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Understanding, Explaining and Action

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

There is a difference between understanding and action. Most people understand that it is cheaper to brew coffee at home than to stop by Starbucks and spend $3 on a cup of coffee, but millions of people buy Starbucks coffee. Some buy it every once in a while; some buy it several times a day. They all justify the expense to themselves in one way or another. It's more convenient. It's a place to gather with friends. It tastes so good. It's only $3. The one excuse I have never heard is "I would rather spend money now and not have enough money for retirement."


People are driven by emotion, are often irrational and often make decisions that lead to actions based on how they feel rather than what they know. It's not simply about knowledge but also about how taking a certain action makes them feel -- or how they think it will make them feel -- especially in the short term. We all do this every day -- when we eat another piece of bread, drink another glass of wine or skip our workout.

This week, Fox News published an opinion piece by the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., titled, "Republicans, we must take socialism seriously -- or we will really regret it." The focus of Emmer's piece is that "The 2020 election (is) a choice between socialism and freedom. ... But Republicans must ensure every voter understands what is at stake."

This is the core argument of the 2020 campaign: socialism versus freedom. The challenge is that an explanation alone, even if we can ensure every voter understands it, might not lead to the action needed to ensure a Republican victory. Remember, understanding does not always lead to rational action based on that understanding.

Emmer lays out clearly the ramifications of the two signature Democratic proposals, the Green New Deal and "Medicare for All." The first "will cost $32 trillion, will eliminate the free choice that Americans cherish and replace it with a one-size-fits-all government bureaucracy. It will take away private health insurance from millions of Americans, make it illegal for businesses to offer health care to their employees and leave folks waiting months for worse care at higher costs."


The Green New Deal would leave each of our "American households with a $600,000 tax bill." In addition, "The socialist plan will impose government control over every aspect of folks' lives and eliminate millions of jobs in a variety of different industries."

No job and no car in the driveway -- with an additional $600,000 of government debt -- is not an appealing campaign slogan and obviously is not being used by the Democrats. But taxing the rich to make your life better is the Democrats' underlying mantra, and it is appealing to millions.

While the explanation of the ramification of the other side's proposals is a step in the right direction, it is not the enough. We must offer an alternative that is more appealing, and to do that we must first understand what people both care about and fear, and then offer a solution that takes both into account.

To understand, we must listen -- not talk. Listening is much harder work than talking. But real listening, listening not only to words but also to emotions, is hard. If done properly, it leads to new understanding -- not only for those who are listening, but also for those who are talking. They might just begin to understand what emotions are behind their theories and which actions no longer make sense.

Once the emotions behind the decisions are understood, then alternatives can be offered. People more often make changes if they are moving to something better rather than thinking of giving up something they like. You don't stop eating Oreos because you want to give up sweets; you do it because you want to become healthier, to look better or for some other positive reason.


All too often, both sides in politics use scare tactics to motivate their base. It can be useful to work that way, but to create the environment needed to unify the country, we need a positive vision of the future -- one that energizes and excites a majority of Americans while appealing to their cares and confronting their fears. That's the real challenge of the 2020 campaign for the Republican Party.

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