It’s long been the cliché that voters judge politicians based on their likability. There’s truth to it, but in my experience, the deeper question isn’t how much voters like a politician, but whether they believe a politician likes them.
There isn’t enough charisma in the world to save you once a segment of the public thinks you hold them in contempt. The most damaging gaffes come when a politician insults, purposely or accidentally, a segment of the electorate — Barack Obama’s comment that voters get bitter and cling to guns and religion, Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent who pay no taxes but leech off the public’s largesse, Hillary Clinton calling half of Trump voters “deplorable.” We forgive our leaders for being cold, dishonest, remote, and yes, even unlikable. We can’t forgive them for disliking us.
The core of Joe Biden’s politics is his talent at fulfilling the simplest of political and emotional needs: Joe Biden likes you. That was the message of this convention, and it’s the message that has always been at the core of his politics. Joe Biden likes you if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. He likes you even if you don’t like him, because it’s his job to like you, no matter how you vote.
“While I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president,” Biden said. “I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did. That’s the job of a president. To represent all of us, not just our base or our party.”
If this sounds trite, consider the contrast it offers to the reality we live in, and the politics President Trump models.
Beyond Conflict is an international nonprofit that helps fractured societies find their way to reconciliation. They’ve worked in South Africa, in El Salvador, in Northern Ireland, and in dozens of other countries. It is a sorrowful sign that they have turned their attention to America, but in June, they released a report proposing a new measure of our divisions, one based on the drivers of conflict they’ve seen elsewhere.
Their index doesn’t focus on ideology or legislative coalitions. They’re measuring something more fundamental: How do we feel about each other? How readily do we dehumanize the other political side? How deep do we think our disagreements run? These, they say, are the divisions that fracture societies. But the twist is that they don’t just measure these fissures directly; they also measure them perceptually. They measure both how we feel about each other and how we think the other side feels about us.
What they found was sobering, but it speaks to the power of the convention Democrats just held, and the fundamental appeal of Joe Biden’s candidacy. Yes, America is divided. But our actual divisions are dwarfed by our perceptual divisions.
On a dehumanization index — which asks how evolved we think others are — Democrats and Republicans both rated the other side at about 80 out of 100. But Republicans believe Democrats would place them at 28 out of 100, and Democrats believe Republicans would pin them at 48 out of 100.
On a dislike index — which measures how warmly or coldly we feel toward others — Democrats put Republicans at 28 out of 100, and Republicans put Democrats at 34 out of 100. These numbers are low, but not as low as the two sides expected: Republicans thought Democrats would put them at 15, and Democrats thought Republicans would put them at 17.
Beyond Conflict also measured issue positions on two of the more divisive question of the era: immigration and guns. The parties perceived themselves as having almost no overlap. In truth, there was a large middle.
These perceptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Our political behavior is governed not just by what we think but what we think our opponents think of us, what we fear they may do to us. “If we think the other side intensely dislikes us not because of what we believe but because of who we are, then we are more likely to intensify our own dislike of them in return, creating a vicious cycle of enmity,” write the authors. As evidence, they find that the more a person thinks the other party dislikes them, the more they dislike the other party.
I do not want to overstate these findings. Politics forces sharp choices, and the mass middle that exists in the country is not always reflected in Washington. Sometimes, the cruder, angrier divisions people perceive are a more accurate reflection of the political choices our system provides. That is certainly true now, when Donald Trump is president. It is possible Americans perceive politics truthfully, even if they are wrong about what their neighbors believe individually. But that’s what Biden is promising to change.
Biden’s politics is based on the belief that you don’t dehumanize people. You don’t dislike them. You don’t let disagreement define your relationships. Give him an “F-” on climate policy and he’ll put you on a task force to improve his plan. Try to weaponize his son’s business ties to destroy his candidacy and he’ll still pledge to try to work with you as president.
And that leads an unusually wide array of people to like Biden back. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) likes Joe Biden, and he’s a democratic socialist. John Kasich likes Joe Biden, and he was a Gingrich Republican. Barack Obama liked Joe Biden enough to make him vice president, even after Biden called him “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Biden “as good a man as God ever created.” Current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called him “a good friend” and “a trusted partner.”
Perhaps the most moving moment of the night came when Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old child with a stutter, described Biden’s kindness to him. “A few months ago, I met him in New Hampshire,” Harrington said. “He told me that we were members of the same club. We stutter.” Biden liked Harrington, and shared with him the book of poems he had used to practice his own speech. The comparison with Trump, who has publicly mocked people for their weight, their disabilities, their height, even for their time as a prisoner of war, was sharp. In a telling moment, my texts filled with fears that Trump would take to Twitter to mock Harrington too.
“I’m just a regular kid, and in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared.”
– Brayden Harrington#DemConvention pic.twitter.com/KoPprXXwCQ
— 2020 #DemConvention (@DemConvention) August 21, 2020
The gaffes that damage Biden the most tend to stem from him liking people he shouldn’t. Biden talked about liking, and working with, segregationist Democrats when he came to the Senate. Biden has said kind things about McConnell, about billionaires. But those aren’t really gaffes: They’re statements of Biden’s core approach to politics. Disagreement is fine. Dislike is not. There are no enemies in American politics, just people who aren’t yet friends.
As an endless procession of pundits — myself included — have pointed out, this is not an approach to politics that can bear the legislative fruit in 2021 that it could in 1978. The big-tent Democratic Party on display at the convention is simply too broad a coalition to actually govern. If Biden tries to keep the Kasichs and Colin Powells of the world happy, he will lose the Bernie Sanderses and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes. If he sides with the Sanderses and the AOCs, he will lose the Kasichs and Powells. The fear many progressive activists have about a Biden presidency is that they are not certain which he’ll choose.
But for now, Biden is running for president, not facing the impossible choices of governing. And his message is simple: Whoever you are, whatever you believe — with the exception of the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville — he likes you, and he is not running for president to hurt you.
In an era when disagreement often feels synonymous with dislike, Biden is modeling a politics where you can disagree without being disagreeable. If he wins, that approach to politics will be tested, and perhaps shattered. But because of the man he is running against now, there is power in that approach, and a truth to making it the central message of his candidacy.
“This is a great nation,” he said. “And we are a good and decent people. This is the United States of America. And there has never been anything we’ve been unable to accomplish when we’ve done it together.”
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