According to the New York Times, the Democratic party is all atwitter about a new book (The Political Brain by Emory University professor, Drew Weston) that advises politicos to forget about issues, policies and even facts in favor of connecting emotionally with voters. According to the Times, Bill Clinton is even underlining passages for his campaigning wife.
At first blush, that doesn't sound like a formula to improve political discourse. But in fact it recalls some of the themes of Walter Lippmann's classic book, Public Opinion. Although written in the 1920s, it remains a singularly insightful analysis of how public opinion is formed.
“Opinions,” Lippmann wrote “are not in continual and pungent contact with the facts they profess to treat.” In real life, opinions float on a current of emotion that has far more force than the pictures or words that aroused them in the first place. Over time, people know what they feel without being entirely certain why they feel it. And those feelings can be provoked by stimuli far removed from the ideas that aroused them in the first place.
Pollster Frank Luntz has made a tidy career out of helping Republicans navigate those emotional currents by cloaking their proposals in just the right words -- "death tax" rather than "estate tax," for example. Now, of course, the wide availability of brain imaging has given the whole field a scientific aura. But its roots go all the way back to Aristotle who famously counseled that persuasive appeals could be based on the character of the speaker (ethos), the logic of the argument (logos) or the emotions of the listener (pathos).
In that sense, U.S. public diplomacy should be more "empathetic," i.e., connect emotionally with people around the world before trying to sell them a defense of our policies.