Beyond Anger

Americans know how bad things are. John Kerry needs to show us how good they can be.

| Wed Jun. 16, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

To: Senator John Kerry and staff
Re: Anger and Its Uses

Senator Kerry:

Ordinarily, as a challenger, your first job would be to get the voters inflamed about the way they've fared under the incumbent. According to the Mother Jones poll, you can dispense with this step. The voters are plenty angry. Sixty-two percent of Americans feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Among single Americans, that number is 73 percent. And among African-Americans, it's an astonishing 95 percent.

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Indeed, the poll shows the country edging past anger into rage, or benumbed hopelessness. Sixty-four percent of Americans see the country as more divided than ever before, and only 18 percent expect that divide to lessen in the years ahead. Among those few optimists, the largest bloc think things have got to get better — because there's no way they could get any worse!

Senator, you don't need to convince Americans that change is necessary. They know that. They want change. What they don't know is what the change should look like, or who they can trust to deliver it. While 57 percent of Americans want to head in a different direction, just 49 percent say they intend to vote for you.

To improve your standing, you need to do two things. First, tell your fellow citizens that you hear their anger and that you understand it. Anger is at bottom an effort to communicate. A basic illustration of anger is when a guy has his toes stepped on and he growls, "Get off." Senator, the majority of Americans feel like they've got a big fat cinderblock on their toes — and they want to know that you know it.

Second, you need to communicate a message of hope and progress. Help us see a possible future in which we're not hobbled by obstacles but free to pursue a better life. Anger can easily be turned into excitement, and excitement is what you need, not just to become the country's leader, but to lead the country. As Dylan Evans observes in his book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, "People who never get angry never get ahead."

President Bush has made the people angry. He has set the stage for change. Under his administration, Americans feel worse about their job security. They feel worse about national security. Despite tax cuts, they feel their tax burden has gotten more onerous in the last three years. Despite America's success in toppling Saddam Hussein, they think that we've made the situation even worse for the Iraqi people — and that the war there is distracting us from important work at home.

But many people don't believe that their voices will be heard. A whopping 72 percent of those whose record indicates they won't vote in November — despite the fact that they're registered to vote — think the country is on the wrong track. They prefer you, Senator Kerry, over President Bush by 54 percent to 30 percent. But, of course, this won't matter if you don't convince them to come to the polls.

Who are these likely non-voters? A third are in their teens or twenties. Nearly six in ten have a high school degree or less. Twenty-eight percent are African American or Hispanic. And 57 percent are women. Senator, this is the crucial bloc for a new coalition — one that looks forward instead of backward, one that is hopeful instead of fearful, one that is pissed off and ready to do something about it.

There are two models for building a coalition in a time of need. One way is to tell people that their land is under siege, that they have to run to the castle, raise the drawbridge, and make sure the moat is filled with snapping crocodiles. This is the politics of culture wars and racial animosity. Mother Jones poll data suggests that an element of the conservative coalition — surely not all conservatives, but a significant element — are dissatisfied with their lives in some way and, rather than seek true causes, chooses to blame gays, women, and minorities. The "moat and crocodile" strategy provides an illusory enemy and an illusory solution.

The other way to build a coalition — progressive, instead of stagnant; inclusive, rather than restrictive; realistic, not illusory — is to show people that there's a train headed for a better life, that it's your train, and that everybody is welcome to climb aboard. As Bruce Springsteen sings, "Grab your ticket and your suitcase/ Thunder's rolling down the tracks."

This "Land of Hope and Dreams" strategy not only can help motivate your supporters to vote, it can also help you appeal to another crucial group: independents and liberal to moderate Republicans. More dissatisfied with the direction of the country than the population at large, independents have more views in common with Democrats than with Republicans. And nearly 40 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans want to see the nation move in a different direction. Still, the vast majority expect to vote for Bush.

There's nothing like the faith of a convert, and that's the faith you can inspire in these voters who are in the middle-of-the-road, leaning to the right only because they don't see a reason to come to the other side. And there's nothing like the energy of a newcomer, and that's the energy you can draw from folks who are on your side, but have decided to sit down and sit out.

To help in this effort, you need a running mate who can balance your ticket, not just geographically, but temperamentally, as well. You need someone who exudes optimism and hope, who can help bring out in living color the real benefits in store for the country under your administration.

The bad news in this poll demands your attention, Senator Kerry. Americans feel themselves in the pitch dark. But the good news is that they've not gone silent — not yet. They're speaking about their dissatisfaction. They're saying that they're angry. Let them know that's a good thing — and show them that they can follow you to the light.

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