Political leadership

Post-election: Sober leadership after the attack ads?

November 8, 2012: 1:27 PM ET

The presidential candidates ran campaigns that were, in many ways, fueled by divisive politics. Now that it is over, how do we recover?

FORTUNE -- It's over, thank goodness, the election is over. Americans all over the ideological map can, at least, celebrate together that the attack ads, snarky debates, and divisive narratives of this presidential race have come to an end.

The ability to agree on that, or anything, may be our saving grace. The U.S. is facing serious challenges, one of which being the fiscal cliff -- severe spending cuts that kick in January 1 should Congress fail to pass a plan to address the federal budget deficit. To tackle the problems we face, politicians and we the people have to undo much of the thinking that this campaign solidified.

Candidates have spent around $400 million each on attack advertisements during this campaign. The vast majority of those ads were negative, according to data crunched by Kantar Media/CMAG and published in the Washington Post. Most of us know and hate these attack ads. They pull the cheap tricks of B-list movies: ominous voiceovers, fade-in text, music and camera angles designed to unsettle the viewer.

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Though they are hardly cinematographic genius, what the ads do very well is paint the opposition as "the other." President Obama "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China," claimed an attack ad funded by the Romney campaign. Despite being false, the ad plays on a xenophobia that would be almost comical if the spot wasn't produced in earnest by the G.O.P. Both parties are guilty, of course. The Democratic party's tag line on ads run in Ohio was "Mitt Romney. Not one of us." What does that even mean? Nothing useful for building a cohesive union.

"There's been billions of dollars spent dividing the nation," says David Rock, executive director of a consultancy firm called the NeuroLeadership Group that aims to apply neuroscience to business leadership strategies. "Now you're going to have a large percentage of the population that is really not going to listen and would like to see that the President fail."

That is because our brains automatically file people into either an "in-group" or an "out-group," according to Rock. Effective ads and vitriol can lead us to strengthen a person or party's status in the out-group. Once someone enters the out-group, we perceive that person differently and become less able to empathize. "The third area that's quite insidious," Rock adds, "is we are literally rewarded when an out-group member fails. We like it."

But for the sake of the country, Republicans and Democrats do not have time to bait then gloat one another's failures. So how do we rewire, now that we must? We have to build new in-groups, Rock says, which people do around shared experiences, goals, or threats.

Government has done this before. Former South African president Nelson Mandela brilliantly manufactured a shared national experience when he brought a racially divided nation together to support its rugby team, the Springboks, in the 1995 World Cup.

Last week, superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast, providing New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie with an excellent reason to work in tandem with the federal government -- on its own, the state could not cope with the damage. After the storm, Governor Christie told Fox News, regarding President Obama, "He has been very attentive and anything that I've asked for, he's gotten to me, so I thank the President publicly for that. He has done, as far as I'm concerned, a great job for New Jersey."

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But America cannot wait for a sports event or another storm to get us to work together. Unfortunately, according to Rock, forming a new in-group often requires a visceral common goal -- something that taps into our gut instinct rather than our intellect. Political ads and public jabs work well because they trigger an emotional response. It's strange to say, but to get political parties to work together, leaders may have to continue to use alarmist language, but shift it away from each other and direct it a common threat.

They can also play down previous disagreements, says Kristin Behfar, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. "When talking about a very divisive campaign, you might change the comparison to what happens in China or countries where elections and campaigns are fraught with problems we don't have," she says. "Therefore, you make the process and behavior here look better than a 'different other.'"

President Obama brought the point home early on Wednesday, arguing in his acceptance speech that tough economic conditions will always create controversy. "We can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today." In other words, this was an ugly race, but the alternative, a "different other," would be worse.

Of course, speeches are just a first, small step towards reconnecting a polarized population. Now Congress needs to unfreeze. It might even be approaching that necessary thaw, if House Speaker John Boehner spoke honestly during a press conference Wednesday: "We're closer than many think to the critical mass needed legislatively to get tax reform done," he said. Time will tell if Congress' proximity to agreement will lead to action and, perhaps more importantly, if the public is ready to reward political leaders who are willing to redefine their adversaries as colleagues.

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