The significance of Bush’s smirk. Gore’s The Assault on Reason. How work in inner city Atlanta informs his advice to Democrats on campaign strategy.
All this and more can be found below the fold in an interview with clinical psychologist and political strategist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.
"We hide our values in the fine print of our policies and we never explain carefully why we care about poverty."
"If both sides are able to coin phrases that capture people’s imagination, then there’s probably going to be more of a battle of ideas that actually may at times be determinative."
"I think this election in particular is going to be like the election of 1976 in that we’ll have just gone through a period of eight years of tremendous dishonesty where people now recognize the dishonesty and they just want a president who won’t lie to them anymore."
"We’re a party that talks like technocrats when people are asking us questions about the meaning of life."
Let the interview begin:
Your book is a plea to Democrats to get their act together and begin appealing to the emotions of voters. Another currently popular book, Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, is a plea for America to return to the use of reason in its discourse. Do you see the two works as contradictory?
Well, I’ve got his book in my suitcase to read on this trip, so I can only give you a semi-informed response from what I’ve seen of him speaking on television, on Meet the Press and in various venues.
You know ... yes and no. How’s that response? Sound like a politician?
In one sense they are diametrically opposed. They’re opposed in the sense that I don’t think it’s clear to Al Gore – just from hearing him speak, and again, it’s not fair, I haven’t read the book and I hate when people comment on books they haven’t read. But from what I’ve heard him say, it isn’t clear to me that he really gets that what has gotten people to turn the corner on in the climate crisis is not his arguments, which have been there for years. And not the data from scientists, which has been there for years. It’s the fact that he put together, he sandwiched together, a message that really wed reason and emotion in just the way that Bill Clinton did in his speeches, that FDR did in his Fireside Chats, and that successful politicians do.
There’s a structure to a logical argument that is the way Democrats like to talk. Here’s the current problem, here’s the data, here’s the solution for it, this is what we’ll do, this is what it will cost. That’s sort of a logical argument about something. But what sold people on the idea and has led multiple states to leapfrog over the federal government on climate change is that people could see with their eyes the glaciers melting. They could see with their eyes the polar ice caps melting and the glaciers falling. He was using highly, highly evocative words like, "This is our only home."
At the end of the film, I was – as a parent – practically in tears when he asked the question, "What would our kids and grandkids think if they knew that we had all this data, we had all this knowledge about all this, and we just to chose to ignore it? How would they look at us when they realize what world we bequeathed to them instead of the one we could have bequeathed to them, that our parents and grandparents gave to us?" It was a structure of a compelling emotional argument.
If you watch a videotape of say, Bill Clinton in his stump speeches or in his debates ... you always lead with something that grabs people emotionally, whether it’s a moral dilemma or a personal story, someone else’s story or something from your own story. You then talk about what’s the problem, a little bit of data about what it’s about, and then what you intend to do about it, sometimes what the other side is either doing or not doing. And then you come back again to why this is so compelling and important from the point of view of an emotional standpoint.
An emotionally compelling argument always leads with emotion, it sandwiches in the appeal to reason and then it comes back to emotion again. That’s very different from the logical appeal and the kind of appeal that makes philosophers and a lot of the Democratic base happy.
Yes. Although it’s interesting, because when I read The Assault on Reason, in a very paradoxical way (at least to me), it was an emotional plea to return to reason.
Absolutely. That’s my same response, not having read it yet but from having heard him speak about it. It’s wonderful to see him so passionate about something. And to be passionate about reason ... it’s a wonderful thing to be passionate about. But it’s his passion that’s selling the book. If The Importance of Logic, had that been the title, it wouldn’t have sold the book, it wouldn’t have gotten anybody interested. But The Assault on Reason ... It brings to mind the visual images of an attack on something that’s sacred to us. That’s what’s so powerful about the title. That’s why people are buying it.
His description of how we’re so busy watching Laci Peterson and the Runaway Bride when we should be following carefully the details of what’s happening in Iraq ... I couldn’t agree with him more. The only difference I have with him is that Democrats have a tendency, I think, when they’re trying to appeal: It’s like if you’re trying to sell computers, there’s a small percentage of consumers who understand what all the specs mean. But for most buyers, they want to open it up and it turns on relatively quickly and they get the pretty windows and they know how to work with it. That’s what they want. To hear all the specs about how big the RAM is ... you know, the more educated you are, the more interested you are in that kind of stuff. But the reality is that most people’s lives don’t revolve around politics. It’s background noise until September of an election year and then they start paying more attention.
