Monday, January 14, 2008


The Personal is Political. What the Democrats need to learn from the Republicans

By Christopher Fung, Ph.D.

It's not news to anyone who's been paying attention to US politics for the last 20 years, but one of the things that the Democrats appear not to understand (and why Republicans since Reagan have been caning the Democrats in national elections up until very recently) is the crucial difference between policy and personality.

For those of us who saw Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" one of the most striking things was the way in which Al Gore as a person came across: wonky sure but also immensely concerned, human and competent. Some reviewers actually went so far as to dub the movie an extended commercial for a possible Gore run at the presidency for 2008. Of course they were wrong, but the point is well made: The Al Gore of "An Inconvenient Truth" was light-years away from Al Gore, Presidential Candidate of 2000 in terms of that elusive but gold-standard term in American politics: likeability. Had Al Gore of 2005 run in 2000 he wouldn't have needed Gore v. Bush to adjudicate the outcome of the election. But of course, this didn't happen. Not because Al Gore the man was different, but because he came across in a more humane and emotionally intelligent way from the focus-grouped middle manager he appeared to be in the 2000 election. Similar arguments can be made about John Kerry in 2004 and are also true for Hillary Rodham Clinton in this election cycle.

It's no accident that the only Democrat to break through the Republican lock on the White House was a man who had immense personal charisma. While Bill Clinton may not have been the "first black president" as some of his boosters have designated him, he was certainly a man who understood image and charm. He connected with people on an emotional level. Whether genuinely or not, George W. Bush was able to do this for enough people to give him the election in 2004 and enough votes to get appointed to office by the Supreme Court in 2000.

THe United States in the late 20th-early 21st century is a nation that has increasingly sought to define itself primarily in personal terms. Social issues are now understood in terms of the ways they affect people personally, your health status is now in the hands of personal trainers, your understanding of the world is defined more and more narrowly by commercial culture, and by the purveyors of folk libertarianism in terms of personal wants and interests. These have even become seen as the engines of evolution via the intellectually problematic, but highly popular rise of evolutionary psychology and radical human sociobiology.

In this kind of terrain, a policy wonk is a candidate with one hand tied behind his or her back. While some of us do pay attention to the issues, it's clear that for many people in the electorate, "the issues" are way too abstract and way too "intellectual" for easy emotional comprehension. And whether we like it or not, emotional comprehension is the actual battleground on which politics is fought in this country.

I'm no great fan of this development. Believe me. As David Edwards says in "Burning all illusions", the primacy of emotionality as the dominant way of thinking about the world has lead to huge levels of self-delusion and consequently our complicity in many, many terrible things. But since this is where people actually are, it would be foolish to act as if people really were better than they are at this specific moment in time. If you want to reach people with a progressive agenda you have to realize that many people will not recognize the merits of the argument on their own because their whole lives have been oriented in exactly the opposite direction for so long that envy, fear, malevolence and ultra-competitiveness have become expected and to some extent "normal".

Barack Obama is important because he has good ideas but he's even more important because he is the one candidate who is able to engage uncommitted American voters on emotional grounds and bring them over to his side. While John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich may have more progressive policies, they are not able to close the deal emotionally with the electorate. And while I like the idea of a woman as president, I have grave doubts over whether Hillary would be a progressive president because she is unable and unwilling to break out of the corporate-driven strategies of the Clinton 42 presidency.

Obama projects interest, he projects vision and he projects a determination to do well by the people he is talking to. HRC may well have many of the same personal qualities but she isn't able to embody those qualities in the same way that Barack Obama can.

This argument is not meant to apply to everyone. It will not work for those who are fully-committed to white supremacy or to robber-capitalism. It does not need to work for real progressives who already understand the importance of a candidate like Barack Obama. But it is VITALLY important to reach those people in the middle who have a vague inkling that something is wrong but have no idea how to go about dismantling the problematic parts of our collective heritage for fear that they would end up losing what small gains they feel they have been able to make.

Enough of these people voted with the wingnut base to give George W. Bush the election in 2004. But rather than adopting Republican-lite policies a la Joe Lieberman and the Democratic Leadership Council, what progressives should be doing is connecting the powerful messages of progressive politics to an emotionally authentic person.

That person is Barack Obama. He has the ability to connect to the folks in the middle, and just possibly convince them that they CAN have prosperity and justice at the same time. It's the emotional possibility of the goal that needs to be worked, not the philosophical righteousness of the position, or the "electability" analyses of the cowering, timorous (and well-paid) corporate shills of the current Democratic establishment.

Twenty-five years ago Ronald Reagan was the focal point of a turning point rightwards in US politics. It's about time true progressives learned to put his tactics to their own uses.


Cimmerians said...

Thank you so *so* much for that awesome post! Beautifully done--thanks so much for sharing!

As ever, admiring--

Christopher said...


I am a Barack Obama supporter.

I'm adding you to my blogroll. I receive 1,000 to 2,000 hits a day.

Keep up the great work!

Go, Barack, Go!

Yes We Can! said...

Thanks Christopher!
We appreciate you spreading the word about us.

Fired Up! Ready to go!