Originally published March 14, 2016 on the Huffington Post
One of the most powerful ways by which to gauge the candidates vying for their party’s nomination for President is in terms of the developmental ages of the primary audiences to whom their appeals are addressed. First of all, developmental age is very different from chronological age. Psychologically, one can be much older or younger than one’s actual age.
A number of analysts have noted that Donald Trump’s use of language is at the level of two-year olds. His constant use and repetition of simple words and phrases–“I’m terrific; I will be so good you won’t believe it; etc.”–are exactly how two-year olds speak and puff themselves up. Two-year olds are also continually prone to temper tantrums and the use of unsightly gestures and facial ticks when others are speaking, and especially when they don’t get their own way. In short, they are not yet socialized, let alone civilized. What’s frightening of course is that so many are also at the level of two-year olds. Trump appeals directly to two-year olds because he vents their raw emotions.
While certainly not young himself, Senator Bernie Sanders is speaking directly to 20 and 30 year-olds. More accurately, he is speaking to the idealism that is a prominent characteristic of young people. To this group, or to that part of everyone that is eternally young, it’s completely irrelevant whether Senator Sanders could ever actually accomplish all of his admirable ideals. All that matters is that he not only articulates deeply humane and just goals, but that he remains true to them.
As an important aside, in Senator Sanders’ debates with Secretary Clinton, his frequent, disconcerting gestures of disapproval reveals that there is a prominent two-year old side to him as well.
In many ways, Secretary Clinton faces the hardest task of all. She is appealing to more mature adults. In the spirit of actually getting things done, she knows that one needs to set tough priorities and to compromise when need be. As an adult appealing to other adults, she does not shy away from complexity. But that’s precisely why it’s so difficult to “package” her policies and programs in simple one-liners that stir passion.
Developmental psychology also helps to explain why President Obama has faced such enormous hostility throughout his entire two terms in office. There is no question that out-and-out racism is a big part of the story, but so is the fact that he thinks and speaks like a professor. In particular, two-year olds and young people don’t like the “know-it-all” attitudes of older wiser adults, especially professors.
Instead of turning to demagogues who amplify our anxieties and fears, and thus use them to their advantage, one needs adults who can reassure us in times of overwhelming change and enormous threats. But this means that we need adults who can use reassuring language while not talking down to us. It also means we need adults who not only understand the idealism of youth, but can incorporate it into appeals for more adult approaches to the great challenges and issues of our times.