One of the books that got me temporarily banned from the Johnson County Library system this summer was The Political Brain, which I had waited for months to get and then couldn’t give back until I’d gotten through it. I’ve paid the fine, though, and am back in their good graces, and, more importantly, the book provided the insight for this post, which kicks off a week of election discussion here:
Social workers’ understanding of how people process emotions and make emotionally-driven decisions, combined with our commitment to seeking justice through collective action, make us uniquely qualified to shape campaigns for elective office.
I know, this sounds contradictory, given what I’ve written about social workers’ avoidance of power, but this book makes a clear case, based on analysis of political campaigns (and people’s response to them) as well as psychological and neurological research, that tapping into voters’ emotions, in a way that’s authentic, is key to winning races, and, more critically, shaping policy debates.
And social workers know feelings.
Unlike some of the unsuccessful, progressive politicians profiled in the book, social workers see every day that making a purely rational claim (“Drugs are bad for you.” “Your husband will keep battering you if you don’t leave.” “Your mother needs round-the-clock care.”) often fails to sufficiently motivate behavior.
And we understand why.
We know that change is hard and that the only thing that has the power to overcome our resistance is the activation of our strongest emotions: love, fear, hope, anger. We know that people seldom make cold calculations of “pros” and “cons” before making any of the important decisions in their lives, even when that might not be a bad idea. We know that people orient their decision making around people and that stories and relationships mobilize more than data and logic.
If we bring that understanding into political campaigns, combined with a centering core of social work values, we can help candidates to get their constituents excited about our shared vision for society: healthy kids, strong families, safe neighborhoods, good jobs, a clean environment, civil rights, and a secure future.
We can help good candidates tap into what we know people are already longing for, by reaching them first through how they’re feeling about our country, and our communities, and their lives, instead of only telling them how to think about it. Instead of competing for voters’ attention against the many other demands that naturally command more of their emotional energy (trying to “distract them” away from their children and jobs and worries with obscure-sounding policy statements), we can frame electoral questions so that they resonate with the core of people’s lives.
And we can do this using the same clinical skills that serve us so well in direct practice: understanding where people are, emotionally, in order to “meet” them there; finding, targeting, and activating people’s openness to change and points of receptivity to new information; being comfortable with emotion and all its messiness; recognizing the ambivalence that characterizes many people’s attitudes towards much of life, and figuring out how to approach issues so that people can reconcile their own internal divisions; and insisting that the most difficult issues to work through are precisely the ones that most need our attention.
Let 2012 be the year of the social worker in political campaigns: as candidates, as consultants, as strategists. We have the skill set, and we have the values, and we have the vision. We know how to use feelings to change the world.
It’s what we do.
And it’s what will win.