The Situationist

Your Brain on Politics

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 18, 2007

The Socialist Brain of a Liberal Democrat

Drew Westen is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His research focuses on personality and personality-related disorders, which special focus on the cognitive and emotional processes that are essential to interpersonal relationships. Together with his collaborator Jonathan Shedler, Westen has developed the Shedler-Westen Assessment Procedure to help fellow practitioners diagnose and analyze personality types and disorders. In conducting an experiment on people’s mental processes when discussing their political beliefs, Westen discovered that it was, in fact, the ‘emotional’ portions of the brain were activated, instead of the “reasoning” portion. His upcoming book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation, discusses those findings. Michael Tomasky recently discussed this new book in his article for the New York Review of Books entitled “How Democrats Should Talk” excerpted below.

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The Political BrainWhat [Frank] Luntz [ed. Republican 'spin doctor'] does understand that many Democratic consultants do not is that language used by a politician sets off a network of associations in voters’ minds. These associations, even for people who follow current events closely, are more likely to be emotional than rational, and voters “reason” their way toward emotionally biased conclusions. This is “the political brain” of Drew Westen’s new book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation, and Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, has set out to show Democrats how to connect to it.

Westen’s central insight is both obvious and simple: Democrats, he writes, have generally assumed that voters make their choices based on reason, and this leads to failure because “the political brain is an emotional brain.” The Democrats’ belief in “the dispassionate vision of the mind” has an honorable lineage going back to the Age of Reason and is useful for other purposes in life. But Westen suggests that electorally, it’s a total loser:

Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around. With the exception of the Clinton era, Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind and to the campaign strategy that logically follows from it, namely one that focuses on facts, figures, policy statements, costs, and benefits, and appeals to intellect and expertise.

In his early chapters Westen discusses the physiology of the brain and the different ways in which we respond to rational and emotional stimuli. Whatever the views of other experts on these neurological matters may be, I can say that, for electoral politics, Westen’s analyses almost always seem to me correct and something that Democrats need desperately to hear.

Their devotion to the rational mind has prevented Democrats from doing two main things: presenting their own affirmative case in the most convincing way and responding to conservative attacks. On the first matter, Westen (a liberal himself) cites numerous examples of the disastrous ways Al Gore and John Kerry each relied excessively, indeed pedantically, on pending legislation, empirical data, and the like instead of simple and forceful language in making their case. To a question in a 2000 debate about gay and lesbian rights, Gore began his answer by citing “a law pending called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.” In another debate, Gore muffed a question about “character” after Bush cited the attack on Gore during the Clinton presidency for allegedly fishy campaign-finance practices, including the famous fund-raising event at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles. In response, Gore did no more than pledge his support for the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill. Gore also explicitly refused to respond directly to Bush’s other attacks. It’s the Democrats’ fear of a fight, and their constant appeals to “get back to discussing the issues” and such talk, that really get under Westen’s skin.

In a perceptive section on terrorism and the Bush administration’s manipulation of fear after September 11, Westen draws on research showing that intimations of mortality shift most people’s reactions to the right politically, and he demonstrates how Demo-crats, in trying to sound as “tough” as Bush, were unwittingly reinforcing Bush’s worldview. His discussion of the Kerry camp’s response to the Swift-Boaters is especially sharp. He describes a weak, and entirely rational, letter—sent three weeks after the attacks—by Kerry’s campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill to Ken Mehlman, her Bush-campaign counterpart, urging Mehlman to persuade Bush to denounce the attacks and return to the issues. Westen writes:

If the letter hadn’t been signed by Cahill, I would have wondered if it had been written by Rove himself. It sent virtually every message you wouldn’t want to send under these circumstances. First, from a symbolic standpoint, you don’t send your mother out to fight for you when another boy bullies you in the schoolyard. Kerry’s response should have been man to man, and it should have been live, on the air, not in print. Second, the form and goal of the letter had a groveling, beseeching quality, which gave Bush the power to do with it what he wanted…. Third, instead of making the entire incident a condemnation of the president’s character, it gave Bush the opportunity to look magnanimous….

Republican Elephant

* * *

What should Democrats do differently? This is where the fun starts. Usually, books like these end with one somewhat perfunctory prescriptive chapter. But The Political Brain has many examples, filling chapter after chapter after chapter, describing how Democrats could have made in the past, and could make in the future, strong emotional appeals that are rooted in truth. Westen’s recommended language—on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights to terrorism to taxes to race to the nature of modern conservatism—is at least an improvement over what the Democrats say currently and at best exhilarating to imagine. For example, he thinks that the Democrats could have reframed the debate over the Iraq war resolution in 2002 by gathering en masse on the steps of the Capitol and issuing a statement along the following lines:

The Republicans are demanding that we vote for this resolution without discussion, without knowing whether a deployment of troops to Iraq would prevent us from finishing the job in Afghan-istan where Osama bin Laden is still at large, and without knowing whether fighting a war on two fronts will require reinstatement of the draft.

The resolution we are being asked to vote for demands that we abridge the Constitution that our founding fathers so artfully crafted, which gave Congress the sacred duty to provide oversight over the executive branch, not only in times of peace but also in times of war, when American lives are most at stake. And the reason we are being asked to sign this resolution now—the reason it cannot wait until the facts are more clear —is not national security. This resolution is designed for no other purpose than the partisan interests of the Republican Party….

I recall no more than a small handful of Democrats who said anything remotely like this. It would have altered the tenor of the debate considerably if more had done so. Nor have either Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi since adopted similar language.

Political Brain

In recent years, a small number of experts on language and rhetoric have been touted as the Democrats’ savior. None of these panned out. The cognitive linguist George Lakoff was supposed to lead the Democrats in from the wilderness, and Lakoff produced good insights into the contrasting approaches to moral questions of liberals and conservatives; but when he engaged in actual political work, as he did with House Democrats in 2004, the result couldn’t have been more banal because his descriptions of conservatives’ and liberals’ moral systems did not lead to clear strategic conclusions.

Many people are therefore skittish about anyone being heralded as the next source of advice. But Westen’s analyses and suggestions speak precisely to Democrats’ greatest tactical failures of the last quarter-century, and they do so without descending to the level of “Mission Accomplished” banners and the “death tax.” It will be fascinating to see how The Political Brain is received among the Democratic political professionals, who are for the most part insular and arrogant and have an explanation for everything. But Westen’s explanations sound better than the ones that have long been circulating in Washington.

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The Political Brain will be released on June 25th in hardcover to all major booksellers. Words That Work, Dr. Frank Luntz’s seminal work on linguistics in politics, is available at all major booksellers. To read the entire article, click here. For related posts on the brain and emotions, see “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns,” “The Situation in New Orleans,” and “The Big Game: What Corporations are Learning about the Human Brain.”

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4 Responses to “Your Brain on Politics”

  1. [...] posts examining elements of the 2008 presidential election, see “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential [...]

  2. [...] “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential [...]

  3. [...] Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential [...]

  4. […] dell’interessante studio citato (probabilmente) dal lettore Mauro Luglio e poi del libro The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation Nel caso preso esaminato da La Bar, l’analisi dello sputo mostrava un significativo […]

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