It was pushed by Madison Avenue and preached by self-help gurus. Then it entered politics.
By Claire Bond Potter
If the supposedly unlikable Hillary Clinton didn’t break the highest, hardest glass ceiling in 2016, she made enough cracks in it to encourage others to try again: Six women are competing for the Democratic nomination today. But guess what? We don’t seem to like them either.
As Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and others jumped into the race, each seemed to affirm the new power of women in 2019, a power that was born when President Trump was sworn into office, exploded during #MeToo and came into its own during the 2018 midterms.
But no female candidate has yet led the polls. The men keep joining — Michael Bennet this week, Joe Biden the last — and keep garnering glowing press coverage. Although Mr. Biden fumbled two previous presidential bids, we are told he has “crossover appeal”; Bernie Sanders has been admired by this newspaper as “immune to intimidation”; and Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay man nominated for president, is “very authentic.” By contrast Ms. Harris is “hard to define”; Ms. Klobuchar is “mean”; and Ms. Warren is a “wonky professor” who — you guessed it — is “not likable enough.” Seeing comments like this, Mrs. Clinton said wryly in January, “really takes me back.”
Likability: It is nebulous, arbitrary and meaningless, yet inescapable — and female politicians seem to be particularly burdened with it even when they win and especially when they run for president.
The idea that we should like our politicians predates women’s suffrage, let alone women in politics. Pushed by Madison Avenue and preached by self-help gurus, likability is a standard that history shows us was created and sold by men. The bad news is that means it’s a tricky fit for women. The good news is that what was invented once can be reinvented.
Likability seems to have emerged as an important personality trait in the late 19th century, when it became closely associated with male business success. Before this, people liked or disliked one another, of course, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War, when middle-class men began to see virtue and character as essential to personal advancement, that success in business required projecting likability.An independent press needs your supportDiscover the impact of our journalism with unlimited access to The Times
Businessmen joined service associations like the Knights of Columbus (founded in 1882) and Rotary International (1905), and male friendship — men being liked, and liking other men — became a key element for attaining civic leadership. Popular authors like Horatio Alger promoted “likability” as a way of making one’s virtue visible, and thus paving the road to prosperity. The shoeshine boy Ragged Dick, the hero of one Alger novel, does good deeds that cause strangers to warm to him and give him a leg up. Describing Dick as “frank and straightforward, manly and self-reliant,” Alger hoped his readers would “like him as I do.”
By the 20th century, the advertising and public relations experts of Madison Avenue specialized in making products likable too, by associating them with figures — the actor Robert Montgomery or the aviator Amelia Earhart, for instance — they believed consumers already had an attachment to. The point was to generate a sense of connection that felt “real,” even if the consumer might suspect that the feeling of liking the product had been created by a well-orchestrated jingle, billboard or print ad.
Americans were also taught that being likable was a quality that could be cultivated as a means to get ahead. In 1936, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” warned that those who tried too hard to be liked would fail: Theodore Roosevelt’s naturally friendly greetings to everyone he passed, regardless of status, Carnegie noted, had made it impossible not to like him, but Henrietta G., now the “best liked” counselor at her office, had been isolated until she learned to stop bragging. (Though looking back, we have to wonder: Would Henry G. have needed to hide his accomplishments?)
Television heightened the need to project likability, to sell candidates to voters, as the journalist Joe McGinniss wrote, “like toothpaste.” In “The Selling of the President 1968,” McGinniss chronicled how Richard Nixon, suffering from a likability deficit, hired a young media consultant named Roger Ailes, who created televised “conversations” with ordinary voters as visual proof that Nixon liked them and they liked him. In the next decades, as a compelling television presence became critical to likability, Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken parlayed successful entertainment careers into elected office.
By the time Hillary Clinton opened her 2008 campaign for president, Bill Clinton had answered questions about “boxers or briefs” while grinning on MTV; the “folksy Texas rogue” George W. Bush had defeated an “insincere brown-noser,” Al Gore; and the importance of being likable in politics seemed so entrenched that Mrs. Clinton kicked things off with a “likability tour.”
But as Dale Carnegie might have told her, if there is anything worse than being unlikable, it is wanting too badly to be liked. Even as her young Senate colleague and rival for the nomination, Barack Obama, was dazzling crowds, Mrs. Clinton struggled to shed a reputation as untrustworthy and remote, perhaps not coincidentally, and couldn’t stop herself from voicing her own ambivalence about likability as a qualification for office. “I think it’s good to have a likable president,” she said. “But if I remember right, many people said they wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush. Maybe they should’ve left it at that.”
By then, yet another wave of marketing authorities were preaching about the importance of likability to leadership — Tim Sanders’s “Likability Factor,” published in 2005, promised that by accentuating the best aspects of their personalities executives could learn to be effective leaders, while in 2012 Rohit Bhargava’s “Likeonomics” revealed that likability was critical to establishing an emotional connection to others. Whether voters went to the polls at all, he wrote,“has everything to do with how likable a candidate is.” The likability juggernaut, in politics and in the larger culture, seemed unstoppable.
That Mrs. Clinton lost the nomination in 2008, to a political virtuoso but still a virtual novice, seemed for some illustrative of the troubled relationship between gender and likability in politics. But then she lost in 2016. That voters could see Donald Trump’s rambling and bullying as authenticity seemed proof for many that the likability game was permanently rigged in favor of men.
And in many ways it is.
Likability is associated with an emotional connection between candidate and voter that makes a politician worthy of trust. And yet because that connection is forged almost exclusively through the conduit of mass media, it can never be really about the candidate but only voters’ fantasies about how a politician they can never know ought to be. That women are disadvantaged by a dynamic that emphasizes fantasies over real achievements should perhaps come as no surprise: Popular fantasies about women, sadly, still don’t tend to feature intelligence, expertise and toughness at the negotiating table.
Yet if the history of likability in America tells us how important it has become, particularly to politics, it also teaches us there is nothing immutable about a concept that was created and refined by men from Horatio Alger to Dale Carnegie to Roger Ailes. Women haven’t benefited much from the likability standard as it stands. But to recognize that it’s an invention is to dream that they could.
What would it mean if we could reinvent what it is that makes a candidate “likable”? What if women no longer tried to fit a standard that was never meant for them and instead, we focused on redefining what likability might look like: not someone you want to get a beer with, but, say, someone you can trust to do the work?
The overwhelming success of female candidates in the 2018 midterms is a sign that this might already be happening. It was, for many people, a turn to a new kind of member of Congress — female, of color — who could be trusted in the face of a White House that can’t seem to get its facts straight and a president who had proclaimed Washington to be a swamp only to put his boots on and wade right in. If Americans can learn to like and trust women in Congress in record numbers, maybe they can learn to trust women as presidential candidates too — and maybe even like them.