Many conservatives missed the Donald Trump phenomenon, and the Bernie Sanders explosion, because it’s difficult to detect and discern populist movements when one more naturally reacts from the head than the heart. Populism is about feelings, and if one doesn’t have the same feelings it can be easy to dismiss the emotions of others. Facts, on the other hand, are indisputable. Of course, that’s until those facts are uttered by a politician—at which point they become as useful as a dead cat.
And it’s that inability to fully grasp and respect human emotion that puts conservatives, and their allied partisans the Republicans, in a bind. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” message elicited snickers from some corners of even his own party, but it’s precisely that message that would most appeal to younger voters and could bring them to conservatism en masse.
Elections are about feelings. Voters want to feel good about their vote, or in the case of 2016, less bad than they would feel in voting for the other candidate. That’s why pollsters ask a lot of questions related to perception. Where do people think things stand today? Are we on the right track or the wrong track? Facts be darned, how do you feel? Whether right or wrong, it drives the vote.
A thorough focus group study conducted by the College Republican National Committee put the case on paper when it found that one of the most important character traits young people look for in a candidate for office is whether that person cares about others. When looking at how conservatives sell policies to the American public, the idea of caring is an afterthought in most cases.
There are exceptions, such as the example cited by the College Republican National Committee of Speaker Paul Ryan’s quest to better understand and fight poverty, but by and large empathy is lost in conservative quarters. Facts, figures, bar charts, pie graphs, those come before what’s in our gut.
If there were more focus on human appeals to public policy, the 360-degree surround sound of populism wouldn’t be so difficult to comprehend. We would know where people are coming from and take how they feel seriously, despite what the economic growth numbers tell us. It’s a message young people are sending us right now through their words and actions.
In its “Prescription for Winning Millennials,” the College Republican National Committee put this in the top spot: “Prove you care about people of all walks of life and empathize with others.” The report went on to say, “The harsh reality is that this is not an attribute associated with politics or specifically our party, but is critical for young voters.” And just in case the point didn’t come across, in big, fat, bold letters the authors add: “Millennials want leaders who care.”
Conservatives are missing out on a generation of voters by treating heart discussions awkwardly. Look at how young people responded to the when-pigs-fly candidacy of Bernie Sanders. While his proposals are practically unworkable, he brought people to him by making them feel he cared.
I can’t believe I’m writing this, but conservatives should be more like (gulp) Bernie Sanders. Don’t confuse an attraction to his empathy as support for his policies. Ignore the head, trust the heart.
This column originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal.