This year there’s a strong undercurrent of what the candidates for President and Vice President represent in terms of demographics – their race, religion, age, and gender have all been “issues” in and of themselves. It is not the first or last time aspects of a leader’s social identity will be considered as an aspect of whether or not they can and should be a leader. This aspect of the campaigns takes fear to another level – not only are the candidates’ ideas to be feared – they are to be feared because of what they represent.

On a recent trip, I noticed something written on one of the chairs at the airport gate – “Keep the White House White.”  As I was searching the Internet for information about the candidates, I found out there is a pornographic film being made with a Palin look alike as a statement against her. Neither of the political parties likely has anything to do with these and other similar actions, but they represent the depth of what has been triggered, our collective assumptions about and fear of social identity groups.  The whole idea and history of pornography as an expression of political beliefs will have to wait for its own blog posting – goodness knows there is a lot to say about that alone.

Social identity – for example race, gender, religion, class, age – is connected with our ideas about leadership. Like it or not we all make quick judgments about people and situations based on social identity (ours and that of those around us). The social identity of the candidates is being used and considered in two ways. The first way social identity is used is to create an image of a candidate that either matches with or is disconnected from our sense of what a leader is and should be. Can a black person lead the country? Can a woman lead the country? Should the President be from the elite or from the working class? How old is too old to be President? What does a leader look like? Who can accurately and effectively represent and act in the best interest of this diverse country? Chances are we all have an idea about what kind of person can and should be President. The other way social identity is used is to connect a candidate to us or differentiate them from us.  Are they “like me” or not? Will they be able to understand, represent, and act in the best interest of “my people?” None of the candidates are just like me – so I have to make some difficult choices about what matters more to me.

Most important is the candidates’ perspectives on domestic and international policies – but not many of us know the full extent of each of the candidates’ standings on numerous issues. It is difficult to get accurate information, especially in an environment where information is taken out of context and spun around to make a candidate look good or, well, not so good. Besides there are both the issues they have faced (what did they do?) and those they will face (what would they do if…?). So, we learn what we can make an informed guess about the rest. None of the candidates have been President before – so, none of them have presidential experience. They each bring different skills, perspectives, and experiences with them. We have to decide who we trust to do the “right” thing based on who they are and what they have done in the past.

Naturally, this judgment call is partially based on our sense of the candidate – our impression of them as a person; their ability, experience, and character. Our impressions are partly influenced by our social identity and that of the candidate.  The extent to which we can recognize that influence (as individuals and as a nation) the more likely we will be to make an informed judgment and have a functional disagreement about things that matter in a manner than informs rather than infuriates. Whomever the next President is will not only inherit a nation in the midst of an economic crises, a war, and educational and health systems that are not performing as well as we’d like (among other serious challenges) – but the next President will inherit a nation divided by social identities that have been, in some ways, exacerbated by their campaigns. He will need to move away from differentiation towards integration in order to mobilize the nation’s resources effectively.

One of the most important tasks of the next President is to create a hopeful, engaged, and productive nation. Who can pull together the political parties as well as bridge the various social identity groups and create a shared direction that will result in a stronger nation ready to face the challenges and opportunities before us? That’s who will get my vote.

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