness if he were to hypothetically face more “camera-friendly” opponents. A historical precedent for such a situation would be the Nixon-Kennedy Debate.

Historians widely attribute public opinion of Kennedy’s success in the debates, and overall success in the 1960 election, due to the fact that he was the more young, healthy, and attractive of the two candidates and catered well to the new medium of television (The Kennedy-Nixon Debates). Though Nixon later did become President, his loss in the election is greatly attributed to the shortfalls of his public image against that of Kennedy. In hypothetical terms, the question arises would Lincoln even make it past the primaries if he were positioned next to an attractive and young candidate like Marco Rubio today? According to scientific studies and historical precedent, it wouldn’t seem likely.

Another vulnerability of Lincoln in a modern election would be the likelihood of his personal demons coming to light. It is well known that Lincoln suffered from what was then called “melancholy” and what would now be referred to as clinical depression. Henry Whitney a colleague of Lincoln said about his depression, No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy” (Shenk). In today’s climate of relentless media scrutiny of candidates’ personal lives Lincoln would have a hard time covering up such a condition. In a 2004 study, more than 40% of those polled agreed with the notion that anyone with a history of mental problems should be excluded from public office (Ver Duin,D’Arlene, Paul Ruiggiere, and James Glass ).

It is therefore fair to speculate that if such a condition was discovered by the media or any political opponents of Lincoln, they would pounce and try to paint it as character flaw. Such was the case with Thomas Eagleton who briefly ran as the Vice Presidential candidate to Democratic Candidate for President, George McGovern in 1972. Upon the public discovering he underwent electric shock therapy to treat his serious struggle with depression, Eagleton was pressured to leave the race only 18 days after entering it due to such a stigma surrounding the condition (Warren). Though that was over 40 years ago, similar stigmatization of mental illness in politics has been the center of media coverage recently when Former Congressmen Jesse Jackson Jr. sought treatment for bipolar II disorder at the Mayo Clinic(Camia). For a man like Lincoln, who his law partner William Herndon said of him ,His melancholy dripped from him as he walked” (Shenk) struggling with depression in the media spotlight would be tough.

Likewise, Lincoln’s own educational background is something that would also likely come under fire as a candidate for office. Lincoln, simply put, never went to college. Though this certainly does not take away from his brilliance as an individual it once again would place him at a disadvantage to other candidates who were college educated from an image standpoint. A Gallup Poll showed that 7-in-10 American adults view a college education as very important (Newport, Frank, and Brandon Busteed). Nearly all Presidents of the 20th century, with exception to Harry Truman, and all Presidents so far in the 21st Century have at least achieved an undergraduate degree (Edwards-Levy). In fact, every President since 1988 holds at least one degree from an Ivy League School (Edwards-Levy). Though the context of his educational upbringing (or lack thereof) are difficult to compare with circumstances of modern times, even a contemporary Lincoln who let’s just say only achieved a high school diploma, would once again face societal stigma. He would likely be the black sheep of a Presidential race, and if he were to get elected, would be the first President since Harry Truman not to hold a college degree.

Lastly, one of the largest hurdles Lincoln would face as a modern Presidential candidate is his failure to officially identify with a religion. Though he attended Protestant Christian church services with his family, it is reported that Lincoln did not officially belong to any church (Foner). In fact, there is wide speculation amongst historians, and even commentary on record that would suggest Lincoln was perhaps agnostic or even an atheist. Lincoln has been quoted saying “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession” and also “it will not do to investigate the subject of Religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to infidelity” (Positive Atheism’s Big List of Quotations by and about Abraham Lincoln).. The context of these quotes and whether Lincoln actually meant them or not is up for debate. However, imagine these quotes in the modern era being used as a sound bite in a political attack ad or going viral on social media. The American Religious Identification Survey conducted in 2008 reported that 76% of American adults identify themselves as Christians (Kosmin, Barry A., and Ariela Keysar). A separate study by the Pew Research Center showed that 53% of Americans would not vote for an atheist (Ashtari). If Lincoln was actually an atheist is beyond the point. In an election today, his opposition would most likely attempt to paint him as one using his own words, and based on the religious demographics of the nation and how the populous holds a candidate’s religious beliefs in high regard, such a negative campaign would have the potential to be extremely damaging.

In examining Lincoln objectively, through the lens of how politician’s public images are portrayed by the media in the present, it appears unlikely that such a man would be elected as President in modern times. Imagine the struggles an ugly, uneducated, depressed, alleged atheist candidate would face in the campaign culture of today. A harsh evaluation yes, but that’s what Lincoln’s opposition would likely label him as. Image is everything in today’s politics, and sadly the image of such a man does not coincide with what we as a media-driven society value today. Lincoln is without a doubt great, but it can be soundly argued that his ability to survive as a candidate in contemporary times would be little to none.

 Works Cited

“Abraham Lincoln as a Speaker.” Abraham Lincoln Online. Abraham Lincoln Online, n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Ashtari, Shadee. “Americans Would Rather Vote For A Philandering, Pot-Smoking President Than An Atheist One.”Huffington Post. TheHuffngtonPost.com, Inc., 19 May 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Breyer, Jeanna. “Studies Find a Candidate’s Looks Matter.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (n.d.): n. pag. Live Science. 30 Oct. 2008. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Camia, Catalina. “Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Treated for Bipolar Disorder.” USA Today. USA Today, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Edwards-Levy, Ariel. “Most Americans Don’t Care If Their President Went To An Ivy League College.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com ,Inc., 22 May 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.

“The Kennedy-Nixon Debates.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2014.

Kosmin, Barry A., and Ariela Keysar. American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008. Rep. Hartford: Trinity College, 2009. Print.

Newport, Frank, and Brandon Busteed. “Americans Still See College Education as Very Important.” Gallup.Com. Gallup, Inc., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2014.

“Positive Atheism’s Big List of Quotations by and about Abraham Lincoln.” Positive Atheism. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Shenk, Joshua W. “Lincoln’s Great Depression.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 1 Oct. 2005. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Ver Duin, D’Arlene, Paul Ruggiere, and James Glass. Tarrant County Mental Health Attitudes Survey 2004. Rep. Forth Worth: Mental Health Collaboration of Tarrant County, 2004. Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County. Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Warren, James. “Hope for Jesse Jackson Jr.: Bouncing Back From Depression.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company LLC, 19 Aug. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

White, Andrew Edward, and Douglas T. Kenrick. “Why Attractive Candidates Win.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2014.