Most commentators don’t even seem troubled by the personal insults and relentless pessimism; they just view them as the natural state of politics. Negativity is the only way to win, right?
Wrong. There is a better way to compete, a path that is both morally superior and more politically effective in the long run. Instead of striving to be angrier or more outraged than their opponents, competitors should strive to be the happiest person on stage. Don’t believe me? Then consider two experts at winning: Andrew Luck and Ronald Reagan.
Luck is one of the most successful quarterbacks in the NFL. In his first three seasons, he led his Indianapolis Colts to two division titles and the second-biggest playoff comeback in league history. But the Colts star has become known for more than the cannon attached to his shoulder. He is famous for his “happy warrior” attitude.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Clark reported something curious: “Luck has become famous for congratulating – sincerely and enthusiastically – any player to hit him hard.”
A variety of recent opponents all told the same story: “Any sack is met with a hearty congratulations, such as ‘Great job’ or ‘What a hit!’ It is, players say, just about the weirdest thing any quarterback does in the NFL.”
One time, an opposing player hit Luck so hard that the quarterback fumbled. Scrambling for the ball, he didn’t have time for his usual congratulations. But don’t worry – Luck sought out the linebacker later in the game and complimented his play. “You want to say thank you,” explained the baffled defender, “but then you say, ‘Wait a second – I’m not supposed to like you!’ ”
Luck is both unusually successful and unusually cheerful. Far from contradictory, these traits reinforce each other. People say his good humor is genuine, but it has the added effect of throwing the opposing team off balance. Happiness is both endearing and a competitive advantage.
But wait, you might be thinking, football is just a game. Politics is a more serious business, especially today.
There is plenty to be angry about in America today. Many people, liberal or conservative, believe our country is in decline and they are upset. But the plain fact is that even if pessimism and anger are successful in the short run, the public is instinctively attracted in the long run to happy warriors who fight in a spirit of charity. Social science confirms this: One 2013 study published in the Leadership Quarterly showed that positive, happy leaders were perceived as significantly more effective than those who struck an unhappy, negative tone.
There is no one – especially for my fellow conservatives – who made this point better than Ronald Reagan. Many conservatives remember President Reagan for standing up to the Soviet Union or cutting taxes. But the driving force of the Reagan Revolution ran deeper than his issue positions. It was his infectious optimism. He seemed to always have a permanent twinkle in his eye and a joke on standby. It was relentless positivity that enabled Reagan to unite Americans behind his vision.
We all remember “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But critical to Reagan’s success was backing up this moral commitment with the good humor of a happy warrior. He often pointed out in speeches that it took a decade to deliver a new car in the Soviet Union, and joked that once when a salesman instructed a new customer to return in 10 years for his vehicle, he was surprised to hear the customer reply, “Morning or afternoon?”
“But that’s 10 years from now,” the dealer exclaimed. “What difference does it make?”
“Well, the plumber’s coming in the morning!”
If today’s conservatives want to replicate Reagan’s victories in politics and the American heart, we need to replicate his attitude. The mission is not to win arguments or insult people. It is to win converts among those who are not yet converted. And that is only possible when our primary language is positive.
So my advice to the presidential contenders is simple. Want to distinguish yourself from the pack, and elevate the whole race in the process? Instead of going insult for insult, say “Nice hit!” like Andrew Luck. Tell a good joke like Ronald Reagan.
And remember that it is an incredible joy and blessing to even be considered for the presidency of the greatest nation on earth.
This article was posted on The Philadelphia Inquirer’s website on Sunday, September 13.