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Colgate professor evaluates debate performances

By Barbara Brooks on October 4, 2012

Psychology professor Carrie Keating studies charisma, physical leadership qualities, and the facial features that suggest power as well as compassion. Last night, she watched the first of four presidential campaign debates for clues to how the candidates are being perceived by voters in the home stretch.

“My premise is that there is no substance without style,” Keating said, “so whether you watched the debate with the sound on or muted, there was little doubt that the most powerful man on the stage was Governor Romney.

“He gestured confidently and energetically, he smiled a lot and appeared eager to address questions, and he seemed not at all intimidated to share the stage with the U.S. President.”

Keating said, too, that Romney’s paralanguage — everything about his language but the words themselves — also conveyed strength. “He spoke loud and fast, a style that has the effect of not only making the speaker seem enthusiastic about his ideas but also highly knowledgeable about them.”

As she predicted, his practice during the primary season was no doubt very helpful.

In contrast, she said, although President Obama’s body language typically projects dominance, and was a likely factor in his 2008 win, his performance last night fell flat.

“Few peaks or valleys of emotion marked his demeanor. He seldom smiled and maintained a slightly negative expression on his face. His nonverbal gestures seemed habitual rather than felt,” Keating said.

“One of the camera angles frequently captured the President nodding as his opponent spoke, making it almost look like he was agreeing with Romney’s criticisms. And twice he apologized to the moderator for overrunning his response time limits, making him seem perhaps too accommodating.”

With three debates remaining, Keating will stay tuned to see how the performances evolve.

“We ask superhuman things from these all-too-human leaders, of course. We ask them to be inspiring visionaries, talented managers, and, whether we know it or not, great actors.”


  • Phillip Richards said:

    I am disturbed by the underlying assumptions about the nature of charisma described in this account of the phenomenon by Professor Keating. On other scholarly and intellectual descriptions, charisma describes an intellectual’s contact with those core “sacred” or “numinous” values that ground a civilization’s central traditions. These traditions which — at least in the university– are embodied in academic disciplines are not only abstract structures of ideas, intellectual methods, generic questions, and debates. These traditions undergird the learned professions such as law, medicine, and many of the fields in which Ph.Ds. are given. An attenuated variant of their charisma exists in other social sites. Figures such as judges (especially in the Supreme Court), high level politicians such as senators (and hopefully presidents), and highly trained medical specialists gain their authority and status in society through, among other things, contact with bodies of knowledge implicit in law, politics (even if they don’t have legal degrees), or the scientific training and intellectual rigor carried out in refined specialties in medical practice (neurosurgery, psycho-analysis etc.). An authentic civility requires that we understand and evaluate politicians at least implicitly by their contact with both an intellectual and spiritual immersion in those central values on which the democratic order rests in the American polity. This may be a form of originalism but it is a capacious and tolerant one.

    This understanding of a cultivated charisma has been at the core of many critiques of American society, culture, and politics. Many observers have throughout history criticized American politics in particular for its lack of serious contact with not only political and also, broadly speaking, cultural traditions. Many of the Founding Fathers, indeed the intellectual elite from which they sprang in the late eighteenth century, were deeply afraid of the democratizing impulses of the Great Awakening and the Revolution — events in which the forms of “charismatic” self presentation described by Professor Keating: such as body language, speech patterns, and other forms of physical presence (one thinks here of the iconic representations of the ex-actor George Whitefield preaching to huge crowds in the fields) threatened to dominate political discourse. Such fears ought to alert us to the political implications of this kind of rhetorical self presentation in other contexts. It is important to note that this form of charisma in populist hands has also dominated such of the most roguish, anti-intellectual, demagogic, racially paranoid and xenophobic elements in American politics.

    This charismatic discourse of physical, self-presentation has rarely existed in a political vacuum. And it is extremely dangerous to speak of it as if it did. The verbal and physical swagger of this charisma has in the twentieth century persisted in the intimidating tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Bilbo, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond (in his earlier incarnations), and the racially encoded humor of George Romney who remarks to a select audience that he wishes that he were a Latino.

    One suspects that the power of this charismatic discourse — which Professor Keating rightly denominates as pervasive at this moment– resides in serious failures of American education. A number of commentators such as Henry Giroux in particular point to the “dumbing down” of American education that fails to teach or motivate serious analytic or synthetic thought. When the charisma of self presentation is offered to us — in the service of political oversimplifications — by an Ivy League-educated political candidates, we are seeing a profound form of cynicism: the contempt of the elite for badly educated masses or the ironic jokes conveying hidden messages to a wealthy in-crowd. In either case, we are now witnessing such an elite, addressing an American audience it scorns.

    Phillip Richards
    Department of English

  • JF said:

    This assessment is spot on. I expect that the next “performance” will have significant differences to discuss.

  • Cris Johnson '70 said:

    Professor Keating is quite right.

    With the sound muted, Romney was the clear winner.

    One hopes, however, that most voters actually do listen to the message rather than the massage.

    I’m pleased that Colgate is engaged in examining this critical election cycle in American history.

    I would very much like to have read Political Science Professor Tim Byrnes’ take on the actual discussion. How did it stack up against the “Byrnes Bumper Sticker Test?”