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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