(cross-posted yesterday on Daily Kos)

Here’s a conundrum that has stumped more than a few of us: how can a party representing extremist views, destructive policies, and rampant incompetence win more votes than one possessing popular positions,  capable leadership, and an array of answers to the problems that plague our country?  

There are, of course, multiple answers to that question, but I want to focus on just one.  The belligerent, macho, testosterone-driven Republican party has been beating us on a playing field where we Democrats should reign supreme.

They are doing a better job of connecting emotionally with voters.

Why is this?  And, more importantly, what can we do about it?  I think the answer lies in not trying to out-macho the GOP, but rather to shift paradigms and use a more feminine approach to interacting with voters — especially the ones who disagree with us.  More on the flip.
Why Emotion Matters

While women make up the majority of Democratic voters and while the Democratic party’s policies are strongly influenced by women’s priorities and approaches to problems, Democratic leadership is still dominated by men. Confronting the simplistic and deceptive appeals of Republicans, those men are prone to dismiss emotion as less important than reason when trying to persuade voters to their side.

The problem with that is when ideas and emotions clash, emotion usually wins.   The past five years have seen a number of occasions when failure to acknowledge emotion has left us wide open to plain old failure.  Perhaps if we can learn to look emotion in the eye and not flinch from it, we can turn those failures around.

How women do things differently

Nearly fifteen years ago, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote a book describing the differing communication styles of men and women.  The thesis of the book was that women tend to use conversation to connect and persuade, so they emphasize emotion; men tend to use conversation to achieve or maintain status, so they emphasize knowledge.  Both styles are valid, but understanding the differences in styles is important.

One place where these differences clearly manifest themselves is in the discussion of problems. When men and women talk about problems, women are often inclined to take time to explore the emotional impact of the problem, while men tend to either immediately offer solutions or explain why the problem doesn’t matter.  Men’s first impulse is to fix things; women’s is to focus on the emotional impact before seeking solutions.

So what does this information about interpersonal relationships have to do with electoral politics?  My guess is — quite a bit.  

The three steps in discussing a problem

In interpersonal relationships, there are basically three steps in discussing a problem:

  • Step 1.  Acknowledge a problem exists
  • Step 2.  Describe the problem’s impact
  • Step 3.  Offer a solution

Note that it is in Step 2 that emotion really enters the conversation, because it is at this stage that feelings about the problem get expressed.   In the feminine paradigm, Step 2 gets emphasized before proceeding to Step 3; in the masculine paradigm, Step 3 is where the emphasis is put, and Step 2 is just something to be hurried through in the process of getting to Step 3.

Now let’s look at the parallel process in discussing issues in a campaign:

  • Step 1.  Identify issues of importance
  • Step 2.  Describe impact of the issues on voters lives
  • Step 3.  Offer solutions

Again, emotions enter the picture at Step 2.  In the last election, Democrats tried to control Step 1, did a great job of Step 3, but tended to skim over Step 2, make it too abstract, or skip it completely in our rush to start fixing the problem.  Yet Step 2 is where voters become personally invested in an election. When people say “he just doesn’t get it,” they are usually referring to Step 2, not Steps 1 or 3.

In the last election, Bush used the powers of his office to dominate Step 1. Most of the rest of his campaign energy went into reiterating a monolithic focus in Step 2 on a single emotion — fear (about terrorism and national security).  He hardly ever bothered with Step 3. This seemed like failed strategy at first, but in the last election, Step 2 was more crucial than 3, and the Republicans had either the luck or the insight to realize it.

Democrats, on the other hand, wasted a great deal of energy trying to wrest control — unsuccessfully — of Step 1 away from Bush. They also put a great deal of energy into persuading voters to accept their answers to Step 3. However, it was in Step 2 that they missed the boat, because that was where the battle was really fought and Democrats failed to realize just how crucial it was.

Why Step 2 is so important

Step 2 is where emotions enter the picture, so it is where personal investment occurs. Want to know why a single issue voter is a single issue voter?  It is because of Step 2, where the individual make an emotional connection to that issue not just an intellectual one.

Understanding the emotional reaction of voters to the problems being addressed (or unaddressed) in a campaign is vital, because if we don’t “get” how voters feel about a problem, they will not trust us to provide them with a proper solution to that problem.

Why did people think Bush would protect them better than Kerry in the war on terror? Part of it was his being Commander in Chief, part was the propaganda war by Fox and Limbaugh and their ilk, but a large part was simply Bush seeming to understand their fear (which was whipped up to fever pitch by Rove and Co.) and accept it without equivocation or hesitation.  Bush seemed to “get it”, to understand emotionally where they were coming from, when they mistakenly thought Kerry didn’t.

Whenever Kerry did manage to convey that he “got it” (eg. the effective strategy of the Democratic Convention to emphasize his own Commander in Chief credentials), Bush’s campaign went into overdrive to convince voters otherwise. It is no coincidence that that was when the Swift Boat Liars came to the forefront.

