America is angry. If we don’t speak to this anger, we’re in trouble

July 27, 2016 at 6:30 pm

While taking a short break from work this afternoon, I ran into my next door neighbor. She is an older lady who is about as liberal as I am. She said to me, “I’m afraid Trump is going to win.”

Recently, I’ve heard this from a couple of other people as well. It’s wise to never discount intuition—especially when I have the same feeling. So I started thinking about why I feel this way, as we often intuit things before we’re able to explain them. This was how I wrote about how “Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere” in August 2015. This is just how people’s brains work.

So I threw aside the piece I was going to write this week to think about why.

By now we all know that politics is about emotion, yet often we still don’t really understand this. Why?

Because it’s not translating into speaking to the outrage America feels. Because I keep seeing posts and discussions about policy and how Hillary is adopting policy changes. Because we seem to be talking about policy and relying on anti-Trump sentiment. Because we’re not speaking enough to this anger in a way that isn’t anti-Trump.

If we don’t genuinely speak to the anger America is feeling, we’re in a lot of trouble. Here are some examples and some thoughts on how to genuinely acknowledge the very real pain people are expressing.

The famous moment where Bill Clinton went off script during the 1992 presidential debate.

The famous moment where Bill Clinton went off script during the 1992 presidential debate. (Screenshot/YouTube)

What I see

1. We’re making jokes

What it turned into was, “You’re stupid.”

It’s hard to think of a better outcome for the GOP. One of the things that unites them is when they feel people are “attacking” them, especially “academic” liberals.

If you want to joke with people, you can always say something like, “I’m just glad people got to hear a Michelle Obama speech.” Or at the very least, just be cautious about taking things too far. We want people to fight on our side.

2. We’re talking about policy

I’ve heard a lot of talk about policy and the Democratic platform. While it’s good to talk about these things, what I’m not hearing as much is the “why,” and the what we believe behind the policy.

Here’s a quick bit from Hillary’s stump speech in Cincinnati:

So let’s set five ambitious goals for our economy.

Let’s break through the dysfunction in Washington and make the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II.  Let’s do what we need to do to invest in infrastructure like President Eisenhower did with the Interstate Highway System. That’s when Republicans used to believe in building America and putting Americans to work.  That’s what we’re going to do again. Let’s set the goal of making college debt-free for everyone, like Erika. And let’s provide debt relief – let’s provide debt relief as soon as we can, as soon as we start to work, Elizabeth.  We’ll take the day off for the inauguration, and then the Senate, the Congress, the White House, we’re going to get to work to give students and their families relief from this debt.

Maybe it’s just me, but it sounds … well, scripted. At the point where she’s supposed to talk about an ordinary American, she talks about an ordinary American.

And when watching it, you don’t hear or see much emotion. Clinton’s speech begins around the 17:00 mark.

3. We’re anti-Trump

Right now this seems to be the cornerstone of the Democratic Party platform. I’m going to pick on a Facebook friend of mine (without sharing his name) just to demonstrate what I’m seeing and hearing from a lot of people:

A Facebook former member of mine challenged me, after hearing Chris Christy’s speech on Tuesday in giving him a reason to actually vote FOR Hillary Clinton — and here is the response I wrote:

‘ll take your bet — and I’ll even raise you. I don’t give a crap if you hate Hillary Clinton for whatever reasons valid or invalid. I will tell you in all sincerity and with every fiber of my being — I have watched and listened to Donald Trump since the beginning of his campaign and Bruce —- I have done a hell of a lot of counseling in my day. I have BEEN to the psych wards in hospitals — I have had to work with many people with many personalities — go ahead — doubt my “credentials” — but Donald Trump HAS MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES PERIOD. I have been following politics for 55 years now — never have I heard a major party political candidate UTTER the kinds of things that this man has uttered. The “last” time I heard a candidate like him was George Wallace. Only Wallace ran as a 3rd party candidate. Trump is THE nominee of the only “other” viable major party of this nation. If I WERE a Republican — irrespective of agreeing or disagreeing with the policy positions, — even the “character” assassinations we have heard from BOTH sides (which was the sum and substance of the ever un-popular Chris Christe’s speech) — I would be totally totally embarrassed to say that “The Donald” is my party’s nominee. He is the CLASSIC definition of a narcissist and I would encourage you to look up just what that entails. For all her faults, mistakes, sneaky underhanded dirty tactics — Hillary Clinton is reasonably sane. She isn’t “totally unpredictable” (which in a President is NOT a great asset for Wall Street nerves) — He may be the “novel outsider” — but over and over and over and over again — it’s all about Donald Trump. He viciously goes after those who criticize him — he takes everything as a personal attack. Just listen listen listen to those GOD AWFUL debates that seemed to degenerate into 4th grade schoolyard brawls in a heartbeat — and then listen carefully to his disconnected, rambling and way too often inconsistent policy speeches. This man has mental health issues. And I wouldn’t trust him any more with the nuclear codes to this nation than I would allowing my grandson to enter a bathroom with Dennis Hastert. And if he does win ——- I will be the FIRST in line when he is a total idiotic disaster to remind you “I TOLD you so!

