That is the question according to Drew Westen in yesterday's The Huffington Post. His article Why Voters Say they Don't Really Know Barack Obama (and Why They Don't Really Know Much about John McCain, Either) is another try at directing the candidate by someone who claims to be expert on political thought. Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 primaries. I just bought the book because it was a major reference in George Lakoff's book The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century American Politics With an 18th Brain. Brains seem to be the theme in this election at least with these two pundits. Where the public stands on this I do not know. If it were their criterea for a candidate Obama would be a shoo in. Let us see what he is saying below the break.
This is what is bothering Westen:
The average American actually doesn't know Barack Obama, despite all the media attention. They know that he's a gifted, charismatic man with a winning smile, a keen mind, and a tendency to alternative between RFK on the stump and Michael Dukakis in interviews and debates. Most people haven't read Dreams from my Father or The Audacity of Hope, and their only exposure to either will be in Republican attack ads using his words against him. Most white people who worry that he doesn't share their values don't know that he grew up in a family much like theirs, with a white mother and blue collar white grandparents. Most people don't know that he cares so much about the absence of black fathers from the lives of their children not only because he understands the destructiveness, particularly to boys, but that he understands it firsthand, and was only saved from its more destructive impact by the presence of a loving (if sometimes overly fun-loving) maternal grandfather.
For starters, how could they not know this? What would they have had to do to avoid the exposure to these facts about Obama that I have seen many times? The "identity crisis" in politics is real. It is the phenomenon that voters who are not eager to dig out facts allow media and ads to shape their image of candidates. We all know that. What is difficult for some of us is to understand the effect of long time framing in this process. Tapping into notions like "elite", "celebrity", "liberal", and others we all know does make contact with a litany of ideas stored in people's brains from the past and reflexively triggered at the unconscious level. George Lakoff has made that abundantly clear. There is more involved as Westen points out:
There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of "issues" but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this "message grid" win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.
Well that seems simple enough. If we compare Carter and Clinton with Gore and Kerry we begin to get the picture. Those voters we want to win over are not empty slates waiting for the new messages. They are already carrying a collection of historical narratives that were made to work in the past. Work in what way? The most effective way possible; to conjur up ideas at the reflexive, unconscious level where they can do the most harm. In order for Obama to deal with the person being touched by such messages he needs to bring them into their conscious where the rational, reflective aspects of the brain will make sense of them. If they are triggered at the unconscious reflexive level, they have influence that can not be swayed by reason.
There is the rub in this election and it may be the central issue for us as we try to get voters to see the obvious differences between these two men. It is the very newness of Obama and his message that raises uncertanty at the unconscious level. A little anxiety can go a long way if left unchecked. As Westen puts it:
Like Kerry, Obama has offered the American voter one story when he should have offered four, and that one story can be summarized in one sentence. Regardless of how detailed your policy positions, that isn't enough. It isn't memorable. It doesn't capture the imagination of a brain wired over the long years of our species' evolution for a particular kind of narrative structure, when the only way to pass knowledge and values down across generations prior to the rise of literacy--and when our children have not yet learned to read--was through stories.
We all have heard Obama tell his story. It is marvelous. It needs to be told again and again. But it is one out the four things Westen calls for in a winning campaign. So are we hearing that the loud cries for "attack, attack" are correct? No, not at all. This is more tricky than that. Attacks, especially attacks in the frames so well developed by the opposition and so well ingrained in the minds of the voters, are usually a sign of desperation and weakness and generally make the situation worse, not better. A story is not an attack. A story is just that, a story. What kind of stories does Westen recommend?
While getting smacked repeatedly with the charge of elitism, the candidate with the humble roots hasn't mentioned that perhaps McCain is so out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans because he was born with a silver spoon in his hand, is a poster child for affirmative action for the wealthy and well connected (having both gained admittance to and barely survived the Naval Academy at the bottom of his class as the son and grandson of four-star admirals), and that maybe he should speak more with the servants in his eight homes if he wants to know what the energy crisis or health insurance crisis or mortgage crisis he's been part of the problem in creating in the Senate for three decades actually feels like to everyday Americans.
Is that dirty politics? Is it the dreaded "negativity" (dreaded only by Democrats, who confuse negative statements about their opponent with low-road politics)? It all depends on whether you think telling people the truth in a way that catches their interest, gets them to feel something, and leads them to remember it is unethical.
We are talking about differences here that seem small yet could make or break the campaign. We do not need to tear McCain down. We merely need to focus on "the man behind the curtain" and all will go as we wish. It would be rough if the republicans had found someone for whom this kind if defining was difficult. John McCain makes it relatively easy. In the end it boils down to this:
If he wants to retain the high road, the least he can do is to counterpunch every time McCain tries to tell a story about Obama or undermine Obama's own story, with a simple, "There you go again--that's exactly the politics of division that has led us to where we are in Washington."
From a neurological standpoint, positive and emotions play different functions, arise in different ways, and even have largely distinct neural circuitry. If McCain creates enough ambivalence about Obama, Obama will need to create enough ambivalence about McCain to cancel it out. No one has ever won an election by saying what a great guy he is, letting his opponent pummel away at his character, and refusing to define his opponent or derail the glorious narrative his opponent is telling about himself.
I keep trying to focus on the needs of the people and how they have been forsaken by these thugs. If we focus on what government is supposed to be they come away as criminal. Is that negative? Here's what Westen reminds us:
Obama needs to remember that one of the most "negative" political documents ever written was the Declaration of Independence.