During Wednesday's debate on new gun laws, Sen. John Kissel rose and began a lengthy set of remarks with two anecdotes.
First, the Enfield Republican spoke movingly of hugging his youngest son, Tristan, on the day of the Newtown massacre, one day before the boy's ninth birthday. Then Kissel described his own wanderings around Newtown on Jan. 30, when he intentionally arrived early so he could drive around and "try to get a feel for the community."
Like Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Kissel drifted around Newtown in deep communion with his thoughts. He arrived at a park where, he imagined "the souls of the children and administrators and teachers" of Sandy Hook Elementary School. "I like to believe one goes to heaven, but if they come back down as angels and visit, that would be familiar territory and friendly territory."
As stories go, this one didn't have much of a point, but Kissel needed to tell it simply to depict himself as a decent guy who was profoundly stricken by the Newtown tragedy but was voting against the gun bill anyway.
Just so there's no mistaking my tone: I like Kissel, even though we don't agree about much. I was touched by the Tristan story, which seemed to come straight from the heart. The playground scene seemed more like an inoculation. He knew he was on the losing end of a 26-10 Senate vote for stronger gun laws. He could not afford, also, to lose the Battle of Who Cares More.
Up in the gallery, a large contingent of rough-and-tough-looking gun fanciers and hard-core hoplophiles watched the debates with a sinking sense.
"I think there's a little too much emotion. They're not thinking this all the way through," said Burt Begin of Canton, a short, compact man in a leather jacket and an National Rifle Association baseball cap. In Begin's view, feelings were driving out reason in the debate. He also understood why Kissel spoke as he did.
"They try to paint us as not caring," Begin said. He said he was as hurt as the rest of us by the horrible deaths at Newtown, but he believes in mental health measures, not gun laws. Even the narratives depicting the fallen teachers and administrators as heroes, said Begin, seemed designed to energize an emotional view of the problem.
"There were no heroes that day," he said. "Just victims."
Politics have always been emotional. When an effusive woman told Adlai Stevenson after a speech that "every thinking person will be voting for you," Stevenson rejoined, "That's not enough. I need a majority." But we seem to be in a new era in which politicians are unusually comfortable with citing emotions and personal relationships as the basis for their decisions. Connecticut is temporarily the epicenter of this phenomenon, for obvious reasons.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a guy who ordinarily seems almost clinically out of touch with his own feelings, is now in the grip of unfeigned anguish over what he saw on Dec. 14. In his opening address to the legislature this year, Malloy had to pause in his description of the tragedy, genuinely overcome and in danger of losing it.
On Wednesday, one of the Republicans who broke ranks and supported the new gun laws was Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury, and he did so because of his relationship with the family of a victim, Caroline Previdi. McLachlan said he discarded his previous views on gun control and supported the bill "in hopes that I am properly honoring Caroline Phoebe Previdi."
This phenomenon is by no means confined to gun debates. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman recently reversed himself on gay marriage, not because his careful study of the issues revealed to him a fundamental injustice, but because he learned his son is gay.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes spoke for many when he said: "Empathy, especially in elected officials, is a good thing. But there's also something frustratingly blinkered and limited about this form of persuasion. If it's going to take every anti-gay politician having a gay son for gay people to be treated like the other human beings in this country, then equal rights are going to take longer to achieve than they should."
And indeed, the liberal wing of the Twitterverse exploded with people asking whether Republican politicians would also have to experience one of their children being poor and homeless or going through cancer without health insurance or enduring foreclosure before they started to care about that stuff.
Somewhere around 1980, Republicans seized the Politics of Emotion as their own. They were led first by Ronald Reagan, whose mastery of assigning a feeling to a policy was not unconnected to his background in Hollywood. Behind the scenes, they found a guru in West Hartford native Frank Luntz, who taught them, starting in the 1990s, to construct their campaigns around language that kicked emotional tripwires. "Eighty percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect," Luntz told PBS' "Frontline" in 2004. "I'm much more interested in how you feel than how you think."
Matters came to a head in 1988 when Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was unable to include an emotional component in his answer to a debate question about what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered.
Bill Clinton provided a brief hiccup of instinctual politics. He was able to say "I feel your pain" with real plausibility, in sharp contrast to George H.W. Bush, an old school patrician who had slowly been promoted up the ladder of electoral politics without ever really having to understand them. Then it was back to the emotionally tin-eared Al Gore and John Kerry.
In 2007, Drew Westen, a psychology professor from Emory, published "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." Westen depicted the political mind as a steaming stew of emotion, snap judgments and confirmation biases. He reported that MRIs showed no increased activation of brain centers associated with reason when test subjects were making political judgments. Instead, the emotional regions lighted up like Vegas. Westen said the kind of rational thinking championed by John Locke and Thomas Paine plays a role in 0.5 to 3 percent of important political decisions.
Westen is a Democrat. He aimed his criticisms at Democratic political consultants who were leading their candidates down the wrong, hyper-rational path. He was part of a chorus. University of California, Berkeley, linguist George Lakoff was making the same argument to Democrats — that political thinking is at the mercy of a bunch of lower-order functions like emotions and senses. Meanwhile, Democrats found their own Frank Luntz in Michael Sheehan, a political consultant who specializes in combining the most natural speech rhythms of a candidate with sets of persuasive words. With a background that includes Yale Drama School, Sheehan developed a process not unlike method acting. Some part of the core of you is combined with the words you need to say.
Few major Democratic political speeches are given in America without Sheehan in a Henry Higgins capacity. He's usually the last thing you see as you walk out on the convention stage if your last name is Obama, Clinton or Biden. The goal is a carefully sculpted version of authenticity.
So the playing field has been leveled. Neither side has cornered the market on emotions right now, and that's probably a good thing. But what happens when our passions are held up as more important than our power of reason?
In 2011, state Democratic Sens. Edith Prague and Andrew Maynard scuttled the abolition of the death penalty even though both were historically reliable votes on that score. Their reason? They had met with Dr. William Petit Jr., and, even though they both opposed the death penalty, they said they couldn't take the chance of depriving him of having the death penalty imposed on his family's killers. This didn't really make any sense, logically, and the following year they were back on board with abolition.
This year there are two bills in the legislature that would restrict public access to death certificates or severely limit the information contained in them. The bills arise from an understandable revulsion triggered when the press started rooting around in the Newtown death certificates while the grief was still fresh. The idea, which includes cutting cause of death out of the certificates, is a terrible one, but it might just fly in a climate so tinctured by personal pain.
On Wednesday, it was hard to miss the inversion. Gun people are used to being the hotheads, with the sharply worded signs, the "Don't Tread on Me" flags and the fiery talk. The gun control side more typically asks that cooler heads prevail.
Newtown shifted the balance of affect, enflaming the passions of the reformers and leaving guys like Begin to stand out in the hall pleading, "Let's think this through more carefully." That always feels like the weaker position. As East Windsor native Jonathan Edwards, the greatest American theologian of the 18th century, said in a sermon, "These affections we see to be the springs that set men agoing, in all the affairs of life, and engage them in all their pursuits: these are the things that put men forward, and carry them along, in all their worldly business; and especially are men excited and animated by these, in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigor."