When you think of a superhero, who do you think of? Superman? Wonder Woman? Captain Marvel? Did you ever notice that they look very much like we do? Indeed, almost every superhero does. Why is that? If you were making up fictional stories why not make the hero some kind of blue space-blob? Or some kind of creature we’ve never even thought of and can’t imagine? Yet, interestingly, even after over 200 years of science fiction and fantasy literature, nearly every single superhero looks remarkably like us. Other options certainly exist – indeed, there are countless strange creatures in science fiction, but they are all (or almost all) secondary characters at best. The heroes look like us. Why?
It seems that good storytellers understand that we need heroes that we can relate to. A blue space-blob is kind of cool, I guess, but what does it have to do with me? It is (way) too different from me to have any impact on my life. I can only “connect” to something or someone that I feel similar to.
Interestingly, this principle works in politics as well – perhaps we like thinking of our leaders as some kind of “heroes.” If a politician seems too “unlike” me, I am unlikely to support him or her.
Senator John Kerry learned this the hard way during his 2004 Presidential campaign against George W. Bush. An ad against him focused on him switching positions, using video of him windsurfing in different directions. Aside from the wish-washiness the ad focused on, the actual images themselves were enormously important – real Americans play football. Rich kids go windsurfing. Kerry is not like common people. He is too different from me to relate to. His campaign never recovered.
When Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah showed off his Chinese language skills in the Republican Presidential debates of 2012, he likely thought it would impress people – but instead it distanced them. I want someone like me making the decisions – and this guy clearly isn’t like most Americans who can’t even speak Spanish, let alone Chinese. I can’t relate to this guy, and his campaign went nowhere.
Perhaps the most famous political example of this “I connect to people like me” idea goes back to the US Presidential campaign of 1828. Candidate Andrew Jackson emphasized his humble beginnings and lack of education to triumph over the unpopular aristocrat incumbent President, John Quincy Adams. Jackson became the paradigm of the “Common Man” politician – a successful image ever since.
This is why Eva “Evita” Peron of Argentina famously told her aristocratic husband to take off his jacket and tie before addressing the crowd of workers below: “None of them are wearing jackets” she said, “so you shouldn’t either.”
The point is that we connect to people like us. To inspire me, to motivate me to support and admire someone, he or she cannot be too far “above” me or different from me. That would be like a blue-space blob that has nothing to do with me, or a windsurfing Chinese-speaking aristocrat. I can’t relate. I like people like me.
This is likely what Finland’s youngest-ever Prime Minister, 36-year-old Sanna Marin was thinking when she proudly continued “clubbing” after she became PM in 2019. Called the “coolest prime minister in the world” by German news outlet Bild, it was no surprise when she was recently caught on video dancing, singing and partying with local celebrities and pop stars. Her image all along has been young, hip, modern and relatable. No wonder she was clearly surprised at the negative criticism she received for the recent videos and other photos from her party life. What’s the big deal? she and her supporters responded – politicians are people too and everyone needs to unwind.
When this issue – of her being a party girl and not seeming Prime Ministerial – came up, defenders pointed out the obvious sexism in the charges: Male politicians are clearly held to a different standard and female politicians around the world still seem to be judged differently. Furthermore, aside from sexism, Prime Minister Marin has a point – being “like everyone else” is usually an advantage in politics, as we saw above: The person is relatable. He or she lives like we live and thinks like we think. If only more politicians would be “normal”, the world would be a better place!
While the “Common (Wo)Man” Persona is definitely helpful in some situations, supporters are concerned that this time around it may have the opposite effect – and the next election in Finland must occur by April 2023. The point is that “Common Man” motif is not always an advantage. If the leader is no different than me, no “better” than me, why should I look up to or support him at all? If I have no idea how to help the Ukraine, lower inflation, stop Chinese aggression and heal the polarization of the USA, why would I support someone who is seemingly as clueless as I am?
Research by Professors Julian Aicholzer and Johanna Willman of the University of Vienna, Austria, has supported this idea. Their study, “Desired personality traits in politicians: Similar to me but more of a leader” (published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 88, October 2020) established that voters are looking for two factors in choosing leaders. On the one hand, they want people similar to themselves. Yet, on the other hand:
“voters expect politicians to be more capable or “better” than themselves on traits associated with leadership …”
This study and others like it underscore the idea that while we desire leaders we can relate to, we also desire leaders who can and will lead us.
What changed from her election in 2019 and muted responses to her partying to the more serious critique in 2022? My theory is that in times of peace and prosperity, political decision-making isn’t too difficult and there really isn’t much “leadership” required. This may explain Bill Clinton’s popularity in the 1990s. A perennial liar with loose morals and a sordid past, to say the least, few politicians have been as “common” as he was, yet in the 1990s no one seemed to care. How hard was it to be President then, anyway? The economy was booming, the USSR had just collapsed, Russia was weak, China was poor and 9/11 hadn’t even been imagined yet. No one could stop the US. I could be President, the common man thought, quite correctly – anyone could.
Things have changed. This isn’t the 1990s. The world we live in is suddenly serious and the stakes are higher than they have been in many decades. In Europe, and certainly in Finland, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended politics completely. Finland and Sweden are scared – and quickly joined NATO, despite their steadfast refusal to do so since the organization’s founding in 1949. Tough times need tough leaders. Can a politician today still dance and sing?
Volodymyr Zelensky has proven himself enough of a leader to inspire a nation – and much of the Western world. He is said to have a touch of Churchill, who was far from “Common”. The people looked up to him, trusted him, and believed in him. Margaret Thatcher had this leadership quality. Reagan had it. Perhaps Sanna Marin has it as well, but her partying persona makes it harder for the rest of us to see her that way, and in today’s post-invasion world, her career may well be “Finn”ished, if you pardon the pun. While there is certainly some sexism in her low approval ratings, the main reason is fear: fear that a politician who is silly enough to be caught drinking, dancing and singing on video when the Russians are openly threatening further attacks simply doesn’t have what it takes.
As Israelis slowly but surely choose who will lead us, it is good to remember that in order to inspire trust, there is a delicate balance to achieve. The “leader” must be similar enough to me to relate to, but different enough from me that I will be willing to “follow” their lead. Too similar and I have no reason to follow them. Not similar enough and I don’t want to follow them.
Which Israeli leader is relatable enough yet has that “leadership” magic? We will soon find out.
The writer is the author of Why Be Jewish? and the cofounder of Mosaica Press.