"It’s Time to Tell Our Story": Beto, Democrats, and Emotion in 2020

"Can you talk about the role of emotion in politics - how much does it matter for a Democrat in 2020. . .?" This is the question former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke responded to in front of eager Columbia students in Low Memorial Library on February 4th. While O’Rourke came up short in his 2018 bid to unseat Republican Senator Ted Cruz, he inspired Democrats across the nation with a unifying message and a boldly progressive agenda.

O’Rourke replied that Donald Trump’s fear-mongering with immigration is a perfect example of how politicians can use emotional rhetoric to push a policy agenda: “Dreamers are gang members. . .they will rape your daughter. . .kill your kids. . .take your benefits and your place. . .That is a powerful, emotional argument, and it cannot only be met by numbers, and figures. . .It’s also got to be met with storytelling and emotion.” According to O’Rourke, Democrats will only win “if we can engage [with constituents] emotionally as well as rationally.”

This is the strategy O’Rourke applied so effectively on the campaign trail last year, so it is no surprise that he defends his own style. But is emotional rhetoric really the best strategy to beat Trump in 2020? Are there dangers that come with this approach?

Despite laments about the demise of rationality in politics, emotion has always played a significant role in democratic elections, according to Laura Jenkins, professor of Political Science at the University of Birmingham. In American politics, this tradition can be traced back to leftist presidential nominee William Jennings-Bryan. Jennings-Bryan presented a fiercely populist message, using the new American rail system to meet voters face-to-face. Much like with O’Rourke, Jennings-Bryan’s ability to connect emotionally with voters earned him a cult-like following and helped him raise money.

Importantly, though—and also similar to O’Rourke—Jennings-Bryan didn’t win. His campaign increased the intensity of voters’ support faster than their numbers.

Emotional rhetoric was employed again as political strategy in the 1970s, when groups opposed to the feminist Equal Rights Amendment used fear-mongering tactics to quash its ratification—even though the amendment enjoyed support from a majority of Americans.

On a more recent note, Brett Kavanaugh’s emotional speech during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing may have helped get him confirmed, as he passionately rebuked Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations with emotionally-charged stories about his upbringing and deceased father.  

It is thus clear that emotional rhetoric remains an effective political strategy that can be used to craft narratives and reach people unconvinced by statistics and policy proposals—and who often reside outside the moderate majority.  Though it can be used to create positive change, I am concerned about the consequences of this approach. There are plenty of instances in history where emotional rhetoric helped increase the following of ill-intentioned candidates and propel them into power.

Adolf Hitler is an obvious but important example. Hitler came to power in Germany without ever winning an actual majority in an election, using emotional rhetoric exploitatively. He thrived on people’s anger, economic anxieties, and prejudices to engineer one of history’s most horrific genocides.

If his ascent sounds familiar, it should. Hitler rose to power by seizing on people’s emotional frustrations and then steering the nation toward tyranny. Donald Trump  also got elected by capitalizing on racial and economic anxieties, and recently declared a state of national emergency to build a wall along the US-Mexico border—a move that has already prompted many states to sue for its unconstitutionality. I have no intention of being alarmist or drawing unfair comparisons, but feel a need to point out the historical similarities.  

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Emotional rhetoric, when misused, threatens a democratic process that should operate around a common set of facts -- not a series of competing emotional narratives. Even so, in our current political climate, the morality of this political strategy may be beside the point. As O’Rourke savvily points out, a logical, moderate approach to politics is meaningless if it doesn’t win. O’Rourke, a prodigious user of social media, can attest that especially in the digital age, emotional soundbites get more coverage than does dry policy. Any argument that uses both logical and emotional ‘truth’ is generally more compelling, well-rounded, and, as O’Rourke puts it, “inspiring.”

The Democrats’ most pressing need is to get Trump out of office by any means necessary.

Even if the efficacy of emotional appeals raises concern about the volatility and vulnerability of the American electorate—and in my opinion, it does—these worries may be irrelevant until the Democrats address their foremost problem: getting elected. It is also certainly true that an emotional campaign based on unity, empathy and concern for minority groups is an improvement from one based on resentment and fear.

Perhaps O’Rourke is spot-on in his estimations, and an emotional approach is not only the most ‘inspiring’ strategy for a 2020 candidate, but also the most pragmatic one. This would put him in an excellent position to pursue the presidency, if he so chooses, and demonstrate that Democrats are most successful when they temper policy proposals with emotional appeals.  

Ellie Hansen