The good news is that this post is passionate. It actually does speak at an emotional level. It’s honest. And angry. And that’s a good thing. Especially if it’s sympathetic anger. And I hope my friend forgives me and understands why it’s being used as an example. Most of the time the responses are much worse than his. They’re along the lines of, “If you don’t vote for Clinton, you’re helping Trump win.”

Now this may be true. But in effect, what you’re saying to people is, “Set aside your beliefs and do what I want.” No one is going to do this without a reason.

What my friend’s friend was actually asking is: Why should I vote for Hillary Clinton? What does Clinton believe?

It’d be easy to say, look, people are struggling. I see it. Do you see it? I do. Let’s talk about why and what we can do. Clinton believes in helping people and writing the rules so more people benefit. Not just a few. If they want to talk about why or if they question you, then you can start talking about how and giving examples.

4. We’re responding intellectually to an emotional issue

Talking about policy is really another version of this. Responding intellectually is the more general case. What this looks like is that we start citing theories and authors and/or posting lots of data.

The above is not a bad thing when done at the right point. The problem happens when we use it as our first option without uncovering what the real emotional issue is.

If we speak at the rationalization level, we will talk about our rationalizations and they will talk about their rationalizations. We all know how this goes.

A few thoughts on speaking to anger

In sales, when someone has an objection, the first thing you need to do is acknowledge the objection. Honestly.

If you don’t hear the objection and honestly acknowledge it, you might as well stop. Not dismissively acknowledge it with a cliché like, “I hear what you’re saying” or “That’s a great point.” But honestly acknowledge the objection.

In politics, this involves emotion. You have to show some genuine emotion.

People say that Trump is honest not because he’s honest. It’s because he shows emotion and he’s acknowledging the anger people feel and that this rage is genuine. He’s not making fun of them. He’s not telling them they’re wrong. He’s not reading some scripted speech.

Does he lie? Constantly. It doesn’t matter to many people though, because he’s saying that they’re right to be angry. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to many on the religious right that he’s not religious. It doesn’t matter to many libertarians that he’s not libertarian. He’s angry. They’re angry. By and large this is what counts. (And yes, racism probably plays a big part in this and you will never win the consciously racist. You’re also never going to win people over by calling them racist though. So I find it more productive to teach about racism in other places.)

People don’t care that Trump lies because he is acknowledging a genuine concern of theirs. Similarly, this is one of the reasons people liked Bernie Sanders: Because he speaks to a concern genuinely. If you listen to someone like Elizabeth Warren, she does the same thing.

This may be a cliché but if you want to reach people, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge what people are feeling.

Remember that what people say is typically the rationalization for what they’re really feeling. What the middle class is feeling is anger. It’s hard to find a job these days and if you can find a job, it probably doesn’t pay well. Pay is down. Benefits are being cut. And we’re still paying for the stock market crash of 2008.

I can tell you what’s going on where I work: They’re firing the permanent employees. I left a couple years ago before one of the RIFs (reduction in force) and just recently came back as a contractor. The company loves contractors because it doesn’t have to pay them any benefits. And they can fire contractors as they please. There’s little job security and little stability.

We see this happening everywhere—from IT staff who were moved to India or China, to call center workers who were outsourced to the Philippines or Ireland, to the millions of manufacturing jobs moved north or south of the border or overseas.

They tell us this is the new normal.

The moral question of our times is, do we exist for the benefit of a few people?

I don’t accept this new normal. It says we’re helpless. That we can’t change things.  People create the economy. People have always created the economy. And people can change the economy. We just have to fight for it.

A couple of outstanding examples 

Say what you will about Bill Clinton. The above is an example of a politician going off script and creating a genuine connection with someone. It’s personal. It’s powerful. And it speaks to an underlying anger. Notice how Clinton gets passionate as he’s talking. This is honest.

We have every right to be angry.

Now as a woman, Hillary faces some challenges when it comes to being angry. The perception can be that angry women are bitches, or out of control, or what the hell ever. This perception is wrong. So yes, Hillary has to not only acknowledge people’s anger but also fight against our gender biases. This isn’t easy, but she needs to do it anyway. She has to do it in a way that’s genuine to her whether it’s through humor, anecdotes, genuineness, empathy, or sympathetic anger. It has to be a way that works for her.

Look back at her commencement speech from Wellesley and you can hear her doing that. Hear her acknowledging the anger and frustration of the day, and then shift to what we can do about it.

So we know she can do it. In her Wellesley speech she does it in a way that’s uniquely her. I love how she talks about empathy and then shifts to “empathy doesn’t do us anything.” Here, she is inspiring people to act. Her line about her mother saying “I’ll always love you but there will be times when I won’t like you” is also brilliant, and helps me know who she is. We just need to see more of it.

And we need to do more of it. What are some good examples you’ve seen?

David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (now available as an e-book). Cross posted at Daily Kos