The Political Brain
The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation
By Drew Westen
New York, 2007
When reason and emotion become disconnected, the result is often disaster. Sometimes that disaster may take the form of a neurology patient who, like those described by Damasio, can’t use emotion to stay out of harm’s way. Sometimes it takes the form of a psychopath, a person who experiences little or no remorse, empathy, or concern for others, who may know he is breaking laws or causing others pain, but doesn’t care.
At other times, that disaster may take the form of a Democratic political campaign.
In his handling of the Swift Boat affair, what Kerry effectively told the American people was what he would do if America were attacked: he would wait an inordinate amount of time until he had gathered enough evidence to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, use polls and focus groups to see what kind of response Americans preferred, and then write our enemies a letter imploring them to stop their terrorist acts immediately.
Sometimes, the meta-message is the message.
Double pointed ouch.
... the left has no brand, no counterbrand, no master narrative, no counternarrative. It has no shared terms or "talking points" for its leaders to repeat until they are part of our political lexicon. Instead, every Democrat who runs for office, every Democrat who offers commentaries on television or radio, every Democrat who even talks with friends at the water cooler, has to reinvent what it means to be a Democrat, using his or her own words and concepts, as if the party had no history.
If this is how Coke marketed itself, we would all be drinking Pepsi.
Someone had to say it, obviously. And Drew Westin, a clinical psychologist and political strategist from Emory University, has stepped up to the plate in The Political Brain to give a scathing, sobering diagnosis of what ails a political party whose beliefs are in line with the majority of Americans on almost every issue and yet fails to translate that alignment into sustainable electoral success. Armed with numerous studies on how the brain operates in that crucial interplay between emotion and reason that energizes voters, Westin has succeeded in penning a manifesto on behalf of bringing the passionate back into the narrative—and actions—of the Democratic Party.
Building on neural pathway studies and what is revealed about how the brain works in complex unconscious networks, the author discusses how partisans use facts and rationality not to form opinions but rather to reinforce previously held "gut" beliefs about values and principles, Westin exhorts the current leadership and strategists of the Democratic Party to stop campaigning on laundry lists of policy issues and begin speaking in terms of passion, using narratives and bold messages to engage an often apathetic electorate.
Democrats, and particularly Democratic strategists, tend to be intellectual. They like to read and think. They thrive on policy debates, arguments, statistics, and getting the facts right.
All that is well and good, but it can be self-destructive politically when alloyed with a belief in the moral superiority of the cerebral at heart, because moral condescension registers with voters.... They do so, I believe, because of an irrational emotional commitment to rationality--one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail.
He notes the incongruity evident when the very party that considers itself most empathetic to the plight of the suffering is the most reluctant to make use of emotion when presenting its case as the standard-bearer of heartfelt American values. "The paradox of American politics," he writes, "is that when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the party that views itself as the one with the heart (for the middle class, the poor, and the disenfranchised) continues to appeal exclusively to the mind."
This reluctance, Westin maintains, is killing Democrats who go up against a savvy Republican Party with a long track record of appealing to the emotional side of voters. Traditional Democratic advisors (and rank and file Democrats as well) for the most part view targeting voters’ emotions as ultimately manipulative and unethical, an understandable hesitation in light of the GOP’s proven ability to prey on fear, prejudice and wrath—through lies—to win elections. Yet resorting to unethical manipulation doesn’t have to be modus operandi, Westin points out. Repeatedly, in dozens of different ways, he attempts to talk progressives out of this irrational reluctance to eschew dry cerebral policy issues in favor of targeting the hearts and values of American citizens. He makes the distinction clear in this passage:
My goal in this book is not to advocate that Democrats emulate the ethics of Karl Rove. But there is no relation between the extent to which an appeal is rational or emotional and the extent to which it is ethical or unethical. Every appeal is ultimately an emotional appeal to voters’ interests—what’s good for them and their families—or their values—what matters to them morally. The question that decides elections is whether the appeal is a weak one or a strong one.