Do you think that the "bleeding heart liberal" label is part of why Democrats who do, as you point out, want to work towards empathetic programs and who feel for the poor ... Do you think that label in and of itself that’s been thrown at us for so long is one of the reasons for the kind of retreat into bland rationality?
It might be. Certainly it’s a part of it, because the right has done such a good job of branding the left with words just like that. When you’re talking about something like poverty: The irony is that if you just put the face on a child of the poor and you describe that to people, you get a completely different response and no one ever thinks of you as a bleeding heart.
If you’re a conservative—or even if you’re an independent or someone who is politically centrist and not really a strong leaner either way—it’s easy to drive through the inner city nearest you and to see the squalor and to see the drug transactions on the street. Part of my research as psychologist in the last couple of years has been studying what makes people the way they are in inner city Atlanta in terms of what their genes are like (which we’re now able to measure) and what their childhood experiences are like and what they’re like as people. In the process of doing that, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with people in inner city Atlanta that are essentially life history interviews, from early in their life on, what their life has been like as a way of trying to understand their personality.
It’s in the stories they tell about their lives, that’s where you really learn a lot about who a person is. That’s the kind of thinking that really informs my political work.
How do you quantify that? When you hear someone’s life story and you need to turn it into some kind of data, how do you do that?
There’s a method that a colleague and I have used that we didn’t invent by any means. It’s particularly useful for that. It’s called a "Q sort." What essentially you do is, after you’ve done the interview, you’ve got a series of – in this case – 200 statements about personality that you rank order into which of those statements are most true of this person. And then you construct scales out of that, that measure things ranging from the extent to which the person is psychologically healthy, the extent to which they’re psychopathic, the extent to which they’re narcissistic, the extent to which they have a depressive personality style. What’s remarkable about that method is you can spend two and a half hours as we do in these interviews just listening to someone’s life story and at the end of it, not only do you have really moving qualitative data, but you’ve got numbers attached to 15 or 16 different dimensions about their personality that you can link to their genes and the interaction of their genes with what has happened to them as kids.
It’s what I’ve been working on for 20 years of my career, to learn how to listen to kind of narratives that people can tell about their lives and their histories and their current relationships. At the end of it, you really know something about them. It’s what I’m starting to do in reverse now in politics, spend time with a candidate and try to elicit a life history, get a sense of ... what is this person’s life history? What’s compelling about it? Why do you have the values that you have? And particularly, what are the memories attached to them?
I always go back to: "Can you give me an example of that?" Or, let’s say hypothetically, that housing for poor people is something that really matters to you. Why is that? What got you concerned about that? And then you get the memories then, you hear about their grandfather working for the WPA and those then become the most compelling stories to tell on the campaign trail.
That’s not how Democratic consultants typically work. They typically work like, "All right, let’s get the right issues and policy statements."
When I do these interviews in Atlanta .... I haven’t done a lot of them. I’ve watched several of them in directing that part of the project. I don’t know if I’ve seen one yet where the person knew both of their parents well, where the parents were married, where there wasn’t one of the parents using crack or in prison or jail during some part of the time that they were a child, or where they weren’t neglected for some part of their childhood or sent from home to home with unstable caregivers in just the ways that we know from the best available science are most likely to create personality problems.
On the one hand, you can look at that and you can say, "Look. Look how awful these people are." And that’s your typical Republican response, which is you look at them and you say, "Can you believe the way they’re acting? They’re having children outside of wedlock and the men aren’t taking care of their kids and the women are getting pregnant at 14 and they’re crack-addicted." I think what Democrats do so much of the time is when they hear that conservative unempathetic, compassionless critique, they try to deny it or they try to avoid it because they know that people know that there’s a huge piece of that that’s true. And if they would just instead embrace the truth and say, "You know, you’re absolutely right. Those are problems that are endemic in our inner cities. But what would your child look like if your child grew up there?"
That now becomes the question for us as a society: How do we prevent the next generation of children from growing up in an environment that we know is toxic? As soon as you do that, you can appeal to them. Maybe you’re in a part of the country where you want to make a faith-based appeal. I mean, Jesus never once talked about homosexuality, but He talked constantly about poverty. Or if you want to make a values-based appeal that is more secular, just simply about compassion and what it means to have a country where we some people have $40 billion and 40 million people can’t see a doctor.
