Every candidate promises to fight for voters. But some candidates are better than others at listening to the voters, getting to know our struggles and needs, and figuring out just what it is that we need them to fight for.
Hillary Clinton started her 2016 campaign with a listening tour. She wanted to meet with the people she hoped to serve as their president, so she could hear what they had to say.
Because there isn’t anything she does that the media don’t spin into a negative, it wasn’t long before her listening tour was reframed as a cynical bid to avoid press scrutiny. Suddenly there were stories keeping track of how many days it had been since she’d answered a question from the press.
Her campaign spokesperson Jesse Ferguson explained: “The focus of our ramp up period is to hear from voters about the issues they care about. She’s enjoyed engaging in hours of public question and answers sessions and, as the campaign progresses, looks forward to more engagement with voters and the press as well.”
The media narrative that she was “inaccessible” persisted nevertheless. But Hillary wasn’t inaccessible to voters. That was the whole point.
Many of the negative frames that we see about Hillary come from media who are petulant about her guardedness toward them. (And without a trace of irony or self-awareness about how their coverage of her over decades might undergird her distrust.) Misrepresenting Hillary’s listening tour as evidence of her alleged elitism and insularity, however, was particularly egregious.
Because listening to people she seeks to help has been a centerpiece of Hillary’s career.
When average people from extraordinary—and often painful—circumstances are asked why they campaign with and for her, they say, almost unanimously, that it is because she listened to them.
The Mothers of the Movement, women whose advocacy and fortitude have been obliged by sorrow, credit Hillary’s listening to them for why they campaign with her.
Then Hillary Clinton comes in, she sits down. And immediately it was like she’s at our kitchen table. There was this overwhelming sense that this is family. She said, “I’m honored to be here with you guys. Tell me about your daughter, your son.” And we were like, “My God.” She took her time and listened to each one of us around the table.
Not only did she hear about these tragedies in the news and on social media and from her staffers, she heard first-hand from the mothers. And she’s a mother. She’s a grandmother. She’s a wife. She’s a woman. She related to us at a time when nobody else would listen.
I chose Hillary because of her record, because of her caring spirit, and because she’s a listener and she’s been involved since we got together.
“She’s a listener” is a thing I have read again and again, from people who have worked for her and people who have met her, even if it was only the briefest of meetings.
And should they meet her once more, she remembers the details from their previous encounter. Because listening, for her, is not a gimmick or a party trick: It’s the way she comes to understand the world, and the people who inhabit it.
Even her most fervent detractors will begrudgingly acknowledge her enviable breadth of knowledge on a vast variety of subjects. That expertise didn’t get absorbed from the ether. She is, famously, a voracious learner—and to be a learner is to be a listener.
Her likely opponent in the general election, Donald Trump, seemingly likes to listen to nothing but the sound of his own voice. And it shows. He famously cited himself as his chief foreign policy expert: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. …[M]y primary consultant is myself.”
By contrast, I believe if Hillary had the time and opportunity to sit down with every potential voter in the nation to listen to their stories, she would.
Failing that, she does the closest thing she can: While her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, was holding gigantic rallies in NYC ahead of the New York primary, she was working small crowds at neighborhood shops. And she won the state.
She’s taken an enormous amount of flak for the comparative lack of huge rallies along her campaign trail—the dearth of which has also served to underwrite erroneous narratives about a supposed lack of enthusiasm among her supporters. But overseeing huge rallies isn’t Hillary’s forte, because it doesn’t provide the opportunities she wants to listen.
In a Buzzfeed profile of Hillary, she details her preferences for townhall events—and even smaller venues—because they allow her to be physically close to people, to achieve “a level of intimacy that you don’t get unless you’re somehow in somebody else’s space.” The sort of intimacy which provides “a sense of being anchored in your life as well as other people’s lives.”
There are endless accounts of the way she listens to people at political events, the way she invites and hears their personal stories, searching their circumstances to find ways to help.
In the New Hampshire Union Leader, Kathy Sullivan wrote:
In a way that I have never seen with any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, current or former, Hillary Clinton absorbs these personal stories and then acts on them. In her first campaign trip to New Hampshire, she heard about the heroin epidemic and the toll it is taking on families. She now has a plan to address the crisis. At other events, she heard from people with spouses and/or parents with Alzheimer’s. As a result, she now has a plan to provide tax credits to caregivers, and to invest in research for treatment and a potential cure.
In short, Clinton doesn’t just politely listen and then move on to the next person. She listens and then does something. She puts it this way: She wants to work on the problems that keep people up at night.
She’s not just a listener, but a productive one. It’s a rare politician who takes the time to listen in the first place, and rarer still to do the follow-up work of developing reactive policy that makes people feel heard.
There are an endless number of politicians who will promise to fight for me. (And for you.) But one of the main reasons #ImWithHer is because she’s shown me, over and over, that she’s done the work to understand just what it is we need her to fight for. Without that, it’s just an empty promise.
And I can get those anywhere.
(Photo by Hillary for America)