And he reiterates this stance in this passage:
The central thesis of this book—that successful campaigns compete in the marketplace of emotions and not primarily in the marketplace of ideas—may at first blush be disquieting to many Democrats. But the reality is that the best way to elicit enthusiasm in the marketplace of emotions is to tell the truth. There is nothing more compelling in politics than a candidate who is genuine. And the issues that most tempt politicians to spin and parse are precisely the ones on which they should tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Westin is fierce in his criticism of past Democratic presidential campaigns and cites many examples of the kind of dead, vague, safe language and symbolism so beloved of establishment strategists and party leaders. Overreliance on focus groups and polls have turned our candidates into cardboard caricatures who appear pandering and lifeless to any voter who manages to tune in. For this failing, he largely blames the handlers and strategists (Bob Shrum takes a lion’s share of heat):
Most importantly, their obsessive attention to facts and figures, their caution and risk aversion, their indifference or disdain toward emotion, and their conflicts around anger and aggression (which may lead them to generate rationalizations against attacking or responding to attacks), leave them misattuned to some of the most important emotional signals in electoral politics, such as whether a candidate has charisma, what nonverbal signals he or she is sending, what emotions the candidate is or is not activating in the electorate, and when it is time to capture the moment with a positive or a negative appeal. Such individuals may seem highly competent because of their capacity to read power dynamics, and at times this may lead them to make good calls. But they are fundamentally handicapped by an emotional style that runs contrary to what is required, particularly in the era of television, of someone charged with managing the emotions of the electorate.
In the case of the Kerry campaign, and subsequent public Democratic leadership positions since the 2004 loss, the author is particularly harsh in his condemnation of the unwillingness of party spokespeople to come out swinging to boldly declare the current administration’s methods and lies in violation of everything this country purports to stand for. In fact, it’s a lapse of ethics in itself not to attack passionately the reign of destruction that has ensued, asserting that "the failure to ‘go negative’ against an incumbent whose behavior is deeply immoral or destructive to America’s moral authority is itself an ethical failure."
For those who take refuge in cerebral rationality when there is much to get angry and emotional about, Westin asserts that the Republicans have consistently displayed harrowing depths of viciousness and lack of remorse. "People without conscience," he states, "respond to aggression, not to appeals to the conscience they don’t have." As such, he offers this reminder:
Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson didn’t make their case for "all men are created equal" by addressing the smokescreens put up by Southern politicians to stop black people from voting. They didn’t argue about the pros and cons of literacy in a Democratic electorate to make a case against literary tests. They didn’t argue about the utility or disutility of poll taxes in a republic. They understood that this was just the smoke, and that the real issue was the fire in the belly of those who were burning the crosses.... You don’t put out a fire by waving at the smoke. You put out the fire. And if someone keeps starting those fires, you put out the arsonist.
Throughout The Political Brain, Westin offers alternative narratives that Democrats could have offered if they’d not shivered and balked in the face of polls to use conciliatory, "safe" language on key issues. In particular, he provides sample narratives on some of the most divisive issues stirred up in the electorate—guns, abortion, gay marriage—without claiming his examples are the only possible responses. He emphasizes that these are issues on which Americans face internal conflict as beliefs in fairness, safety and privacy weigh against the GOP’s seizing of the "moral" high ground of sanctimony and the American tradition of individualism. Openly acknowledging these internal conflicts within individuals—and not just between polled demographic chunks—allows for some nuance about some truly gray areas with which a majority of conflicted citizens struggle.
Near the end of the book, the author sums up what cognitive science has learned about the interplay of reason and emotion, and what the implications are (or should be) for successful future Democratic campaigns:
Voters tend to ask four questions that determine who they will vote for, which provide a hierarchy of influences on the decisions about whether and how to vote: "How do I feel about the candidate’s party and its principles?" "How does this candidate make me feel?" "How do I feel about this candidate’s personal characteristics, particularly his or her integrity, leadership, and compassion?" and "How do I feel about he candidate’s stand on issue that matter to me?"
Candidates who focus their campaigns toward the top of this hierarchy and work their way down generally win. They drink from the wellsprings of partisan feelings. They tell emotionally compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in.... They run on who they are and what they genuinely care about, and they know their constituents well enough to know where they share their values and where they don’t.... They speak at the level of principled stands. They provide emotionally compelling examples of the ways they would govern, signature issues that illustrate their principles and foster identification.
Issues, in this view, are the outcome of unconsciously formed value presumptions. They should follow and illustrate the deeply held beliefs of the Democratic Party about justice, opportunity and equality. They are the visible and detailed roadmap of how to bring shared values into everyday life; without a clear master narrative of what Democrats stand for, issues alone are policy wonk drivel that voters learn to dismiss as irrelevant and boring. The job of Democratic leaders today is to convey clearly both their bedrock party principles and their passion to make them concrete in policy and legislation. Sometimes that means calling out the other side in the strongest terms imaginable on its extreme and undemocratic assumptions and methods.
And lest progressives fear that clear, fearless language and savvy use of today’s varied media—and that in Westin words, "negative campaigning is inherently unethical"—I leave you with this one observation from the author to ponder about this country’s most devoted practitioners of Enlightenment, our Founders:
Anyone who believes this should read the Declaration of Independence.