Before last night’s presidential debate, the pundits were saying that Obama had to be less “professorial” and “nuanced” than in his prior debates. And the post-mortems today seem to indicate that he was successful on this count. Call it self-serving, but I dislike the implication that being professorial should be regarded as disabling for a presidential candidate. To be sure, this view has deep roots in our political culture. For instance, in lieu of watching the debate last night, I attended the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of a 1945 play, State of the Union, in which a neophyte presidential candidate is repeatedly urged by his handlers to avoid specifics and dumb down the language in his campaign speeches. I take it that this view reflects, at least in part, an assumption that uninformed voters want to be reassured that the world is a simple place; that public policy questions have clear, easily comprehensible right answers; and that their own intuitive, emotion-driven responses are as sound a basis for making policy judgments as expertise and rigorous analysis. The assumption may or may not be true–perhaps uninformed voters would rather be educated than pandered to–but indulging the assumption ultimately does a disservice to the quality of our political culture and democratic processes.
Now, don’t get me wrong–I recognize that there is sometimes real wisdom in emotional responses. In fact, many of us nuanced, professorial types have taken a great interest in recent years in the usefulness of emotion as a basis for decisionmaking. (Some of the most interesting research on this topic is summarized in Malcolm Gladwell’s engaging 2005 best-seller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.) But emotions are most reliable when they are disciplined by long experience. (This is why I find McCain an appealing candidate when it comes to national security issues.) Emotional responses must also be held up for critical examination to ensure that they are not driven by unconscious biases, such as racial biases. This is where the nuance people are so helpful, drawing our attention to the subtle, but sometimes crucially important, facts that our biases may cause us to overlook. So, yes, good instincts shaped by long experience are something we should look for in a presidential candidate. But so is a real willingness to recognize and engage with nuance. If this is what being “professorial” means, I would regard the trait as a positive, not a negative, for a presidential candidate.