Beware the novelty act
Wednesday, August 7, 2019 at 2:35 PM
Ann Timmons

Now that the 2020 presidential campaign is off and running I'm being asked: What do I think of Bernie's yelling?Warren's wonky performance? Doesn't Biden just look like a leader? I'm in the business of leadership communication, and I appreciate the part debates play in helping voters make up their minds. But I'm all too aware of the fact that performance is not governance. The horse race that engrosses us now is barely connected to actual policies for creating a more perfect union.  

We all remember candidates who captivated us with terrific performances (who can forget Sarah Palin?) until we found out they had very little substance underneath their charisma. Which is why I fear Marianne Williamson's candidacy.  We need to guard against being caught up in her performance as truth-telling outsider. I have heard many people say she made some good points, showed herself to be worthy, etc. I must admit I watched her with fascination, calculating the amount of effort she must have put into her two turns on the debate stage. The fact is, any speaker who works at it can hone a message and perfect a delivery that casts her in the role of savior. It's even easier if she adds a touch of magic and mysticism. 

An ethical speaker shares insights and ideas to solve problems and create new opportunities, but the unethical speaker intentionally inflates her own importance by playing to the audience. Williamson does that when she exploits our greatest hopes and deepest fears ("
if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred... then I'm afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days."). 

It's true that successful candidates connect to the hearts of voters as well as their minds. One of the best examinations of this subject is Drew Westen's 2007 book, The Political Brain. Many campaigns I have worked with use Westen's insights responsibly, to good effect. But what of those who seize upon the power of emotional connection and use it as a substitute for critical thought? Where are they leading us? We need to ask ourselves if any fresh-voiced, self-described radical renegade is being at all truthful when she promises to challenge Washington "with courageous love." If a candidate has no actual experience doing anything remotely like what she promises, how can we, as voters, believe her?  We need to shake off this enchantment and demand real answers to serious questions.

I know what power there is in a performance that makes you feel. But politics isn't theatre. Or entertainment. And the stakes are too high for us to be seduced by another novel performer. 

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