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The evolution of the political beer test

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“If I were to describe for you what an extraordinary effect his words have always had on me (I can feel it this moment even as I’m speaking), you might actually suspect that I’m drunk!” — Alcibiades’s speech from Plato’s “Symposium”

Lately I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Perhaps you’ve noticed it too.

When it comes to political candidates, I sometimes hear a variation on the following:

“Well, he/she seems like a nice person, it’d probably be fun to get a beer with him/her, but...”

At first blush, it’s not really that remarkable a sentiment. The alcoholic beverage, in this case beer, is shorthand for “a down-to-earth person to whom I can relate.”

But the implication here is that a down-to-earth person to whom we can relate is, by virtue of that character, perhaps not the best person to represent our interests in public office.

We want a representative who has some credentials, a solid track record, some experience and wherewithal, someone who is, in other words, perhaps too accomplished and too busy to grab a casual beer at a moment’s notice.

It’s a curious turn of phrase when one begins to consider that George W. Bush in the early years of his presidency was characterized by just this kind of personality test.

In fact, in 2004 some enterprising research firm even tested Bush’s likability against then-presidential candidate John Kerry by this very metric, asking undecided voters with whom they’d rather have a beer: Bush or Kerry. All this despite the fact that Bush, as a recovering alcoholic, does not drink beer.

Still, 57.3 percent of voters chose Bush over Kerry, a preference that was cited as a watershed moment for the politics of personality.

I would submit that, in the ensuing years, as many of the former president’s policies lost popularity and may have even, according to some, caused significant backlash against the Republican party, the “beer test,” as we might call it, lost a fair amount of luster.

And so now we have our current calculus: drinking buddy or political representative. And neither two should meet.

That’s kind of a shame when one looks at the history of political discourse, which can trace some of its most distinguished roots back to the ancient Greeks and their famous symposiums, where, among other debauchery, wine was consumed and philosophy and politics were discussed.

This is not to say that the consumption of alcoholic beverages is integral to the discussion of politics or that a political candidate’s approachability is integral to his or her political acumen or success, but the two need not be exclusive.

To be a successful political candidate, in my observation, one needs to have elements of both, and not necessarily in equal measure. We are willing to accept many faults if a sufficient number of virtues are present. I tend to think that when it comes to political representatives, however, we would want a little more virtue, a little less fault.

The original beer test, the Bush vs. Kerry beer test, therefore, is a fallacy. While that may depend somewhat on your opinion of the job performance of the parties involved, I think we can all agree that it’s not a very scientific indicator of whether a candidate is suitable or unsuitable for office.

The latest iteration of the beer test, the “he/she’d be fun to get a beer with” beer test, does, however, tell us something interesting about ourselves: We are more comfortable with the idea of outsourcing our political discourse to someone with the expertise to handle it than we are with giving it to someone like us. But perhaps it has always been thus.

Phew, after all that, I’m ready for a drink!

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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