Is ’emotional intelligence’ the most important political asset now?

October 9, 2010

Emotional intelligence: the most Machiavellian trait?

This is a time of new politics.  A time when politicians are tying their belts tighter.  Politicians of different parties are coming together for the national interest.  This is a time when politicians will actually listen to the public.  ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘A new generation for change’…  Oh come on: get real.

A politician’s perceived ability to relate and empathise is important to the media.  Although we seem to be in an era of X-factor politics, emotional intelligence is as helpful as a wilted wallflower in the grand scheme of things.  Emotional intelligence takes a politician nowhere in the day-to-day running of this county.

We are all political animals, and we use whatever skill we may possess to win our battles.  Thus, having a strategic mind is most important.  Telling people what they want to hear is clearly an election winner.  It seems as though change is the watchword of the moment:  Barack Obama’s ‘Change we can believe in’, David Cameron’s ‘Vote for change’, Nick Clegg’s ‘Change that works for you’, David Miliband’s ‘Movement for change’, Ed Miliband’s ‘Call for change’…what a farce.  The same slogan has been regurgitated by every recent campaign, and people fall for it.  Politicians’s that depict themselves as understanding what people want are not demonstrating ‘emotional intelligence.’  It is clearly the oldest game in politicking, and it is a well-played and well-used political strategy.

Why else is there such a big deal made when a politician goes out of his way to get that photo shot of him kissing a baby?  Gladstone was dubbed the ‘People’s William’ because people thought they could relate to him: there is the familiar image of him, sleeves rolled up, with a shovel digging a hole.  Yet doesn’t this precisely show that politician’s do not have ordinary lives – I’m sure no-one takes photos of the ordinary Joe Bloggs whilst he’s working.  But off-course people fell for it, and they still do.

If anything, when a politician does show genuine signs of emotion, they are portrayed as weak or vulnerable.  Hilary Clinton infamously welled up whilst on her campaign trail.  She was asked, “How do you do it? How do you keep up … and who does your hair?”  She joked that she had help with her hair on “special days,” and that she drew criticism on the days she did not.  Her emotion was very visible when she explained, “I just don’t want to see us fall backward as a nation.”  Her voice was strained and she started to cry.  She continued with, “I mean, this is very personal for me. Not just political. I see what’s happening. We have to reverse it… It’s about our country. It’s about our kids’ future. It’s about all of us together. Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some difficult odds.”  The right-wing press had a field day with this incident. ABC reported this moment by explaining, ‘Hillary Clinton publicly displayed the vulnerability and frustration those around her have talked about in recent weeks.’  Questions were raised: how can a woman that cries possibly be strong enough to lead a country?  Off course, this is absurd.  However, it demonstrates the fickleness of the media and the voters.  People want their politicians to empathise with them.  Yet when they genuinely do, it is a sign of weakness.

What really concern voters are politicians that can get the job done.  Nick Clegg became the country’s darling during the television debates.  His poll ratings were high.  Newspapers backed him.  What did it translate to? 57 seats out of 650.  Despite the cuts to benefits that the Conservatives announced and the outrage from the right-wing press (Daily Mail ran with headlines, ‘Now 230,000 MORE families will be hit by child benefit axe’), a YouGov poll demonstrated that 83% of those polled backed the Tories’ Child Benefit Cuts.  This clearly substantiates that the ability to show that tough decisions are being taken is a strength.  Ruthless sentiments and a ‘tough luck’ attitude may be infuriating, but at the same time is demonstrating that the government is taking action.  Dressing decisions as ‘medicine that is required’ is a skill in itself.  Giving people the perception that decisions are based on common sense and rationale is more important than to just appeal to their emotions.  So, in actual fact, emotional intelligence is not the most important asset a politician has.  The political knowhow of making people believe that it is or is not is the real skill.


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