The other day, a weekend radio host brought up the fact that some individuals vote for a politician based on his physical attractiveness. (A caller even admitted to doing so.) The host mentioned the rather obvious point that we should not base our votes on such silly factors. I thought a little further about this annoying reality of human nature, and the mechanisms behind it. Overall, I think voting based on attractiveness represents a rather primitive instinct. The instinct is to personify the society in the glorious image of a single individual.
Basically, a primitive society lives vicariously through its leader. For that reason, the primitive people do not mind as much when the leader takes their wealth — because they are living through him anyway. It is far more difficult to bring everyone in society up to the level of super rich, for example. It is far easier to build a single royal palace with great glory. Even dirt-poor countries tend to grant magnificent luxury to their leaders, regardless of their leaders’ success at governing. This glorious individual creates an image for the country to be proud of.
Although America outlaws most of this title of nobility nonsense, we can see a similar phenomenon with our celebrities. We bestow upon them great amounts of money (often for very little real accomplishment, e.g., Paris Hilton), and then we (particularly women) worship them and live vicariously through them. Celebrities are our royalty, in much the same way that foreign countries treat their royalty as celebrities.
Of course, it is easy to distribute wealth to one person for the glory of the country, but although wealth can tend to enhance beauty in some minor ways (such as by allowing a healthier diet or by giving time for exercise), distributing beauty to a single leader is mostly infeasible. Nonetheless, while a primitive society cannot generally grant beauty to one powerful individual, it can make sure that the individual to whom it grants power is already attractive. That is where voting based on beauty comes into play. It completes the image of the society. It makes weak, sentimental people feel better about themselves.
Advanced societies work to overcome this problem, and because the people as a whole are living healthy and productive lives, they have less need to glorify a single leader. Hence, the advanced voter will not take such trivial factors as image into account to any great extent. Obviously, in some ways it does make sense to vote for the attractive candidate even in an advanced society. The leader represents society, and it can be useful to be represented by a beautiful individual — for example, to impress foreign leaders. (Even America, which prohibits titles of nobility, nonetheless constructed the white house and numerous other marvelous buildings.) But it is important to avoid getting carried away with these considerations.
Between an ugly candidate and an attractive candidate, all other things being equal I would prefer the attractive candidate. But in the real world, all other things are rarely equal. The wise and virtuous hunchback is always preferable to the handsome and charismatic scoundrel or fool. Ultimately, it takes an advanced society — and an advanced, wise voter — to weigh rationally the subtle benefits of beauty versus the numerous and concrete benefits of virtue. An advanced voter will make a logical decision by weighing the concrete benefits far more heavily.