Saturday, May 10, 2008

Empathy 101

Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14 points on Tuesday, but not here in the NC-11. Hillary Clinton won in this conservative district by 16 points, except in Buncombe County. Liberal activists in Buncombe will be grinding their teeth over that for weeks.

Last week, Jeff Greenfield had a piece in Slate that feeds into what I've been thinking about regarding activists and the "elitist" label that gets attached by conservative elitists to liberal ones. Greenfield quotes George Orwell from 1937 on the failure of socialism to take root in England. Orwell brands socialism's supporters as its worst promoters, commonly bearing "the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority."

Greenfield paraphrases:
Real working-class folks, he says, might be drawn toward a socialist future centered around family life, the pub, football, and local politics. But those who speak in its name, he says, have a snobbish condescension toward such quotidian pleasures—even condemning coffee and tea. "Reformers" urged the poor to eat healthier food—less sugar, more brown bread. And their audience balked. "Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like organs and wholemeal bread, or [raw carrots]?" Orwell asks. "Yes it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would rather starve than live on brown bread and more carrots … a millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits. An unemployed man doesn't."
The amusing thing about insistent activists everywhere is how smart they think they are about their pet issues, and how dense they are about people -- voters they are asking for the privilege to represent.

With this week's results in NC-11, I'm bound to hear local activists dismissing more conservative Democrats as ignorant or uneducated, the kind of people who still believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. The question they should ask themselves is, Why do they trust George Bush rather than you?

Because elections aren't about issues. They're not about programs and policies. Essentially, they are about identity and trust. Greenfield explains:
The perennial struggle of Democratic contenders to appeal to ordinary Americans seems very much of a piece with Orwell's sharp descriptions. Election after election, Democrats argue that once Joe and Jane Sixpack fully grasp the wisdom of the latest six-point college-loan program, or of an 800-page health-care scheme, they will come to wave the Democratic banner. And, sometimes, these voters do just that—provided that the candidate in question has demonstrated a sense that he or she is not treating them as the subject of an anthropological study. Bill Clinton had a full steamer trunk of domestic programs; he also was a product of Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law School. But his 18 years in the vineyards of Arkansas politics gave him the tools to compete for support on a more visceral level. Then there were Clinton's obvious tastes for earthly pleasures—from Big Macs to more intimate diversions—which made it very hard to label him as an aloof elitist.
It's their own wonkishness that separates the activists from average voters. Voters want first to vote for somebody who they can trust, for somebody who thinks like they do. This is Empathy 101.

Or as I wrote a couple of weeks ago,
. . . with more and more Americans feeling as if they are treading water amidst a flotsam of bills, soccer practice, commuting and longer work hours, throwing them a candidate survey or a stack of position papers isn't helping. They need a lifeline. Like it or not, many voters just want some way to participate that doesn't require that they master the arcana of the legislative process. That's what they have representatives for. They just want some shorthand way of choosing candidates who will legislate in their best interests. A party they can trust. A party who thinks like they do.

No comments: