Home 2016 elections Winning Elections: The Science of Trust

Winning Elections: The Science of Trust


Guest Post by Virginia Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke)

There is a false narrative that we Democrats must be eye-for-an-eye in our resistance to conservative political success, as anything else is considered weak. However, if politics is about relationships and relationships are built on trust, then why else would we be asking any other question than: are we building trust?

We should ask about how our purpose, strategies, and tactics are working to build trust. I believe our Democratic Party must take radical immediate actions to help rebuild trust with the American people. The neuroscience of trust shows us that it is not WHAT issues we stand for, but rather HOW we stand for them as an expression of our values that builds trust in the mind. Below are the elements of trust. Everyone weighs the elements differently, but there tends to be a generational divide where older generations weigh the first three heavier, while younger ones favor the latter.

If trust has little to do with WHAT issues we stand for, but rather HOW we stand for them, we should take note of the elements above. Our party should be asking: are we significantly fulfilling these elements in HOW we execute our strategies and tactics?  Here are some thoughts I have on improving HOW we connect:

  • FIGHT LIKE HELL FOR WHAT WE BELIEVE IN – We can fight for the progressive values and issues we stand for, and play to win. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi (similar to our Donald Trump) was eventually defeated after many years when the Left focused on the issues, excluding personal attacks. We must fight for our issues, not against Trump the person. The 2016 election showed us this only backfires.
  • BUILD UNITY ON VALUES, NOT IDENTITY POLITICS – Trust is built in HOW we fight, or our values in action. Let’s define our values and have the discipline to live them “beyond a reasonable doubt.” We must leave identity politics behind and rally around our common values as Justin Trudeau is doing in Canada.
  • BE REAL ABOUT THE MIRROR, FORGET THE WINDOW – Critically acclaimed leadership writer Jim Collins discusses in his study of top leaders over 40 years that the most successful leaders had the uncanny ability to look in the mirror in times of failure, not out the window.  We should keep our focus on how we can grow from lessons learned.
  • EVERY CORNER STRATEGY – Sincere involvement means we need a multi-year strategy of supporting candidates in every corner of the Commonwealth. In the information age, campaign dollars have a sharp diminishing return. We can get more utility by investing in our message and organizing in every community. If our purpose and values are solid and we find and train good candidates, then our message will spread.
  • EMBRACE PROGRESSIVE POPULISM – Robert Reich has it right; progressive politics can win. The people want fundamental change with real ethics reform, big money influence out of elections, Glass-Steagall reinstated, and the end of gerrymandering! The citizens are tired of establishment politics. We must be sincere about ceding power to the people as these steps are essential to rebuilding trust.
  • RADICALLY EMPATHIZE – Empathizing does not mean we must agree, but Martin Luther King Jr. was successful when he preached we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Split up Trump voters. Yes, some may be racist or bigoted, and we should aggressively condemn their actions, but many did not begin as Trump voters. Empathy is tough and we need to listen to the concerns of all Americans.
  • STOP NEGATIVE POLITICS – We are disrespecting voters when we try to scare them into voting our way. Our obsolete campaign tactics erodes trust with voters. They feel manipulated; the same feeling as we have with a bad car salesperson. We should never say anything about anyone unless they would agree with it if they were in the room. Don’t be a bad car salesperson, respect the voter enough to come to her/his own conclusion.

Let’s start building right now. With trust as the basis of our engagement, we can nurture Democratic brand champions. These champions will help us turn out the vote and win elections.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Human affairs are generally so complex that a great many things can be said about any one socio-political phenomenon that are all true, simultaneously. And in Sam Rasoul’s statement above, he says many true things.

    But his account also leaves out something quite essential: over the past generation — from the rise of Gingrich and Limbaugh up through the election of Donald Trump as president — a force has taken over the American right, and its political arm the Republican Party, that is more thoroughly and systematically destructive than anything we’ve seen before at center stage of American politics.

    The characterization of today’s Republican Party, by Ornstein and Mann a few years ago, as an “outlier” hardly captures the enormity of the dark turn that Party has taken. The only remotely comparable phenomenon in the history of the United States was the takeover of the politics of the American South during the period from the early 1830s up to the outreak of the Civil War in 1861 by an increasingly rabid force. That, too, led to great destruction of the nation and of its core values.

    To get an idea of how important the absence of this element from Sam Rasoul’s analysis, consider 1) this: would we not have to say that President Obama has scored rather high on all six of those builders of trust that Sam lists, was he not an exemplar of many of them? But also 2) Is it not also the case that during the eight years that he has been the leader and main spokesperson of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has lost a considerable amount of ground, in competition with the Republicans, in both Houses of Congress, in the various states’ governor’s mansions, in the state legislatures?

