Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Election 2012 Shows that Listening Is More Important Than Talking

While there are a lot of takeaways from this past election season, one of the biggest lessons that should be learned by all is the importance of listening. In our era of cable news, soundbytes, and Sports Shouting, it sometimes seems that the most important way to communicate is by getting one's message out as much as possible while paying little regards to the messages being spread by others. The two defining moments of the campaign came to highlight how this strategy of privileging talking over listening came back to bite both candidates.

The first I will address is Governor Romney's infamous "47%" remarks made at a fundraiser in May. Published in a blog post by Mother Jones in September, Romney was filmed saying that
There are 47 percent [of Americans] who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
While there are troubling implications with Romney's remarks in regards to the role of the president to fulfill the needs of all Americans, what really hurt Romney with these remarks was how he seemed to show no interest nor care for that other 47%. He seemed to say that there was one America, "the 53%," that he had an obligation to and that he wanted to help, and that all the rest were not his responsibility. The fact that this was a damaging remark for his campaign is not surprising.

The other key moment of the campaign was President Obama's performance in the first debate. While all due respect should be given to Governor Romney's performance in the debate, the story of the debate was as much about Obama's shortcomings as it was about Romney's success. Over the previous few months, the Obama campaign had worked hard to paint Romney as an out of touch ultraconservative, an image that worked well in light of Romney's primary campaign. In the first debate, however, Romney came out looking much more like the moderate governor of Massachusetts than the conservative presidential candidate who ran in the primaries. Rather than listening to the change and reacting to it, Obama buried himself in his preparation, famously staring at his notes for a much longer amount of time than he spent engaging with Romney in debate.

While the content of the debate had an impact, it was the body language that was much more damaging to the President's campaign. By keeping eye contact and speaking to the President, Romney showed that he was interested in being engaged in a substantive debate. Obama, on the other hand, did not show Romney that he was being listened to, and it hurt his performance greatly.

In the end, Obama's singular blunder proved to be much less damaging than what voters seemed to take as a character flaw of Romney's. Republicans were shocked to find that minorities came out to support the President even more than in 2008, but it should not be such a surprise when one sees which candidate was able to connect and show the he cares more.

This outcome comes naturally as we see the politics of recognition continue to play an important role in contemporary society. This is a phrase I borrow from Charles Taylor's essay "The Politics of Recognition." In his essay, he says that an important part of political and social life, especially for minorities, is recognition: the ability to feel that one is being listened to and that one matters just like everybody else does. This means that politicians need to be people who not only speak their mind for others to hear, but must also listen, not just for content, but for the sake of listening itself. Obama showed in the election that he could do this much better than Romney could as an ABC News election day exit poll showed Obama with a 10 percentage point lead over Romney when respondents were asked who was more "in touch" with regular Americans.

It looks as if Obama may be taking this lesson into his presidency as he has expressed much interest in working with Romney as they move past their election bickering. If there is anything that can be known about the impending "fiscal cliff" debate, it is that more listening will need to be done on both sides of the aisle than has taken place in Obama's first term.

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