Archive for June 4th, 2008

Emotion, leadership and Politics

Emotion and politics mix like vodka and orange juice. A little bit can do a world of good, too much and things get out of control. Adolf Hitler played German emotions to ride to power and convince Germans to support his new order. Appeals to emotion underlie great movements, for good or for evil, throughout modern history. Great leaders know how to manage the emotions of their supporters, and recognize the danger of getting caught up in the emotion themselves.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are from all accounts ideological soulmates. Both are Democrats, activist, and liberal. Obama’s early work included registering voters for a 1992 election that elected Bill Clinton to the Presidency. Both are involved in historical campaigns. If Hillary had prevailed, she’d have been the first woman nominee; as it is Obama is the first black nominee. Both are far distant from John McCain’s very conservative perspective, and their criticisms of McCain are similar. The biggest policy difference between Obama and Clinton is in the details of their health care plans.

Yet if one watched the Clinton speech last night, or reads through commentary at political websites, it’s clear that the supporters of Clinton and Obama are at war. Obama supporters accuse Clinton of what Jeffrey Toobin at CNN called “deranged narcissism” and consider her to be acting like a spoiled two year old who can’t understand that she doesn’t always get her way. Clinton supporters believe they’ve been cheated by a news media and a process that has pushed aside what should have been the first woman President, and instead ‘selected’ a new comer they consider an ’empty suit’ or ‘tool of the misogynists.’ The supporters of each candidate have developed a caricatured image of the other, reinforced by both the length and tone of the campaign, and the name calling between supporters of each candidate.

None of this is surprising. Strong candidates inspire intense loyalty and emotional support, people find themselves living in part through the actions of their political hero or heroine, symbolically connecting their concerns about politics and community with the leader they support. Thus the emotional connection is not with the issues or ideals, but the person. It’s not rational, but it’s real, a fact of political life.

At the end of a campaign like this one, it’s up to the candidates to decide how to manage the emotions of their supporters constructively. In this, Barack Obama so far is earning an “A,” while Clinton is failing. Obama has not only refused to say anything even alluding to Hillary’s negatives, but last night devoted a long section early in his speech to praise Clinton, urging his supporters to do likewise. He is successfully managing the emotions of his supporters, calmly moving them from Hillary hatred to Hillary respect. If she had done likewise, the emotion within the Obama camp about Clinton could have dissipated rapidly. As it is, her actions undercut Obama’s efforts.

Clinton has been by all reports caught up in the emotion of support around her candidacy. She admitted as much last night, as she talked about how her supporters give her strength. Rather than trying to manage that emotion and help re-direct it in a manner that would allow her supporters to move towards Obama, she did the opposite. Her early praise of Obama was lukewarm, undercut by the fact she refused to acknowledge that every news organization was reporting that he was the presumptive nominee. She then repeated complaints about the process, made the case she was more electable, and obliquely criticized Obama. She even self-congratulated her campaign on the South Dakota win, noting that ‘South Dakota had the last word,’ even though Montana (which went for Obama) still had its polls open.

Everything she did racheted up the emotion of her supporters, did nothing to move them towards accepting the fact she lost, and angered Obama’s supporters. While for Hillary supporters this is welcome — they are experiencing an emotional high and would rather the buzz not wear off — it is a sign of bad leadership. Even if she did not want to concede last night, she could have started the process of managing the emotions of her followers by more directly congratulating Obama and praising him in less vague terms. She could have avoided the complaining and repetition of arguments that have not swayed the superdelegates for the last three weeks. Instead she did the opposite, she asked for people to tell her their thoughts, as if she needs the emotional high to continue, and she wants to lean on her supporters to avoid the pain of defeat. That is dangerous; when leaders get caught up in the emotion they create, they lose judgment and can easily become out of touch with reality.