That’s a way to talk about these things that to me is not pandering, it’s not irrationality. I think the problem for the left is that we often don’t understand that everything we do is values-based, just like everyone on the right – everything you do is values-based. We hide our values in the fine print of our policies and we never explain carefully why we care about poverty. Or why do I care about health care and making sure everybody’s got it?
Or why is this even part of our agenda? Why are we even talking about it?
Absolutely. Yes. Why do I care about the minimum wage? This is where we get so awful in the way we use words: Talking about we haven’t had an increase in the minimum wage in ten years. Snore. If you’re already progressive, you say, "Isn’t that awful?" But if you’re not already progressive, you need someone to awaken your values around that and say, "You know, these are people who are working hard and playing by the rules, and look what’s happening to them. Their wages have been stagnant for ten years. Could you be living on less than $20,000 a year as a family of four? And is that fair to do to somebody who is working hard and is trying to have a decent life for themselves and their kids?"
When you put it that way, you suddenly have awakened the values of people, most of whom have good values if you would just remind them that this has something to do with their values.
I want to clarify something. Are Democrats who resist your message, who want to continue to rely on quantitative rational arguments, are they confusing "fact" and "rationality?" It seems to me one can make "fact-based" emotional appeals; if our brains first make an emotional connection, that doesn’t mean that those decisions and those gut feelings are not being reached through fact, does it?. Yet aren’t they? Aren’t you when you make that first emotional connection with somebody that you’re watching before anything else kicks in, aren’t you really taking in facts? Like their tone of voice?
Absolutely. It’s the phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in Blink. The best example that I can think of is actually when voters first saw George Bush and they saw the smirk on his face, they picked up something about him that has turned out to really be the central character flaw that has colored his presidency, which is an arrogance without concern for data. And that smirk betrayed that. It showed a kind of condescension when he didn’t have the mastery of the details. It showed a kind of a belief in the purity and truth of his convictions; he didn’t bother to study what the problem was. People picked that up very, very quickly. And we ought to use data like that. We ought to use those kinds of gut reactions.
The problem, of course, is when they’re manipulated carefully. At some level, the best you can do when that’s happening is to make sure that at the very least, our candidates have as much coaching as their candidates so that it’s a fair fight. This is, in some ways, where Al Gore and I might end up converging. If you have candidates who are emotionally compelling on both sides and who on both sides knew how to make an emotional argument, that kind of argument where you first grab people’s attention with a feeling. You problemitize something for them and make them concerned about it or make them hopeful about it. You then talk about what you’re going to do about the situation, and then you come back to the hope and the inspiration or the fear ... whatever it is ... that gets them to stay on it.
If both sides did that equally well, my guess is that data might start actually mattering more to people in the center. It’s just that one side is beautifully using phrases – in this case, I believe unethically, like "Support Our Troops"—that is deliberately designed to confuse support for the people in the military with support the Iraq war. But if one side knows how to do that, and the other side doesn’t know how to do that, it doesn’t matter what your arguments are.
If both sides are able to coin phrases that capture people’s imagination, then there’s probably going to be more of a battle of ideas that actually may at times be determinative.
Isn’t it also true that if you go through the process like you discuss in your book, of getting to know a candidate beforehand and getting to their genuine interests and issues, you’re not going to have to worry as much about the emotional "tells" that would indicate that a person is pandering or just making something up? If you’ve really mined them for their genuine interests, doesn’t that also help?
It totally does. I think this election in particular is going to be like the election of 1976 in that we’ll have just gone through a period of eight years of tremendous dishonesty where people now recognize the dishonesty and they just want a president who won’t lie to them anymore. And I think in all elections they want genuineness from their candidates. I’m thinking this election in particular, we’re really going to see people wanting candidates who don’t parse, who don’t sound defensive, who don’t stumble over things because they’re being careful about what they say. They want candidates to speak from the gut.
But the one problem with it is that the traditional media is so suspicious of anyone who talks like that. Because so many people who are traditional political analysts think like Democratic strategists, they think in terms of power dynamics, they think in terms of which states you will sweep. And they use language like Bob Shrum uses to describe the presidency as being the "grand prize." To me, I read language like that and it turns my stomach. This isn’t about grand prizes. Especially when you have kids, it’s not about grand prizes. It’s about what am I handing off to my children? And are they going to have a world where they have the opportunities that I had?