    Those two points fit together because, despite President Obama’s considerable virtues, like Sam Rasoul he dealt with the rising darkness on the right as if he hardly saw it (until Trump was the GOP nominee), and when he saw it he dealt with it in the mild kind of way that Sam advocates when he says, “We should never say anything about anyone unless they would agree with it if they were in the room.”

    I am probably as hungry as anyone for a world in which being consistently “nice” and walking the path of peace are viable options for everyone all the time. Unfortunately, we live in a world where sometimes that path leads to disaster, and we have needs for other tools in our toolbox.

    If we do not understand WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, we will continue to fail to block it from not only rolling over the Democratic Party but — far more important! — laying waste to all that is best about our nation.

    • Christopher Fury

      This isn’t about being “nice.” This is about having a solid (and, most important, consistent) core belief, and testing that belief against the people, all of the people, in this country, by LISTENING TO THEM, and then engaging them in our core beliefs. It’s about treating everyone with respect, and not belittling them if they disagree. Work together on the issues we can agree on.

      We obviously don’t have to agree with everyone about everything, but we have to be respectful of their opinions. So, so much of what I witnessed and experienced throughout this campaign was anything but. It was Hillary or bust, for many democrats, and pretty much all the Hillary Camp and the DNC did was focus on how bad Trump was.

      I was there — both the state convention in Virginia and the DNC was a let’s hate on Trump parade. Very little policy was discussed, except in back rooms, and even then it was a contentious debate between centrists of the party and the nearly 47% of delegates who wanted something more progressive.

      This continued into the general election cycle, with disastrous results.

      We can’t continue that method if we are going to win elections. Obviously negative politics don’t work for us… because that’s pretty much everything this election was about.

      • Andy Schmookler

        Nothing I said in any way contradicted the notion that it is important to have “a solid (and, most important, consistent) core belief, and
        testing that belief against the people, all of the people, in this
        country, by LISTENING TO THEM, and then engaging them in our core

        And I would say that the notion that a candidate for office in these times “should never say anything about anyone unless they would agree with it if they were in the room” is about being “nice.”

        • Christopher Fury

          I didn’t say it did contradict you. I was reiterating what I feel Sam is saying, that is something different than what you’re implying.

          I believe that it is incredibly important, in this current environment, to be respectful of people of all beliefs and walks of life. I thought this was a democratic principle.

          There are going to be people on *both sides* of this artificial divide we call the two party system that share a great many of the same beliefs and values.

          We will also have large disagreements. There are pundits, many of which you name, that are pretty much demagogues. They are going to say whatever gives them the larger argument. We shouldn’t completely ignore them, but I don’t think we should stoop to their level, either.

          It serves us democrats no purpose to use their tactics to rile up people…. it doesn’t build coalition, and it only serves to divide.

          I have a great many friends, family and cohorts on either side of our false divide. People on both sides are smart, intelligent, and have strong beliefs.

          We can have spirited arguments for our own individual beliefs, but we should treat each other with love and respect.

          We all live in the same country, and calling people racist for supporting this candidate or that, with so little ability to choose “other” in our country is a path to ruin.

          For all of us.

          • Christopher Fury

            And yes, before you go there, I realize you didn’t call anyone racist. It is an example I’ve seen in many forums… and it is an example of the “going hard” and “standing true” to principles that many are currently advocating.

          • Christopher Fury

            larger audience, not argument. Thanks auto correct.

      • A_Siegel

        “respectful of opinions” — Does this extend to ‘opinions’ based on and promoting falsehoods? For example, climate denial? Racism? Anti-vaccine? Or …?

        • Exactly, some opinions – bigotry of any kind, science denial, etc. – are not worthy of the least respect, but should be shunned, mocked, attacked, countered, etc. As for the people who spew that crap, they should be defeated at the polls, preferably by a huge margin.

    • Sam Rasoul

      Andy, you are reader and a writer. You should read Conversational Intelligence by Judith Glaser. Cutting edge work. I would welcome your thoughts.

      • Andy Schmookler

        Thanks for the suggestion, Sam.

        Perhaps you could state here what, if anything, Conversational Intelligence has to say about how one should talk to persons # 1 if you think that persons # 2 are continually lying to them and manipulating them in order to exploit them.

        If that is in fact the case, is it not important that the people being lied to and manipulated and exploited come to recognize that truth?

        And if it is the case, and if it is important, does Conversational Intelligence have anything to say about how that need is best met?

        • Exactly. I have personally watched as Andy has patiently, politely responded to right-wing trolls, climate science deniers, etc. .respectfully and with 100% factual information. The response, 9 times out of 10, has either been silence, personal insults, spewing back more falsehoods, or all of the above. And this, again, is in spite of Andy’s very high level of “conversational intelligence.” Point is, it simply doesn’t appear to work with hard-core right-wing troll types.