Unfortunately, Bush’s campaign and the “Kerry doesn’t get it” (ie. Kerry doesn’t understand your fear) message was much more sustained, intense, and focused than the responding campaign to show that Kerry did. “Flip flopper” wasn’t just a nasty  tag; it went directly to the notion that Kerry’s emotions were not engaged in the issue of Iraq or the war on terrorism.  He either understood the danger or he didn’t. Flip-flop implied he didn’t.

And in the end questions of competence, questions of strategy, questions of motive didn’t matter as much as the simple fact that many voters thought Bush understood their fear and Kerry did not. They wouldn’t follow Kerry to Step 3 to see how much better his solutions were, because he lost too many of them at Step 2 and never managed to get them back.

How Kerry got Step 2 Wrong

Looking back, it’s not difficult to see why the Kerry campaign had trouble with Step 2, especially when it came to fear. First of all, Kerry was in a bind in “affirming” the fear of the electorate, because:

  • a) political wisdom held that a fearful electorate was necessarily a Bush electorate (a damaging, and I suspect false, assumption that cost us a lot); most conventional wisdom proclaimed that the only way for Kerry to win the election was to shift the focus of the campaign from national security to economics;
  • b) Kerry was hamstrung initially in being clear about the Iraq war because of his vote for it; only when he began seriously to hammer away at the disconnect between Iraq and the war on terror in early September did his campaign gain emotional clarity on the fear issue;
  • c) Kerry was temperamentally unsuited to making emotional appeals to voters, and when personally attacked tended to respond with “report talk,” as Deborah Tannen dubs the masculine conversational style that seeks to enhance status by conveying information.  In September and October Kerry finally seemed to find his emotional “voice,” but even then it ebbed and flowed, probably because it was not his natural mode.

Sadly, by then, serious harm had been done to the emotional power of his campaign by his seeming emotional ambiguity about Iraq and his unwillingness, at first, to bluntly and emotionally take on the Swift Boat Liars. This one-two punch made it difficult for voters to figure him out emotionally and therefore to connect with him emotionally.  While his excellent performances in the debates helped him to intellectually connect with voters, the debates were not sufficient to overcome the “emotion gap” that Bush had already forged.

How Dean Got Step 2 Right

Thinking about emotion and Step 2 also provides insight into why Howard Dean was such a powerful candidate. Dean provided a revitalized grassroots movement and technological innovation with the internet, but he also used the feminine paradigm in his campaign to great effect and succeeded at Step 2 in a way that no other Democratic candidate did.  This success allowed him to change, for a while at least, the focus of Step 1. Dean’s powerful use of the feminine paradigm is what allowed the Democrats to make Iraq an issue.

Dean’s grassroots efforts and successful use of meetups and the internet, allowed Dean to give voice to voter emotion in a way that was almost unprecedented. This expression of emotion not only allowed for very personal connections between Dean and his supporters, it also gave Dean the power to temporarily wrest control of Step 1 from the Commander-in-Chief and make Iraq — at least for a while — the dominant issue. Indeed, it could be argued that Dean provided the emotional shot-in-the-arm that made the campaign as close as it was. If Kerry’s team had been able to pick up the emotional mantle where Dean left it off (difficult to do for the reasons listed above), it is possible that the election might have been won.

This is because the relationship between Step 1 and Step 2 in not linear. Instead, just as synaptic connections are strengthened or weakened by the intensity of the electrical charge that passes between them, the emotional responses in Step 2 result in the strengthening or weakening of the issues in Step 1. Broad emotion strengthens, strong emotion strengthens even more. The issue of Iraq was the spear that could have pierced Bush’s shield.

The Masculine Paradigm and How it Hurt Us Strategically

Dean provided the emotional juice to raise Iraq to a top issue; Kerry’s nomination and his subsequent emotional vaccillation on Iraq (it can be argued that his position was intellectually consistent, but the real problem for Kerry was that voters didn’t find it emotionally consistent) robbed the issue of its power. This was a major strategic mistake, because Iraq was the only issue with enough emotional juice to serve as a counterweight to terrorism fears.

Similarly, all the energy that the Democrats put into trying to shift the focus of Step 1 from National Security to the Economy was pretty much wasted effort, because they could not achieve that shift without a powerful burst of energy generated in Step 2. Unfortunately, the Kerry campaign put too little energy into Step 2 and failed to understand that the strongest emotions on both sides (left and right) did not center on the economy but on issues of war and peace. That’s where the deepest emotions were and that’s where the battle had to be fought.  Unfortunately, Democrats realized this fact too late.

Learning to use the Feminine Paradigm

It’s possible that if the Democratic Party had been more attuned to the feminine paradigm of communication and problem-solving, it might have recognized the importance of really listening to emotion instead of hurrying past it, declaring it misguided, or reviling it as unimportant because it seemed manufactured by the other side.

Emotions win and lose elections, and we might have hurled that spear successfully through that shield if we had not all buried our heads in the sand about the unwelcome power that fear had on the electorate. 

In order to avoid such mistakes in the future, we need to understand the role of emotion in the political process better. In this diary I have tried to explain why that is important. In the next, I want to explain what it is we Democrats have to learn about emotion as it relates to politics.

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