Memo to the Establishment: Inspire Us or Lose

The competent politicians holding Western democracy together are dropping like flies. It’s time for them to embrace the tactic of stirring emotions -- to positive ends.

GettyImages-79486934 crop
GettyImages-79486934 crop

David Cameron. François Hollande. Hillary Clinton. What do they have in common?

They’re all deeply traditional politicians. They all have long track records of public service, and they’re all thorough, meticulous managers. They make a point of exuding calm and competence.

All of which probably helps to explain why so many people dislike them.

David Cameron. François Hollande. Hillary Clinton. What do they have in common?

They’re all deeply traditional politicians. They all have long track records of public service, and they’re all thorough, meticulous managers. They make a point of exuding calm and competence.

All of which probably helps to explain why so many people dislike them.

Despite helping France climb out of a long economic slump last year, Hollande’s popularity has been hitting historic lows. His compatriots despise him for his milquetoast manner and failure to move decisively against terrorism. Cameron achieved a remarkable record of growth during his six-year stint as British prime minister — but that didn’t matter to voters when he gave them a referendum on whether their country should stay in the European Union. His ignominious defeat in last month’s Brexit ballot, which prompted him to step down, will remain as the most memorable, and inglorious, achievement of an otherwise successful term in office.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, Clinton is burning through millions of dollars in her textbook campaign to win the presidency. But Donald Trump — dysfunctional, dishonest, underfunded Donald Trump — continues to hold his own. By some estimates, he’s even closing the gap.

Clinton, Cameron, and Hollande are all very different politicians, operating in very different contexts. Yet they all seem to be suffering from a similar problem.

The nature of their opponents may hold an important clue. Despite their impressive credentials, these establishment titans have proved vulnerable to exactly the same sorts of opponents — namely, fiery populists.

Trump and Bernie Sanders are worlds apart ideologically, but together they’ve given Clinton a humiliating master class in the power of simple solutions and raw emotion. Hollande’s nemesis is National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who has ridden her blistering brand of far-right identity politics to unprecedented heights. Cameron was undone by his Conservative Party comrade Boris Johnson, the extravagant and ruthless former mayor of London (now turned foreign minister), and by Brexiteer-in-charge Nigel Farage, who has successfully channeled corrosive anxiety about migrants and globalization into a potent challenge to the status quo.

To be sure, the U.S. presidential hopeful, the ex-British PM, and the struggling French president all have plenty of real flaws. Their problem is that we’re in a historical moment that plays up their shortcomings and undercuts what would normally be their strengths.

The Great Recession and the disruptions of technological change have transformed economies, fueling white-hot anger among those who have been left behind. Terrorism and immigration stir deep-seated fears, tapping into sections of the reptilian brain that don’t really respond to sedate calls for reasonableness and unity. Politics is never just about policy. It’s also about emotion. And that’s never been truer than today.

It’s a sad fact of life that the most powerful political emotions aren’t always positive. The politicians of the far right have shown that appeals to nativism can be more effective in stirring people up than high-minded calls to idealism and common purpose. That’s a big reason why Euroskeptic nationalists are gaining the upper hand over the efficient, well-educated, and deathly dull officials who run the European Union. The British politicians who campaigned for the U.K. to stay in the EU — most notably Cameron and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — conspicuously failed to make emotionally compelling arguments for their case.

Trump’s politics of thinly disguised racism are deeply divisive. But his extraordinary success in the Republican Party primaries shows just how effective fear-driven politics can be at motivating voters. His approach might appeal to a minority, but it could well prove to be a highly mobilized minority. Clinton’s decision to cast herself as the adult in the race — dependable, experienced, and broad in her appeal — runs the risk of taking her supporters for granted. (She enjoys sky-high support among Hispanics, for example, but in the past they’ve been notably reluctant to vote, which could spell trouble for her on Election Day.)

Cameron once told members of his party that “boring is good,” explaining that they just needed to keep repeating what a great job they’d done of managing the economy. Well, we can see where that got him. Will Clinton heed the lesson? At a time when voters perceive a rising threat from terrorism, they aren’t going to be looking for a leader who offers grandmotherly understanding of their problems. They’re going to be looking for someone who projects forcefulness, conviction, even — dare I say it? — a bit of aggression. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president who wants back into office, totally gets it: Since the terrorist attack in Nice, he’s decided to go full Rottweiler on Hollande, whom he accuses of responding to the threat with “trembling hands.”

For Hillary Clinton, the answer is simple: Be more Margaret Thatcher, less Oprah. Something like this is what political satirist Jon Stewart had in mind, I think, when he astutely described Clinton as a “bright woman without the courage of her convictions.”

The problem goes beyond worries about some alleged lack of “authenticity.” Personally, I don’t give a damn about whether my president is someone I’d want to have a beer with. But we really do need to have a serious think about why some voters feel drawn to over-the-top buffoons. I suspect that it’s precisely because — in open defiance of the reigning ethos of focus groups, data mining, and sentiment analysis — the Trumps and the Johnsons and the Farages make a point of exciting a strong visceral response.

So the Republican convention is a mess? Perhaps. But it’s generating a huge amount of nonstop coverage, social media attention, and passionate discussion. The Democratic version, coming soon, is shaping up to be a sleek, smooth, flawlessly managed machine. One wonders if anyone will tune in.

Does this mean that more middle-of-the-road politicians should traffic in the same kinds of sentiment as their populist counterparts? Not at all. As none other than Barack Obama has so vividly shown, taking the high road can absolutely mean embracing powerful emotions. In fact, I’d probably even go a step further: I’d argue that democracy probably isn’t working as it should if its defenders don’t know how to appeal to hearts as well as heads.

Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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