I mean, I didn’t come from wealth. The fact that somebody like me who didn’t come from wealth is suddenly able to speak to the country and to the country’s leaders about how they could communicate their messages and their values better ... I’d love my kids to live in a world like that where they could come from nowhere and if they have ideas that people wanted to listen to, they could get them to listen. That’s what got me involved in this in the first place.
We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of conservative voters casting ballots against their own self-interest: What’s the matter with Kansas, after all? We’ve all read the book and we then we sat around asking, "How on earth can people vote against their self-interests? What idiots!" Why is that same question never asked on the liberal side about wealthy liberals? In other words, why do Ted Kennedy and rich Hollywood liberals vote against their best interests?
That is such a great question. And to tell you the truth, in the last few months I’ve been traveling around the country giving this presentation on the ideas that ended up crystallizing into the book. I would frequently get the "What’s the matter with Kansas" question from a roomful of people who are progressive donors. "Why are these people all voting against their self-interest?" And I would always turn it right back and say, "Well, we’re in a nice townhouse in the Village. Why are you guys all working against your self-interest?" It’s the same reason the right does – you have values.
Values that are more important to you than your own self-interest.
Absolutely. There’s a piece to it that is also the case. I think Tom Frank gives the best description of Marx’s concept of false consciousness. You know, there is a side of it that I understand what the point is, how can you vote for people who are giving tax cuts to the wealthy when you’re not one of the wealthy; in fact, these same people have kept your wage from going up for ten years by voting against the minimum wage? That’s so contrary to your interests that it’s hard to imagine what values would transcend it.
But I do think it comes back to the irony of all this: The Democratic Party is traditionally known as the party that values science. We really are the party that governs with science, but campaigns with faith and intuition. And the Republicans are the party that governs with faith and intuition, and campaigns with science. The data are crystal clear that pocketbook voting is only a small percentage of voting. If you look at the data from the last election, what you see is that yeah, sure, people who make under $25,000 disproportionately vote Democrat –as they should if they have any sense – because it’s harder to be thinking about broader values when you’re just trying to get food in your kid’s mouth. And people who make over $250,000 or $300,000 are more likely to vote Republican.
But the huge expanse of people – over 90 percent of people who are in that intermediate range – there is no correlation whatsoever between what they earn and who they vote for. Because those people aren’t poor enough to be so worried about their pocketbook that it overrides their values. They’re not starving. They are instead doing what, really, the founders of this country hoped we would do, which is to put our self-interest aside and to think about what we believe in and to vote on the basis of it.
Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You have to get high enough out that you have time to really think about a better world that doesn’t just have to do with getting a roof over your head.
Absolutely true. It would make no sense if someone who was a minimum wage earner was voting Republican because at that level, in fact ... Before the Democrat’s raised the minimum wage, you’re making such a low income that if you’ve got two or three kids, you’re barely feeding them. So for someone like that to vote Republican, they are getting tricked by the language. But you know, you get much above that range, you get into the range of the average person who makes between $50,000 and $100,000, which is the average American family income, you’re not starving, you’re not doing great. I mean, you’re not coasting, especially if you have children to send to college. But you’re not starving and you are thinking about things like what really matters to you from a moral point of view.
I think what’s so peculiar about the Democratic Party is that we’ve always been traditionally the party of the morality of compassion and of inclusion and of community, rather than division. And yet in the last 30 years – with the exception of the Clinton years – we’re the party that talks about essentially: let’s get the trash collection going well and let’s make sure HUD programs are working effectively. We’re a party that talks like technocrats when people are asking us questions about the meaning of life.
Yet we have wonderful values.
Absolutely. We just don’t talk about them. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to get Democrats to talk this way. It’s not the easiest thing. Part of it is that in our primary system ... on the Republican side, no one demands Mitt Romney have a 95-point health care plan. On the Democratic side, the pundits, even Iowa caucus-goers, want to see what your plan is for the economy or for health care. We force our candidates to do exactly what will lose them the general election, which is to focus on the minute details that will never get enacted the way that they’re proposing anyway because you have to get things through the Congress. And to get them to focus on here’s this issue, and here’s how my plan can clash with this person’s plan. The reality is that has no relation whatsoever to how people will vote in the general election.
Can’t we find some kind of hybrid where when you’re speaking and when you’re in public and when you’re giving interviews, you speak from the heart? And say, "If you want to see the 95 points in my health plan, go to my web site."
