Empathy Before Ideas

By Frank Blechman

Political leaders like to tout their big ideas. The bigger the office, the bigger the ideas need to be. Not only big (in terms of number of pages in the white paper) but bold. Ideas must promise to produce tremendous results.

For the most part, the media reporting on politics is not quite sure what to do with these ideas. Should they be analyzed? Challenged? Compared? If compared, compared with what? Horse-race polling–Who’s ahead? Who’s behind?–is easier to present than complicated proposals. Yet proposals give commentators something to comment about.

And we consumers (voters) are not sure what to make of extensive policy documents either. Hardly anyone reads them, except lawyers and lobbyists for affected industries or regions. Like other forms of campaign promises, political watchers take details of policy with a grain of salt. Adds flavor but not substance.

I want to suggest that the discourse above misses the point almost completely.

Voters want to know, “What will you do for me?”

Voters mostly don’t want to know what an official (or would-be official) will do. Voters want to know, “What will you do for me?” That sounds crass and selfish, but it is eminently practical. As a voter, I have interests, concerns, and problems. First, as a candidate, do you recognize and legitimate me and my issues? Second, do you offer me relief, satisfaction, or even hope? I care a little bit about how you are going to achieve these ends, but mostly, I care about the ends, the benefits.

For example, if I need a job, I may not care if you propose to help me through a federal action or a policy. Some complicated tax provision? A big trade deal? A plan to encourage private investment? Even if I have a preference among these, what really matters is the result. Will I get a job? When? What will it pay? Will I have to relocate or retrain or otherwise invest on my own?

Candidates rarely succeed who only talk about their big ideas and do not explicitly tie their plans to specific benefits. Conversely, candidates who directly address problems and promise remedies, do better, even when the proposals are weak or hollow.

Trump promised to bring back manufacturing jobs, mostly to the Midwest. He dangled multiple tools to do this, including changes to tax and trade policies, but never got too detailed. Economists said, “Those tools won’t work. Only demand will bring back those jobs.” His opponent talked even more vaguely about infrastructure investments, but rarely directly tied those to specific problems in real communities. Voters were smart enough to notice the difference. They voted for the guy who spoke to them directly, acknowledged their pain, and offered relief.

Clinton got chided for saying “I feel your pain.” Voters heard. Clinton won twice.

Clinton got chided for saying “I feel your pain.” Voters heard. Clinton won twice.

Am I saying here that voters only respond to explicit pandering, and that candidates who want to win have to get good at it? No. I don’t think that talking to voters about how they feel is any less legitimate than talking about what they know, or should know. In campaigns, candidates must show voters that they (the candidates) are listening and learning before any of those big ideas have any relevance.

Former professional athlete and Republican Member of Congress from New York, Jack Kemp, made this dogma his slogan. He said, “People don’t care what I know, until they know that I care.” This is a very old political lesson. It is not a hard one. We should all remember it.



Categories: Issues, Local, National

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