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Hillary Clinton has taught us that “likability” is a terrible way to choose presidents

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
#WithHer, whether she’s likable or not.
  • Marcie Bianco
By Marcie Bianco

Managing editor, the Clayman Institute at Stanford University

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“Likability” is a mishmash of recycled Victorian gender norms that keeps women out of power. In the realm of politics, it devastates. Just ask Hillary Clinton:

Is Hillary ‘Likable Enough’?

Hillary Clinton Has a Likability Problem

Is Hillary Clinton Likable Enough to Beat Donald Trump?

These eye-roll-inducing headlines account for just a smattering of the digital detritus that litters our daily news diet. Likability is an inherently subjective, often sexist metric for professional ability. And yet, Hillary’s “likability” has preoccupied not only the great minds of media but also the masterminds of the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, the goal of the 2016 DNC, according to a variety of media sources including the Wall Street Journal, was to “Make Hillary Likeable Again” [sic]. (Perhaps, in order to fully intimate the idiocy of Donald Trump, the misspelling is intentional?) Indeed, in a column for the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus writes that Hillary’s biggest challenge is “mak[ing] herself seem likable enough for Americans to want her in their living rooms.”

Yawn. How many ways can you peel a banana? Well, if the banana’s name is Hillary Clinton, an infinite number.

More importantly, given the history of the exclusion of women in the American workplace and in politics in particular, likability as a measure of a candidate’s aptitude for political leadership is fueled by sexism. This problem is compounded by the fact that because the archetype of “leader” is male, we can’t even imagine what a female president should look or sound like. Just as in the workplace, we need to ask whether it is rational, or even smart, to demand that level of identification with our political leaders.

We know that likability is defined differently for women and men. In a 2013 article Harvard Business Review, Marianne Cooper elaborates upon the negative correlation between success and charismatic women. All of which raises the question: When did likability become the go-to metric for professional proficiency?

“Likable people are more apt to be hired, get help at work, get useful information from others and have mistakes forgiven,” Sue Shellenbarger asserts in an article for the Wall Street Journal. Likable fools are also more likely to get hired over competent but unlikable people, according to a 2005 Harvard Business Review report by Harvard Business School professor Tiziana Casciaro and Duke University’s Miguel Sousa Lobo. “We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway,” Casciaro and Lobo noted. “By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer.”

This report sounds eerily like foreshadowing when applied to the current presidential election. To wit, within the realm of politics, 2012 research from the Barbara Lee Foundation found that people are more likely to vote for a male politician that they don’t like than a female politician they don’t like—that is, likability matters a lot for female politicians, but not so much for male politicians. More revealingly, such research shows that likability is a criteria ranked on par with “being qualified.”

This was never meant to be the case–at least not for politicians. America’s founding father du jour Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that “[t]he process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Most notably, he adds, “the little arts of popularity” might suffice for state level politics, but on the whole is not the preeminent “talent” required for establishing a candidate “in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.”

How times have changed.

Hillary is unlikable because she is too real, too “dirty,” has too much experience, and has been a politician for too long. She compromises! She makes deals! Worst of all: She wants to win! Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to capitalize on the lessons he learned from his days performing in the manly soap opera of the WWE: audiences love the villain. Unless that villain is a woman, of course.

The discourse of likability in American politics is predicated upon identity and, more precisely, identification. Americans think we need to identify with our politicians. We need to want to have a beer with them before we’ll give them our vote. This identification is part of the mythos of American individualism. It’s one thing to desire empathetic politicians who craft enabling, progressive policy that helps the country’s citizens. It’s another to use likability as a substitute for, and synonymous with, trust as well as proficiency.

There is a fundamental power differential in the relationship between citizen and politician in this representational democracy: Politicians, like bosses, are our representatives. They are not our friends. Yes, part of the role of the president is to be a symbol of America. But why can’t that symbol be that of the hard-working, capable woman, rather than a charismatic man?

And herein lies the rub: likability is the antithesis of power. Women are still not supposed to have both.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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