One of the more interesting books I read years ago was “Cracking the Code: How to win hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision” by Thom Hartmann. The book introduced the concept of issue framing. Everyone knows what issue framing is without necessarily knowing the textbook definition. You can see it every election cycle in politics.
Consider the disparate messages of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both politicians essentially sensed the same thing and tapped into the same feelings. Yet, their messages took their audiences to different places. They successfully framed the issue and in one case achieved ultimate success and in the other narrowly lost two consecutive nominations.
What they sensed was anger. People are angry that they have been left behind. Mind you, this obviously isn’t everyone. The top one percent has done really well for themselves over the last 40 years. The middle class is shrinking. You used to be able to get a high school diploma, start working for a company and then retire in 40 or so years with the gold watch and the nice pension. Now, a college degree is sometimes not good enough.
The power of issue framing is two-fold. First, you identify precisely why people feel angry. This is where both Trump and Sanders were on the same page. Wages are stagnating. The cost of living is going up. It costs more to put a kid through college. Health care costs are on the rise. For the younger crowd, they aren’t even sure that degree gets them anything and they are more likely than ever to come out with a mountain of student loan debt. The older crowd worries if they have enough saved up for retirement. All of this leads to anxiety. When people in government seem to exacerbate the problem or don’t seem to care then that anxiety turns into anger.
This is where the second part of issue framing comes in. It’s also where Trump and Sanders deviate. Who or what is to blame? If you believe Trump is a combination of what we will call “the other” and government itself. If you believe Sanders it is funneling of money and influence to the one percenters. In the abstract, these messages sound more similar than what you might think. The big difference is the focus on the other. In Trump’s case it is those that come into the country illegally. They are sucking up all the money. They are somehow bleeding the welfare state dry and not even paying taxes into the system.
The Sanders crowd would take a famous Ronald Reagan quote and turn it on its ear. In his first inaugural address, Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” For Sanders, you could substitute the word corporations for government and probably come pretty close to his personal philosophy.
The upshot is that all of these philosophies are true and all of them are false depending on who is levying the charge. Identifying anger is pretty easy. Identifying the reason for the anger is considerably more difficult, but it obviously isn’t impossible. Astute politicians gain power when they are able to do both. They remain in power when they are able to successfully convince us that it is someone else’s fault.
The question for the history books is whether they are able to actually do anything constructive about it. Successful managers at all levels know their people. They know when their people are tired, angry, frustrated, apprehensive, and even contented. They know what to do in those moments to get the best out of their people. Wise leaders know when to light a fire someone or pour cold water on a fire. They know when people need either that proverbial kick in the pants or that proverbial pat on the back or hug.
Wise leaders know when people are angry and why they are angry. They also know that anger can be a dangerous thing if left unchecked. Unfortunately, one of our leaders isn’t exactly wise. He just knows that he craves power. He knows he got power by pitting people against each other. It’s not in him to unite. It may be a way to stay in power, but history is not going to be kind in the end.