Dear Hillary, Jeb, Marco and John,
You all find yourselves running against a whirlwind. Hillary, for you the whirlwind is Bernie Sanders. For the rest of you it’s Donald Trump.
Either way, you’re running against a candidate who generates passionate intensity. At some level those candidates’ followers must know that there’s something wildly impractical about the candidacy they are fervently supporting. Trump has no actual policies, and Sanders has little chance of getting his passed.
And yet the supporters don’t care. Sanders and Trump make them feel known. Finally, somebody is saying what they feel. Finally, somebody is outraged by the things that outrage them. There’s a deep passion embedded in the Trump and Sanders phenomena, arousing energy, magical thinking and some suspension of disbelief.
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And the rest of you are basically asking voters to snap out of it. All of you, but especially you, Hillary, are asking voters to calm down and be pragmatic: Consider electability! Vote for the one who can get laws passed!
And it’s not working. In debates Sanders is uninhibited by the constraints of reality, so his answers are always bolder. Trump speaks from the id, not from any policy paper, so his answers are always more vivid.
The brute fact is you can’t beat passion with pragmatism. The human heart is not built that way. You can’t beat angry passion with bloodless calculation. If you’re going to have any chance against these hotheads, you have to set a rival and stronger emotional tone. I’d ask you to think of the ancient ideal of comradeship.
Many Americans feel like they are the victims of a slow-moving natural disaster. Sanders and Trump try to put the blame for this disaster on discrete groups of people – Wall Street or immigrants. But in reality it’s a natural disaster caused by structural forces – globalization, technological change, the dissolution of the family, racism.
A great nation doesn’t divide in times of natural disaster. It doesn’t choose leaders who angrily tear it apart. Instead, it chooses leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, leaders who radiate sunny confidence, joy and neighborliness.
You may think of neighborliness as a sentimental, soft virtue. And I suppose in times of peace, prosperity and ease it is a sweet and tender thing.
But look at what happens to neighbors when one friend is threatened or when times are hard. Then neighborliness takes on a different hue. Friends become comrades in arms.
That is what FDR and Ike were able to do with their leadership styles. With fireside chats and golf jokes, they were neighborly even in times of great difficulty and stress. But they were also able to set an emotional tone that brought people together and changed the nature of Americans’ relationships with one another.
During their presidencies, the bonds of solidarity grew stronger and the country more formidable. They were able to cultivate a deep sense of unity, responsibility and sacrifice. They didn’t call for sacrifice as something painful, but as what one did for one’s friends.
I’d love to see one of you counter the Trump and Sanders emotional tones with a bold shift in psychology. This would be a shift toward the cheerful resolve of an FDR or an Eisenhower.
Let Trump and Sanders shout, harangue and lecture. You respond to difficulty with warmth, confidence and optimism.
Let them deliver long, repetitive and uninterrupted lectures. You converse, interact, chat and listen.
Let them stand angry and solitary. You run as part of a team, a band of brothers, with diverse advisers and buddies joining you onstage at event after event.
Let them assert that all our problems can be solved if other people sacrifice – the immigrants or the top 1 percent. You call for shared sacrifice. The rich can give more in taxes, but the rich, the middle class and the poor can all give more in civic engagement.
Let them emphasize the cold relations of business (Trump) or of the state (Sanders). You emphasize the warm bonds of neighbor helping neighbor. While they dwell in the land of impersonal bureaucracies, you point out that the primary task before us to repair the social fabric – the basic respect that diverse Americans have for one another.
Let them preach pessimism. You emphasize a warm nationalism – a basic confidence that America is not going down in decline, that it is still the nation best positioned to dominate the 21st century, that confidence is a better guide than anger or fear.
Sanders and Trump have adopted emotional tones that are going to offend and exhaust people over time. Watching the GOP South Carolina debate I got the impression that Trump’s exhaustion moment is at hand.
The candidate who has the audacity to change the emotional tone of this whole election will win the White House and have a shot at rebinding the civic fabric of this nation.