More or less contemporaneously with the Andrew Llyod Webber hit, John Gray wrote a book called “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus.” The core concept (which Gray unfortunately pitched in a gendered frame), is the vast gap between the way people express themselves and what is understood by their listeners.
All of us process the world from both emotive and analytic perspectives. But most of us have a default mode (I’m definitely more towards the “analytic” end of the spectrum; and rate much more towards the “thinker” end of the Myers/Briggs spectrum than the “feeler” end). We may also express ourselves more from one stance and hear others from another. These differences are a recipe for a vast range of “failures to communicate.” Regardless of your own preferences and tendencies, it takes some real attention to parse what people really mean underneath what they are saying. Expressions of unhappiness may appear as the rejection of plans which are not (apparently) connected to the source of the discontent. Ideas are advanced that are more a manifestation of angst or delight than any assessment of the need for or cost/benefits of the nominal proposal.
If I were a professional psychologist, I would vector off into a discussion of how this shows up in personal or business relationships or friendships (familiar to anyone who has a spouse, child, or business associate). But as an observer of the political culture, I can’t help but notice that much of our current cultural confusion is tied to this problem. I was particularly struck by the attention to poll numbers earlier this year which showed an uptick in Biden’s “approval” rating. The commentariat was quick to draw potential implications for the mid-term elections, but it seemed to me that these results were a great example of my point.
The nominal polling question was: “Are you satisfied with the President’s performance of his job?” But most folks don’t know what the President does or even what he has the power to do. The global economic upsets caused by the war in Ukraine and the pandemic are but the most recent examples of events which profoundly affect people’s lives over which the President has little control. Hell, as Trump discovered to his frustration, the President is barely in charge of the Executive Branch, much less the whole US Government—much, much less the economy and the vectors of global infection.
Most people were actually answering a different question: “Are you happy about your current life and prospects?” (i.e. based on health, family, jobs, views on abortion or who won the 2020 election). In other words, they were giving a “feelings” answer to a “solutions” question. This obviously doesn’t tell us much about whether Biden is actually doing a good job or even what people’s opinions of his work and policies.
Much the same can be said of the reaction to Trump both during his Presidency and since, both by supporters and detractors. Indeed, he has made a political career out of not really caring about the merits and policies but giving voice to the anxieties of a fair number of Americans. (Much the same can be said of a host of other world leaders who tap into the same visceral fear in many of their citizens.) At the time of his first campaign, there were those who said that the Dems erred by taking him literally, but not seriously; while his supporters took him seriously, but not literally. I think there is a lot to this framing, but rather than using a Red/Blue (or even, per my recent post, a Left/Right) dichotomy, I suspect the real demarcation is between those that are analytical and those who resonate more with their feelings (at least when it comes to politics). How that split maps into the political spectrum is an interesting question (for another day).
Trump is hardly unique in this regard, even among US political leaders. You may call it “political license” or disingenuity, but leading with comfort and reassurance rather than policy specifics seems to be a prerequisite to electability rather than a disqualification. Neither Wilson nor FDR expressed a desire to go to war, based on their assessment of the public mood, even as they recognized the realities of global affairs. People vote for psychological security, confidence and comfort rather than briefing papers.
You may consider that this is but one more example of me “tilting at the windmills” of our 21C human world; but I regularly find it useful to think in these terms when listening to others talk, whether politicians, spouses, friends, or others. I’m not sure that I understand their feelings, but if I can at least pause rather than responding to their literal/nominal statement; I find that I’m better off.