Politics is just another beauty contest

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 11 March 2011

Those working in politics and the media often assume that elections are lost or won on the big issues that so excite them. In reality, very few voters actually care about the intricate details of the National Broadband Network, Australia’s role in the G20, or the next round of the Doha talks. Sometimes even a politician’s smile is more important than his or her policies.

Voters bias towards more beautiful politicians has long been confirmed in surveys. Where voters are uninformed about politicians’ plans and beliefs, they instinctively go by their appearance. But new research from Scandinavia reveals that good looks are quite unevenly distributed in this beauty contest.

In their discussion paper The Right Look: Conservative Politicians Look Better and Their Voters Reward It, economists Niclas Berggren, Henrik Jordahl, and Panu Poutvaara analysed the attractiveness of more than 1,300 Finnish politicians by asking non-Finns to rate their facial appearance.

Given that most people outside Finland would not recognise the Finnish president, let alone obscure politicians from Jämsänkoski and Lappeenranta, it is safe to assume that there was no political bias involved.

The results were surprising. Right-wingers were on average found to be more attractive and more competent than left-wingers, especially in local government. Perhaps even more interestingly, right-wing voters also cared more about good looks than left-wingers. The ‘beauty premium’ in electoral contests was bigger on the right than on the left.

As the authors of the study suggest, this could lead clever right-wingers to go for a dual strategy. While investing in a new pair of glasses and a stylish haircut, they could be running their campaigns on a more left-wing platform. They could harvest the beauty-conscious right-wing voters while simultaneously reaching deep into the left-wing spectrum with their policies. Ironically, right-wing beauty would then generate left-wing outcomes.

The study also speculates whether the increasing role of television in elections tends to favour right-wing candidates. But they may be at an advantage anyway. Left-wing election strategists, unaware of the importance of appearance, still try to woo the electorate with boring policy details when all that voters really care about are lipstick colours and beard fashions.

Without a doubt, the Scandinavian research team has opened a can of worms with their survey. New existential questions in politics urgently need to be answered: Why does conservatism make you more beautiful? Or why are beautiful people more conservative? Why don’t lefties care about looks? And why do people believe that being attractive automatically makes you more competent?

After this seminal piece of research, politics will never look the same again. Quite literally, politics may be more of a beauty contest than political wonks realise.

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