          • Andy Schmookler

            For 12 years, I have been simultaneously trying to find constructive ways of engaging people who are in the right-wing fold (and not only the trolls, who are determined to fight, and not interested in any kind of dialogue; also just regular conservatives who have a degree of goodwill) AND watching to see if anyone else is succeeding with what they are trying.

            So far, I’ve not seen any clear success. The right-wing has created a culture of discourse that is pretty much impervious: “don’t trust the journalists, don’t trust the scientists, don’t trust the foreigners, and certainly don’t believe anything a liberal says.”

            There is an ingrained propensity to perceive anyone who differs from the orthodoxy as an enemy, and then to defend the orthodoxy by fighting the enemy.

            Yet the effort must be made. And we never know what the LONG-TERM effects of our efforts may be. (Some people think my way has had an impact, over time. I’d like to think so, and I think it’s possible. But I don’t assume.)

            BTW, this is all very relevant to the piece I just posted this morning: “Missionary to the Conservatives.” I wrote that piece as someone who has been engaged in dialogue with people on the right for 24 years. And as someone who watched as the culture of the right went into breaking-bad mode during the era of KarlRovian propaganda.

          • “The right-wing has created a culture of discourse that is pretty much impervious:”

            Having been active in politics, including blogging, since 2003, I’m 100% with Andy on this. Over all this time, I have seen ZERO evidence that a “focus on building trust by understanding the needs of person 1 (the voter) and trying to genuinely engage them rather than on being right” has had any impact whatsoever. If anything, a lot of psychological research seems to indicate that if you present facts to, let’s say, a climate science denier, it actually causes them (paradoxically) to entrench even FURTHER in their incorrect position. Instead, I advocate a focus on winning elections, rallying our base, and not worrying much about trying to convince the right wingers at all. Regardless, we are the LAST people right wingers would ever listen to, so no sense wasting our time/energy…

          • Claire English

            I think we have to accept that “troll types” on either end of the spectrum are probably lost to us (at this point). However, they are a considerable minority and the vast majority will respond to and participate in open and intelligent conversation when offered reasonably and compassionately.

          • “…the vast majority will respond to and participate in open and intelligent conversation when offered reasonably and compassionately.”

            I’ve been reading and writing on blogs since 2002 and have never really seen that happen. In fact, quite the opposite. Can you provide any examples of where the approach you suggest worked to entice trolls into an “open and intelligent conversation?” I honestly can’t think of a single one in almost 15 years.

          • Claire English

            NOT trolls. No, no. Not the minority (trolls) but the majority — reasonable people — should be one’s aim for intelligent conversation.

          • Sorry, I misread that – my bad. Definitely, you’re right about NON-trolls, the problem is that trolls make up a significant % of most discussion forums (e.g., the Washington Post’s) that I’ve seen.

          • Claire English

            Yes, the trolls are dramatic. And drama makes news. Sigh …..

          • Sam Rasoul

            You are spot on Claire. The voices on both ends are amplified many times and they only represent a small minority. We need to get out of our echo chambers, and engage sincerely.

          • Strongly disagree that it’s “both ends.” Go to any comments section right now – Washington Post, wherever – and see where the insane s*** is coming from. Yep, it’s 99% the far right, the climate science deniers, ,etc. Very, very little (1%?) from the far left. Please stop making this pernicious, dangerous, damaging false equivalency. Thank you.

            P.S. As for the “echo chambers” point, that’s also not at all correct. See Pew’s study on Political Polarization & Media Habits, an authoritative study by a well-respected, non-partisan group which finds that there are HUGE differences between how liberals and conservatives get their information. In short, the RIGHT relies heavily on Fox and a few other hard-right publications (ECHO CHAMBER ALERT!), while liberals get their news and information from a wide variety of sources. See graphic below which illustrates this.


          • Claire English

            What you say about percentages is true. I think that a righteous coat doesn’t feel good on me (nor does belligerence) so I have to admit that I know some pretty extreme neoliberals whose ideas I find as fearsome as those on the far right. I’m sure I’ll never change their opinions. But that’s okay — Democracy’s a messy business. BTW, no equivalency was stated or intended.

          • Claire – I was responding to Sam Rasoul, ,not to you…unfortunately this commenting system sometimes doesn’t make that clear. I will edit my comment to make it much clearer…Thanks. – Lowell

          • Claire English

            Evidently DISQUS is messy business too!