This is exactly what I’m trying to convey to Democratic leaders and candidates. Talk values and be substantive, but be substantive on your web site or to journalists who are in attendance at your talk. But that’s not how you convince people that you’ll faithfully represent their values in the next four years. The way you convince them of that is by telling them what it is you’re really passionate about and letting them either feel an identification with you or not, and being genuine about what you care about. A rational voter should be more attuned to that than what you say, whether you say your plan is going to cover X percent or Y percent of people, or whether you’re going to get us weaned from energy dependence in five years or ten years.
What they really need to care about is what are your priorities? What do you really care about? We’re going to have changes in this country. We have presidents who have to get things through Congress and Congress may be of a different party, or it may be a very divided party. What Obama versus Hillary Clinton versus John Edwards has to say about energy policy probably matters very little.
It’s also struck me that in your book, you mentioned that nobody can really prepare you for the job of president. It seems to me that even if you could get somebody who was totally prepared—whatever those criteria would be—you would have no idea what is going to happen in your administration ... 9/11, Katrina, whatever. At a certain level you have to tell yourself, "I just feel comfortable enough with this person, that he or she shares the values and priorities that I do and will handle whatever unexpected thing that comes up in a way that would satisfy me."
That’s right. That’s right. I totally agree with you. And I think in a paradoxical sense, that is what is most rational to do as a voter. It’s not to pick through the fine points and plans, it’s to ask, who here seems like their values are closest to mine and priorities are closest to mine? They have the intellect and the competence to be able to hopefully pull it off and get good people around them, and they’re electable relative to who the other side is going to put up. Those to me are much more important questions than what their specific policy is for energy.
What we do so badly is that we don’t understand that the language that we speak to each other in our policy wonk think tanks is not the same language we should use when we are talking with the American people any more than the language the computer programmers use when they’re developing a program should be the language used in advertising or discussing it with the public.
How does your background working in the inner city fit into your new role as political strategist?
I think the thing that prepares me as well as anything else, frankly, is ... 25 years of working with people—and to some extent, organizations, but much more one on one in trying to understand what things mean to them and when something is painful or difficult or conflictual, helping to talk about it with them in a way that can lead them to change in ways that make them happier. I do think that’s something I bring with me in terms of being able to talk in emotionally compelling ways that I think is a somewhat unusual skill among political consultants who often come from the direct mail business or from working their way up as a political operative. You learn a tremendous amount of things about grassroots organization, about a whole host of things in that world.
But we’ve done just such a miserable job on the left of speaking honestly about conflict. And if we would just talk honestly about the conflict ... yes, there are huge problems in our inner cities, so let’s turn what the conservatives are calling moral problems, moral responsibilities for all of us to do something about.
I know I sound like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
No, no, I’m very idealistic about how we can meet people where they are. It’s very frustrating to me, as you point out, that Democrats have trouble finding a meeting place and shared ground about problems that concern us all – vulgarity, safety, rampant consumerism, making ends meet – concerns we share whether we are Christian fundamentatlists or raging leftists.
Right. Right. Or they won’t admit that every time we say, "I’m pro-choice," which I’ve always told people, I was pro-choice until I wrote my own book. I read the polls and I thought, my God ... it made me think about the late miscarriage that my wife and I had, and it made me think, wait a minute. Am I really pro-choice for a woman who is nine months pregnant, she’s healthy, her baby’s healthy, she changes her mind? Now there aren’t many women like that in the world. But would I say she should have the right to terminate that pregnancy? No, I don’t think I would. I’d have to think ...there would have to be an awfully good reason at that point when you’ve got a viable baby that’s two weeks from being on the way out.
Life doesn’t begin in the birth canal any more than it begins at conception. If someone thinks they have the answer to that question, they’re probably deluding themselves.
Well, it’s clearly a difficult personal decision. I doubt few women undertake it with the thought, "I’m going in there as a feminist making a legal point."
And that’s all Democrats would have to say. It’s that language. It would make a huge difference. What is striking is if you go into any Democratic audience and you say that, there will be a percent of the 50 to 65-year-old women in the room who will be really offended. And it’s because they went through a different part of our history where they were fighting to have this right and to them, the language of rights really captures it, versus women under 40, where it’s not about glorious rights, it’s about awful, painful, difficult decisions and I wish I didn’t have to decide this.
Yes, decisions that feel no-win sometimes.