I was walking into a mall recently when I stopped by a man who would later recognize as the best salesman I’ve ever met. I know this because he managed to sell me a $40 bottle of something called deep skin cleaning lotion. For context, I am a 28 year-old guy, and I have never once bought, wanted to buy, or even considered buying anything for my skin that isn’t called after-shave. What’s miraculous, however, is not that I bought it. God knows I’ve bought things at farmer’s markets out of politeness and resignation. No, what’s amazing is that he sold it. Like a true salesman, he convinced me that I wanted it. And gosh darned it, I walked home with that deep skin cleaning lotion feeling like I’d made the buy of the century. I hadn’t just bought it – I’d bought into it.
(You had be there).
But there is a real lesson to be learned here, and it’s not about dermatology – It’s about politics. More specifically, it’s about lazy politicians who would do well to learn a trick or two about salesmanship from our traveling salesman friend.
Many of us assume that politics has to be slimy – in part, because the word “political” is itself a pejorative term. Someone who is acting politically pretends to act in your interest, but is really acting to further his own objectives. Behind the scenes, they are scheming and machinating and just generally watching out for themselves.
But the problem isn’t politics. In politics as in business, there is nothing new about self-interest. Indeed, I had no self-delusions that my new skincare friend was there to turn a profit. What’s distinguishes our politics from our business world is not the politics, but the shamelessness and laziness with which many in our political class do their job.
Let me give you just one example, which happens to be from today’s Wall Street Journal. Here is House Speaker Boehner talking about the Senate’s refusal to pass the House’s Obamacare-free budget package:
They will be deliberately bringing the nation to the brink of a government shutdown for the sake of raising taxes on seniors’ pacemakers and children’s hearing aids and plowing ahead with the train wreck that is the president’s health-care law
This is not salesmanship. This is laziness. The allusion to the old and the young is transparently phony, and reeks of Senator Ted Cruz’s “single mom working at the diner” syndrome. Moreover, the core of Boehner’s attack – that Democrats are ‘deliberately bringing the nation to the brink of a government shutdown’ is equally lame, because it transparently contradicts the facts; it’s the Republicans who are deliberately upping the stakes (notice, this is not about legitimacy, because legitimacy is a normative notion; I’m referring to the simple facts of the matter). Finally, the “train wreck” allusion is sloppy. In writing courses, when you make a claim, you need to prove it – through facts or (as I’ll explain later) rhetoric. Boehner is lazy because he does neither. Nobody who disagreed with him at the beginning of his speech will agree with him at the end. He’s not proving anything – he’s just repeating his own beliefs.
Good salesmen making you feel smart, and try to convince you that they’re a little bit smarter. Bad ones assume you’re dumb and speak down to you.
Guess which one this is.
To borrow the words of everyone’s favorite caped crusader, this country needs a better kind of politician.
Some idealists look at Capitol Hill and dream of a country run by fact-driven technocrats incapable of lies. But that view is misguided, for one simple reason: most political endeavors are likely to create winners and losers. For example, the healthcare system is costly for young people who are not likely to get sick. Social Security is great – if you’re over 65. And, likewise, good luck raising taxes after systematically explaining how well-off Americans will be paying for food stamps and education for the bottom 50%.
No, that won’t work.
What a politician really sell – and I do mean sell! – are the common ideals that bind us together. Responsibility. Common Success. Freedom. These are the ideas that, when probably sold, can appeal to all Americans – even the ones who’ll be footing the bill. In that sense, they are a lie – to a cynic, they will seem like shameless instruments to further one’s ideological vision of what society should look like. But the difference is that when these visions are communicated well, nobody feels fooled; quite the contrary. Indeed, our highest ideals are what drive us to eschew self-interest in favor of moving mountains and working as a team.
In the words of a 19th century German politician “Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”
When Republicans talk about freedom and responsibility, they need to do more than repeat those words while standing in front of factory workers: they need to breathe life into them. They need to convince us that a better life is possible if we give them the authority and the power to makes these principles a part of our American life. They need us to dream for an America where responsibility is not just a word – it’s a key to unlock our potential as individuals.
Likewise, when Democrats talk about unity of purpose and compassion towards the unfortunate, they need to paint a world that is better and brighter because we care for our neighbors. A world where CEO’s and the homeless alike walk upright with dignity because they are Americans, and gosh darn it, we care for each other.
With an exclamation point at the end!
If a traveling skin lotion salesman can do it, so can you!