          • Claire – Yes it is! LOL

        • Sam Rasoul

          If person #1 (the voter) perceives that your facts are in conflict with person #2 (Republican), then the conversation usually ends up “Positional” which speaks to more the amygdala for all parties involved. If the conversation shifts to focus on building trust by understanding the needs of person 1 (the voter) and trying to genuinely engage them rather than on being right, then the conversation shifts to “Transformational” and becomes more than a zero-sum game between you and the voter. Glaser would tell you that most of us are so blind to this possibility, because we are chemically addicted to being right.

    • A_Siegel

      “We should never say anything about anyone unless they would agree with it if they were in the room.”
      – Do we agree that Trump/GOP ran a campaign that leveraged / empowered racists (and even Nazis)?
      – When confronted with this at Harvard, Trump’s Conway blew up in outrage.

      She was called what she is for what she did … should we care whether she agrees with the description?

      • Dems actually have a duty to inform the public about their Republican opponents’ extreme views, corruption, bigotry – or all of the above in the case of Trump. At the same time, of course (does this really even have to be stated? seems so glaringly obvious) Democrats need to make CRYSTAL clear what they stand for, that Dems are the party of working people and the middle class, that Republicans are the party of large corporations and the super rich, etc. And yes, we should say that to their faces as well.

  • BTW, here’s how Republicans wage elections – no holds barred, definitely not focused on substance or policy, etc. Doesn’t seem to have hurt them at all.


  • Elaine Owens

    Sam talks about arousing the amygdala as if that is alway something that’s not useful if we want to reach voters; however, the amygdala is the seat of other emotions besides fear, including the release of hormones that trigger many moods. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that people usually vote based upon the emotions aroused in them, not by sympathetic conversation or mainly engaging their cerebral cortex. I believe Barack Obama was successful in his second election even though the economy was still struggling, not because he reached a level of conversational intelligence with his audience, but because he made people feel comfortable that an adult was in charge and things were improving. Sam and Christopher are right that the Clinton campaign didn’t have the issue base it should have had. Instead, it jumped on the obvious weaknesses of Trump and used that, almost to the exclusion of all else, as the reason she should be elected. At the same time, Trump appealed to the emotions of the white working class that is afraid of becoming a minority and losing its privileged status (thus, anti-immigration), its anger at the feeling that they were stuck with little hope for a better life in the future (bring back our jobs). Trump played to those feelings, making promises he can’t keep. We will win back voters when we make them feel our solutions to problems feel better for them than the opposition. That means being the firm “opposition.” We also must remember that this was a “change election.” Bernie Sanders was so successful in the primaries because he was seen as a change agent. Even with all this, Clinton will still win the popular vote by 2 million plus votes. Again, my greatest concern is down ballot, where we got creamed yet again. Maybe we need to look at the lack of organization skills from the DNC on down as a greater problem than our participation in a conversation. We used to have labor unions, fraternal groups, etc., to organize around. That’s all gone. Meanwhile, the GOP has Chambers of Commerce, right-wing think tanks funded by right-wing billionaires, etc.

    • Christopher Fury

      The democratic party has made plenty of propositions they couldn’t follow through on. Single Payer health care is a favorite of mine.

      I campaigned and contributed to Obama’s campaign. He had a Democratic Senate and House, and yet still backed down on single payer because the health care and insurance industry (read: $$$) didn’t want it.

      If we are to have serious change in this country, we have to shutdown special interest access to our government.

      They can have a seat at the table, but not the entire buffet.

  • Transmuter

    Sam is right on all accounts. I fully agree Dems have lost touch and need to earn trust back.

    When people think of Hillary Clinton, fighting for unions rights and regulating banks does NOT come to mind. That’s why blue lost. Hillary supposedly had this progressive platform, but never talked about it. Instead the campaign courted Republicans.

    • A_Siegel

      Agree with caveat … big difference between what Clinton spoke about and ‘what’ public heard via media/etc filters. There was, essentially, zero major media discussion of policy differences during fall 2016. Essentially ZERO.

      Now, there were lots of faults in ‘how’ policy was talked about — lots of wonkish papers and a serious paucity of ‘elevator speech’-like talking points for Hillary & all of her surrogates (including canvassing volunteers. And, there was far more ‘Trump is horrible’ than ‘here is a way Ds will work to solve your problems & create opportunities.

  • A_Siegel

    Appreciate the emphasis on ‘look in the mirror’. The Democratic Party infrastructure structures, at most levels, from not having ‘infrastructure’ for honest lessons identified work.

    With the 2016 election debacle, we need to have an honest accounting — of what went right, what went wrong; what were critical conditions & how might they change (for example, expect much worse voter suppression; don’t expect all the major newspapers’ editorial boards to back the D candidate in 2020) — and take these lessons to create conditions for victory in years to come.

    Many of your thoughts, it seems, are the sorts of lessons that would result from serious lessons identified work.