The most dangerous bias is the one we don’t admit we have.  I’m actually amazed that, in the statistics that are cited in Jacob Weisberg’s Slate article about racism as Obama’s major downfall as a presidential candidate, so many people actually admitted that race is a factor in their voting trends.  In my experience with intergroup relations, it’s highly unlikely that anybody will admit to be swayed one way or another about an individual due to perceived social identities, most importantly race and gender.  I think that Weisberg’s assertion that the number of people who are turned off to Obama due to his race is actually higher than the poll counts is probably depressingly accurate.

It was obvious from the start that identity politics would be enormously important in this election, but what bothers me more than the underlying racism behind the GOP’s remarkably solid poll numbers in spite of their clear absolute disadvantage is the fact that there are more things about Obama than just his race that bugs people.  The liberal press has obviously made much of the fact that there are, somewhere, people who seem to believe that Obama is a Muslim.  And those people are bothered by that.  Ageism is a huge factor in this election — Democrats complain about McCain’s obvious age, and Republicans about Obama’s inexperience.

The most peculiar kind of discrimination, though, and perhaps the most dangerous, in my opinion, is the fact that intelligence and social grace seems to be an anathema to the American public.  Why would we choose a presidential candidate who is average, when clearly an individual who is above average is more qualified to make decisions about where our country should be headed?  Much is always made every election year about a candidate’s ability to “connect” to the common person, but “connecting” to Middle America isn’t exactly the same as being Middle America.

I’m a remarkably anti-populist socialist, and that’s probably because as much as I like people, I don’t think most people are any good at making decisions that affect everybody.  Actually, I think most people are pretty ill-equipped to make decisions for themselves.  I, for example, don’t even have a bachelor’s yet, and certainly shouldn’t be trusted with any more than $1000 at a time.  So I’d like to elect a Presidential candidate who is, well, not one of “us.”  (Whoever “us” is, anyway.)

Electoral politics is weird like that.  The average American seems a little skittish about wealth (probably for good reason) and education (for reasons I can’t quite fathom).  We’re more than willing to buy into the mythologies that our political parties build up around our elected officials about their roots as common people who’ve risen above their circumstances.  But as Weisberg notes in his piece for Slate, it’s exactly circumstances that are going to keep Obama in check this election season.

I’m pretty attached to our national mythology, too.  I’d really like to see a country where any individual can do or be whatever interests them the most.  It’s nice to know that people can pursue their passions.  The reality of the matter is, not very many people can.  It troubles me to think that we can’t come to terms with the fact our national mythology is just a mythology, and we have such a hard time accepting that the reason it’s still just out of reach is our inability to overcome our personal biases.  And it’s not just people commonly perceived to be unsophisticated, it’s big-city socialites and young academics, too.

Maybe it’s a bit extreme to say that what the United States needs is a little jolt out of our populist ways, but a reality check about who the “average American” really is would probably do us all a world of good.  I don’t know that I’d want to trust somebody who’s just average with the American Presidency.  I’d really like to see someone exceptional get elected.  But that’s just not the way our highly stratified society’s going to let it happen.

The first step is becoming more transparent about what our biases are.  Can we start having this conversation?  Can we stop being so afraid of naming the things that are holding us back, as a country and as a society?

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