By Tito Sasaki
Rights are losing their power in American politics,” reported the venerable British journal, The Economist, in its recent issue. It went on to say, “Arguments rooted in abstract principle are increasingly trumped by fuzzier appeal to empathy and fairness. If (this trend) proves durable, politics will feel very different for partisans of Left and Right.”
A good example is gay-marriage legislation. Prior to 2012, campaigners focused on civil rights, arguing that the ban was equivalent to racial discrimination, and therefore it had to be abolished. When the argument didn’t succeed, they switched the tactic to appealing to voters’ hearts. They portrayed gay couples yearning to show the world their commitment, just like any newly wed would. “These couples are asking to join the institution, not to change it. Surely, you voters must be magnanimous enough to give them a shot at happiness, aren’t you?”
It worked, and ten states have passed laws permitting gay marriage since 2012.
Immigration reformers are also now telling the stories of young migrants brought here as children illegally at no fault of their own, yet barred from attaining the American dream. Such an approach seems to be working better than arguing the fine point of policy, and getting the ears of conservative lawmakers.
The Economist article concluded that, in an era of skepticism and division, standing on rigid principle can be a blunder; it only fires up partisans, and won’t sway voters in the middle. Voters today want to be wooed, not pressured.
Good points, but appealing to hearts is nothing new in politics. In 1952, then-Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon faced a political crisis over alleged misuse of his campaign funds. He decided to appeal directly to the hearts of voters. In the 30-minute talk known later as the Checkers Speech, he portrayed himself as a patriotic, hard-working man of modest means, struggling with mortgage payments and whose wife could only afford a cloth coat. He then declared that he wouldn’t surrender one gift: a cocker spaniel his 6-year-old daughter, Tricia, had named Checkers, and was inseparably attached to. His speech generated four million support telegrams, letters, and phone calls, and assured the Eisenhower-Nixon victory. And Checkers received a year’s supply of dog food.
Another (and the first) Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, also appealed to the hearts of Americans, but in a different way. In his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that lasted barely two minutes, he gave moving tribute to the dead; recast the Civil War as an extension of the founding of the nation; inspired those alive to carry on the unfinished work; and concluded it with the now-famous “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
The brevity of the speech was remarkable. The oration that preceded Lincoln’s lasted two hours as many commemorative speeches in those days did. More impressive was the persuasive power and complex ideas expressed by just ten sentences. Clearly, Lincoln’s genius rested in mobilizing not only his heart but also his head, guts and backbone.
We farmers and ranchers will keep telling our stories and reaching the hearts of others. But, as property rights are fundamental to agriculture, not all of our issues can be resolved by another Checkers Speech. We will then have to strive to reach the level of Lincoln.