Are Democrats Passionless, Spineless or Just Clueless?

The current “it” book, according to The New York Times, is “The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” It looks at the role of passion in politics. And it’s a cautionary tale to those of us who spend too much time and energy on words and not enough on emotion.

It connects with something I learned a long time ago in this business and have seen confirmed more and more as I coach executives to give effective speeches and media interviews: In-person and broadcast communication is not about conveying information, it’s about getting across a feeling. Conveying a vision, inspiring, letting people know things are tough but with some work we can make it — these are the things great speakers get across, not the content of PowerPoint slides and graphs. Information is there to back up the feeling you’re trying to convey. Even though Al Gore uses oceans of information, what we carry away is not the data but the feeling of “Okay, we can’t pretend it’s not true any longer, we’re screwing up this planet and we gotta stop — and it’s doable if we take some action right now.”

The best way to move an audience is to talk about something you’re passionate about. I now coach execs to get right to something they give a rip about and just start talking like a real human being.

Drew Westen, an Emory University psychology prof and author of “The Political Brain,” says Democrats have been too dispassionate for 40 years, have focused too much on information. What wins elections is people’s emotional reactions to candidates. (Duh, look at George W., he got to the White House without once soiling his campaign with information.) Democrats have done too much rational explaining and not enough emotional connecting.

“Democrats run from every issue where there’s passion involved,” Westen says. Too many Dems are quants, policy wonks. What convinces me about Westen is that he says it’s always a mistake to keep quiet when attacked (John Kerry when he was swift-boated). Westen says that lets the attacker set the emotional tone. Kerry would have been president, I believe, if he’d come out in high dudgeon (I love that phrase) and said “How dare you challenge my Vietnam service? My life was on the line for my country, and where the hell were you?” It wouldn’t have been what he said, but how he said it, the emotion he unleashed, the spot he’d have touched deep in him where all the agony and confusion of Vietnam lived. We’d have seen Kerry as a human being, and more of us might have voted for him.

We hear a lot about “the message” in political communication, as if a position or a set of points actually mean anything to people (this is me talking now, not Westen). We get all excited about “message control” and “message discipline” and “positioning” because we’re word slingers and we think piling up a bunch of words will convince people. And then along comes a California actor with a rugged face and a big smile who stands up to the Commies and says it’s morning in America and we like how that feels and we make room for him on Mount Rushmore. Or a faux Texan stands up and connects with people about morality, and then, after 9-11, sounds tough, and we (sort of) elect him twice.

Here’s an example of what Westen’s talking about from the formative Sixties. Robert Kennedy was seen by many of us Gene McCarthy supporters in 1968 as cold and calculating. When he entered the race for president after McCarthy knocked LBJ on his ass in New Hampshire, showing that the incumbent president was vulnerable, we called Kennedy “the knife.”

But after Martin Luther King was killed in April, 1968, RFK was tranformed. He’d taken a poverty tour as senator earlier, seeing disparity and despair in America first hand, and that shook him and got him to show some anger and passion. After Dr. King’s assassination, it was as if Kennedy had the dross of his campaign and the hard edges of his personality burned away in a crucible of horror. It’s the only time the word “apotheosis” has seemed apt to me. He became, it seems to me, pure spirit. He talked about what America could be, and he stood on car hoods in the burning cities of this country and called quietly, lyrically, on all of us to create a better world.

Pure passion. Those few weeks remaining to him, before Sirhan Sirhan shot him dead, were when Kennedy became a leader. He called to us. He calls still.

Emotional connection can overcome rational contradiction, Westen writes. Let’s say I don’t support legal abortion and Rudy Giuliani does — my brain will splice a connection around that logical contradiction to get to a place where I can feel good about Rudy, especially if he makes me feel safe about terrorism. John Edwards lives in a mansion as big as some small towns in Southern Minnesota while he talks about two Americas and the need to eradicate poverty? A logical contradiction? It’s okay — if I identify with his feeling that this disparity is bad for America and just not right.

So, of course, Westen is now a consultant to candidates. But the deal is, you can’t manufacture this stuff. Trying to project feelings you don’t have will be as effective as mouthing words you don’t believe. George W., as wrongheaded and incompetent as he is, seems to believe what he says. Mitt Romney’s low in the polls because people feel he’s saying things he doesn’t believe.

Democrats can’t just start emoting all over the place, the way they’re suddenly talking about God. They can’t, after being spineless in Congress and toddling along behind the president for five years, suddenly start talking tough and convince anybody. If Democrats are going to show feelings all of a sudden, those feelings have to spring from deep convictions, from courage, from passion, from who they really are.

The Democrat who makes us feel, not the one who convinces us of positions, will be the man or woman who could beat Giuliani or Thompson, guys who make Americans feel safe.

What should the Democratic candidate make us feel? There’s no prescription, no consultant can say. But I know what the feeling feels like. It’s an electric prance down my spine. I still feel it when I hear John Kennedy. And Robert from his last spring. And I feel it some from the skinny black guy with the funny name. Reach inside, Democrats, and find what you’re made of. Screw the consultants. Show us what burns.

— Bruce Benidt