Tikkun Magazine


Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Cultivating a Public Emotional Intelligence

by Peter T. Dunlap

The naive hope we had for transformation in 2008 has crashed down around us. Whether we support Obama's pragmatics or listen instead to the many progressive commentators who proclaim Obama's betrayal and failures, the task in front of us is the same. Whether liberal or progressive, we have to build a new political culture starting from where we are right now.

The new political culture can be built on the traditional alliance between progressive politics and science, beginning with political psychology. From this psychology we are learning to pay more attention to the emotional experience of citizens in order to "frame" a political message that will appeal to the common values of a majority of Americans. However, it's time to use this psychology to go further. Not only do we need to frame our message effectively, but we also need to be able to learn more about using our emotions publicly, that is, to speak out in our organizations and communities in order to draw the attention of all citizens to the moral necessities and opportunities for transformation of the present moment. I think of this as the development of a public emotional intelligence.

In Obama we have a president who has shown us a level of a public emotional intelligence; however, his pragmatic approach to politics may be too liberal (that is, overly rational) and as a result emotionally dense or naive. His failure to anticipate the backlash from the Right and to be more ready to fight suggests an overidentification with thoughtfulness and a lack of consideration for the political necessity of using feeling, including anger, to direct the attention of the American people to the moral necessity of his political agenda.

Unfortunately, the response of the progressive community to Obama's politics is equally troubling. While appearing more willing to take on the Right, many progressive commentators come off as presumptuous. It's too easy to tell someone else how to use their power rather than work to develop our own, which I suspect reflects mismanaged emotions. The progressive leadership risks wallowing in surprise and disappointment, which smacks of impotent blame. The resulting Obama-bashing does not model a public emotional intelligence. Instead it communicates to the progressive base that surprise and disappointment can be trusted. These feelings will not help with the current crises; expressing them publicly is indulgent and a failure of leadership.

When the Left is ascendant, it immediately begins to eat its own, thus supporting the Right's natural willingness to grab the reins. From our passionate nature, as well as our farsighted thinking, we can communicate our moral vision, showing the American people how to feel, how to sacrifice, and how to care and be accountable. There are a number of innovative technologies and practices coming out of political psychology that help political leaders, commentators, activists, and their organizations to develop a public emotional intelligence. It is crucial that these new methods be integrated into the liberal and progressive political communities as soon as possible.

Peter T. Dunlap is a psychologist working in private and political practice. He works with social change organizations to cultivate educational, healing, and community engagement practices in order to support their self-care and public communications and to develop their public emotional intelligence. He has published his research with progressive leaders in a book entitled: Awakening Our Faith in the Future: The Advent of Psychological Liberalism (Routledge, 2008).

Source Citation: Dunlap, Peter. 2011. Cultivating a Public Emotional Intelligence. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.

tags: Politics & Society, US Politics