Though it's always uncomfortable to admit for anyone who considers themselves to be above being wooed by the song-and-dance of political media, watching these past three debates has made more even explicit the nagging realization of not being in complete control of emotional responses to political symbolism. The polarized color scheme is effective, sure. The repeated arguments and ideas that have become iconic inside jokes in just the past few weeks, yes. But most of all, for me, it was Mitt Romney's face.
It was a problem I'd noticed to a lesser extent in the other debates — when one would be talking, the camera angle would sometimes include his opponent staring attentively at him with that same inscrutable, beguiling smile. For me it's always the most uncomfortable part of the show, much worse than when they're trying to spam each other with contradictions to avoid looking weak — there's no real phrase that conveys the awkward childishness of what those two men had to do when they didn't have enough time to counter-argue some point of their opponent's that generally didn't amount to more than name calling — but their response couldn't amount to more than damage control, the desperate repeatings of "nope, not true." The knowledge that I'm witnessing rabble rousing tripe did not make those moments easier to endure out of sheer empathy for the candidates.
But if looking at Obama's face in idle response to a Romney rebuttal made me uncomfortable, Romney's face genuinely stressed me out. However much I want to objectify this process and break down this shameless cult-of-personality for the shill that it is, the faces brought out that primal response in me. And the networks know what's up — as if to escalate the personal drama of it, and also to deliberately torture me. The last debate had each candidate's head fixed to one half of the screen, so you could see every moment of their face in response to their opponent's words. It got to the point where I wanted one of those TV stands with the shutters because it got that stressful to look at either face for that long. Studies show that the brain is hypertuned to reading facial responses — much of that reading process is emotional, and so instinctive as to be impossible to control or contradict with any other part of your brain.
Realizing that this choice of camera work had involuntarily revealed an embarrassing political-emotional bias of mine, I sought to counteract it by trying to find more prominent conservatives who I liked and agreed with. And I quickly found David Frum — speech writer from the Bush Administration, admitted future Romney voter, and otherwise educated person who was politically conservative.
Here's Frum in a random dialogue:
"The biggest problem in the decline with religious affiliation is (important) not (for) what it means to the Republican Party but because of what it means for America. The loss of the experience of participating in an organized religious community — it's a terrible loss. That experience is so valuable that I would hope that even people who have doubts would say, 'I am going to participate in this community as a community,' because what you can get from that is so deeply meaningful. It strengthens your marriage, strengthens your family, it makes you more deeply involved in your community, it causes you to do more work for charity, it brings you a sense of humility and it's a constant reminder of the blessings and not the burdens in your life. So, it's a loss."
He goes on to strongly advocate for the depoliticization of religion in American politics. In a country where one's most automatic personal community often ends up being religious — as well as the constitutional dishonesty of relying on politicized cultural-religious zealots as a major voting base — I couldn't agree more. I heaved a sigh of relief, and looked forward to meeting a thinking conservative in the future, with the caustic ideas surrounding the imprint of Romney's unthinking smirk in my head fading comfortably away.
— Wiley Robinson is a senior in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at email@example.com.