Republicans are from the heart; Democrats are from the head

“There is a wisdom of the head,” Charles Dickens wrote, “and a wisdom of the heart.” Judging by the evidence of the last few weeks, those two wisdoms are running against each other in the U.S. presidential election, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

Of course, head versus heart is a political battle that dates back to Plato at least. Over the long term we know it always results in a stalemate, usually somewhere around the jugular vein. Effective governance ultimately needs to both inspire the population and function in reality. But in the short term, the head/heart distinction may be the key to understanding the appeal of various candidates and the contours of the general election. 

The brainiac

Head wisdom seeks to persuade through analysis and facts. Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi was a display of head wisdom—though also, undeniably, stamina—in its finest form. A fair share of the media coverage pointed to her “calm demeanor,” “measured tones,” and “clear knowledge of foreign policy questions.” Detailed answers, impeccable logic—all wrapped in enough figures and bureaucratic jargon (“CODEL,” ISAT process,” “QDDR,” “ARB reports,” “SVTS”) to send policy wonks into paroxysms of joy.

And so, particularly after her performance in the October 13 Democratic debate and in front of the Benghazi committee, she is the clear frontrunner in the Democratic (head) primary. But it is a safe bet that not many made it through all 11 hours of testimony and few found inspiration in any of it.

The excitables

Last night’s Republican debate was a very different affair. Republicans—and particularly the frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson—aren’t really running on any specific policies, even if they do allude to a few. They are seeking to appeal at a different level. The wisdom of the heart seeks to motivate through emotion and inspiration. 

But facts don’t appeal to the wisdom of the heart. Vague anger and frustration does. So, Trump lamented, “Our country doesn’t win anymore. We used to win, we don’t win anymore. We lose on trade. We lose with ISIS. We lose with one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen negotiated of any kind, that’s our recent catastrophe with Iran. We don’t win.”

The Republicans in general, as the opposition party, are seeking to tap into a broad albeit inchoate sense of anger at the political establishment. Donald Trump especially is pure heart wisdom—his supporters struggle to even explain in policy terms why they like him. The winner of the Republican (heart) primary will carry that emotional banner into the general election, but whoever wins will struggle to convince the broader electorate of his or her competence.

Internal struggle

There wasn’t much foreign policy in last night’s debate but it may end up being the key terrain where head and heart conflict in the general election. Polls suggest that foreign policy experts and the general public also tend to disagree along head/heart (respectively) lines. More experts than the general public tend to support increasing immigration to the United States, for instance, and fewer experts than the general public fear a U.S. war with Russia or China. Previous research has shown that the public tends to think it is “very important” for the United States to be tough with China on the economy and trade; experts, in contrast, are much more likely to favor building a mutually beneficial relationship with China. 

President Obama has, on issue after issue, given the public the foreign policy their heads claim to want. He has pulled back from wars in the Middle East and sought to avoid further entanglements there. He has privileged working with allies and using sanctions and diplomacy with Iran and Russia. When he has used force, as against ISIS, he has done so in a way that spared American soldiers and avoided extended commitments. But in satisfying their heads, President Obama seems to have lost their hearts. 

The growing sense of chaos in the world has fed a sense of insecurity, which even if not entirely rational, is laid at the feet of the president. In their hearts, the American people crave an overall sense of safety and security. Most of the Republican candidates have sought to profit from the vague sense of fear. Trump explicitly blamed Obama’s leadership for this predicament: “By the way, unlike our country where we’re totally predictable and the enemy, whether it’s ISIS or anybody else, they know exactly what we’re doing because we have the wrong leadership.” Chris Christie, taking a similarly alarmist tone, declared: “We have ISIS and al-Qaida attacking us.” He wants to “get the government to do what they’re supposed to be doing, secure our borders, protect our people.”

At the same time, in their heads, the public still seems to want to avoid the types of painful, costly commitments that American leadership in promoting global stability would seem to demand. The contradiction created will pose a challenge for both candidates of the head and the heart.

Who will tell the people?

Unsurprisingly, as policy wonks, we are head people. We get that Donald Trump isn’t the only one who doesn’t know the difference between the Quds and the Kurds—most Americans don’t either, and it’s not unreasonable to fear what you don’t know. So whoever wins the presidency will need to find a way to comfort the heart as well as to satisfy the head. But ultimately pandering to heartfelt—rather than brain-felt—fears can lead to rash, vague, or just bad policy prescriptions. Real leadership involves leveling with the public about what U.S. foreign policy can really achieve in a world that is often beyond American control—something we have seen precious little in this campaign. In politics, the heart usually wins; in policy, the head always does.