All that said, it’s not too late. She has been in an intense, long campaign. Perhaps she didn’t have time to really process what the day meant, or to reflect on what to do next. If her goal is to be Vice President, she has to be far more gracious and needs to endorse Obama sooner rather than later. If she is negotiating for her future, she needs to show good will by starting to help heal the divisions in the party. Even if she thinks Obama will stumble and some political miracle will make the superdelegates change their mind, her tactics hurt her chances. She can suspend her campaign, acknowledge Obama’s victory, and say she wants to work on the Democratic party platform with her delegates. If Obama is caught in some scandal, she could still win in August, there’s no reason to hold out now.

It’s a heady thing to be the subject of such emotional conviction. It’s hard to give up, the temptation is to dive into it and enjoy it. But leaders are leaders because they understand the emotions they inspire, and they know how dangerous they can be if not managed. Obama is acting like a leader now, Clinton needs to show she can to.

UPDATE: Wednesday late afternoon. I hear reports that Hillary Clinton understands the dynamic, and perhaps felt last night she needed to allow her supporters an emotional high before moving in a different direction. If so, that’s promising, and my discussion above underestimates here. If she handles this well, she proves herself a real leader.   When push comes to shove, I really think she ran an admirable campaign, and I hope that that is what gets remembered.

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Obama Makes History

Tonight the United States Democratic party has done something courageous. They have nominated Barack Hussein Obama to be their nominee for the Presidency. Opponents of Obama like to state his middle name believing that it’s a way to denigrate him: He has a Muslim sounding name, the same as Saddam Hussein — and his last name sounds like “Osama!” To me, this simply increases my sense that whether or not Obama wins in November, the country is changing for the better: we are not afraid to nominate someone who just 20 years ago would have been seen as too unknown and even strange to be seriously considered for the Presidency.

On top of that, Obama, as I noted a couple weeks ago is doing something profound for American politics, finally bringing in large numbers of minorities and young people previously alienated, and for the first time really using the internet and new media to build a movement. That alone makes this an historic campaign, and one that will probably overcome the racism that certainly play a role in the campaign.

To be sure, I have my doubts about some of Obama’s policies. I personally find the Democrats to be too willing to use the power of central government to try to achieve social change, and I worry that too many promises are being made which we simply can’t afford. I would love to see more of a focus on decentralizing power and an acknowledgment of the deep economic problems we face, including both the energy crisis and that of global climate change. Nonetheless, Obama represents something new, a needed break from the old tired and failed politics of the past two decades.

(An aside: Did Anderson Cooper just say he wanted to be Donna Brazille’s boob? Yikes.)

Hillary Clinton fought a great campaign, but I have to say I was disappointed with her defiant speech. The more I read, the more it seems like groupthink has descended on the Clinton camp. They think they have the best chance in November, they’ve been winning recent contests, and I suspect they really don’t comprehend why it is that the media and Democratic insiders don’t come around to their perspective. I suspect they are truly perplexed by this, and that explains the efforts to blame the media, blame moveon.org, or cling to the hope that superdelegates might change their mind. Some believe she’s just pushing for the VP spot or leveraging her strength. That could be the case, though if so the speech should have given more openings to Obama. He can’t be looked at as being forced to choose her; that would make him look weak. I don’t think she and her advisors truly comprehend the historic nature of Obama’s victory, and the utter impossibility that the insiders of the Democratic party would undo this decision to give it to her.

In that sense, it’s disappointing that the historic nature of tonight’s decision gets overshadowed by the inability of Hillary Clinton to end with more grace and less grit. Yet Hillary is human. The emotion of the campaign and the closed nature of a campaign bubble may have altered her judgment. Perhaps she should be given a few days to figure out how to navigate the end of the campaign. Still, I came in to tonight thinking she should be the VP. I deleted a short post where I imagined a scenario where she could become VP. Now, I think her inability to truly embrace the historic nature of this night means she doesn’t deserve the position. But maybe she can undo the damage — we’ll see.

Finally, Obama’s speech tonight was superb. He didn’t talk about himself, he didn’t talk about the process, his only mention of Clinton was to praise her efforts. He focused on the future and the road ahead. It was inspiring. We are living history here, this will be a fascinating five months ahead.

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