History & Politics

Emotional Intelligence in Politics

In January of 2018 I arrived at Vanderbilt University in Nashville to begin a year as a visiting scholar, an opportunity afforded to me by the united encouragement and generosity of University Chancellor Nick Zeppos, Vanderbilt Medical Center CEO Jeff Balser, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry Stephan Heckers, and Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society Keith Meador. I am grateful to you for the trust you placed in me and for the reflective time and space provided among bright colleagues to sort out my next professional step. 

 

At the beginning of the visiting scholar year I divided my time equally between research on clinical depression and research on the American Revolution for a book entitled Disunion Among Ourselves. As I advanced these two distinctly separate spheres of academic interest, I discovered a stunning overlap. In twenty years of clinical work in internal medicine and psychiatry prior to coming to Vanderbilt, I had leaned heavily on the psychological concept of “Emotional Intelligence,” especially in the practice of psychotherapy. But now, at the Vanderbilt Law School, where for six to seven hours per day month after month I read the letters of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, and Abigail Adams, the concept took on a dynamic new meaning. 

 

One day in early September I read George Washington’s first Farewell Address. Written in 1783 during a time of extraordinary political disorder and escalating disunionist sentiment in the young nation, Washington called for “brotherly love and affection.” Civility, respect, and reconciliation, the founder assured American citizens, was as indispensable to our national happiness as the rule of law itself.  

 

What Washington prescribed for the good of the nation was “the prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.”

 

That day I came to the conclusion that Washington was an exemplar of “Emotional Intelligence in Politics.” And soon, as I read more letters, I discovered that so many of the other founders, most strikingly Franklin, Madison and the two Adams, were inveterate experts in this field as well. Since that September of reading letters and Washington’s Farewell Address at the Vanderbilt Law School, I have not stopped thinking about “Emotional Intelligence in Politics.” It is a critical, multidisciplinary field of academic inquiry that combines the best of the sciences and humanities in its search for truths about how the human mind functions in politics at its most mature and reflective levels of operation.   

 

I remain committed to the belief, along with Washington—and, by the way, Lincoln, FDR, and MLK—that emotional intelligence in our constitutional democracy is essential to its survival and that everything possible should be done to enlighten citizens, educators, and politicians to its salutary benefits and nation-saving effects. 

© 2019 Eli Merritt