(Please welcome in the comments author Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, and Jim Himes, our Blue America candidate who is running against Chris Shays in CT-04 — JH)
Two years ago, I was days away from giving a speech at the annual fundraising dinner for the affordable housing foundation that I lead in New York. I had prepared a list of our accomplishments and an explanation of our objectives. Then the story broke of Nixzmary Brown, the seven year old girl who was starved, chained and malnourished in her awful Brooklyn apartment until she was killed by a blow to her head by one of her abusive parents.
I have young children. It was a day or so before I could compose myself enough to reflect on the small ways in which decent affordable housing can help prevent the kind of outrage visited on Nixzmary. I threw away my speech and read the New York Times report of the murder to 400 people. I really didn’t know what else to say. I asked how that could happen, and whether we were doing all we could to prevent it. I don’t think I was conventionally articulate. But I was moved.
You could hear a pin drop. The brief story of Nixzmary’s short life touched (and outraged) nearly every deeply embedded emotion and value we have: fairness, protection of the weak, concern for children, personal responsibility. That evening changed the way people in that room thought about affordable housing, which is usually far less viscerally appealing to donors than hunger, education or healthcare. And visceral is what it is all about, according to Drew Westen’s fascinating new book, The Political Brain.
Westen, who is completely upfront about being a deeply committed Democrat, has written a devastating critique of the Democratic Party, its candidates and their consultants. It is the job of political parties and their candidates to literally and figuratively move voters, and Westen argues that voters are not primarily moved by facts but by appeals to deep seated values and emotions, what Westen calls “activating networks”.
He uses example after example to illustrate the Democratic penchant for being really smart but leaving people absolutely cold. Think Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry: smart as hell and yet they lost. He accuses Democrats of having a “dispassionate vision of the mind”, that is, assuming that people carefully and rationally weigh candidates’ policy proposals to determine which will maximize their individual utility. In fact, he argues, voting decisions are driven by a complicated interaction of values, emotions, images, analogies and oratory, in which logic is only a bit player. Bill Clinton, of course, is the Democratic exception that proves this rule.
Thus, when Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife, Dukakis thought he was being probed on the merits of the death penalty. In fact, he was being asked a much more profound question: “Are you a man? Do you have a heart?” Dukakis’ answer told millions of Americans that the answer was no.
Westen, a clinical psychologist, is mercifully brief in his tour through the amygdala and brainstem, explaining just enough to satisfy the reader that he knows what he’s talking about when he says that three things determine how people vote. In order of importance, they are: their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and their feelings toward particular policy positions. He is clear that Democrats come up woefully short on all but the third.
The Republicans get it intuitively and use emotions and simple narratives to hide the stunning inconsistencies in their stories (government should shrivel and die except when it transfers resources to oil and pharmaceutical companies or makes reproductive choices for women). Still confused about how George Bush became president?
The power of Westen’s analysis is most excitingly clear when he proposes responses that Democratic candidates might have made to their Republican tormentors. He cites a Bush-Gore debate in which Bush challenged Gore’s fundamental credibility. Gore’s response? “Look, Governor Bush, you have attacked my character and credibility and I am not going to respond in kind.”
Westen points out that one southern man had just challenged another southern man’s honor with no response. Game over, at least in the south. The alternative speech that Westen crafts for Gore has Gore calling Bush a drunk, a coward and crooked, in some of the most beautiful oratory I’ve ever seen. He concludes with:
Where I come from, we call someone who does those kinds of things a disgrace to his family, his state and his country. So, Governor, don’t you ever lecture me about character. And don’t you ever talk about me that way again front of my family or my fellow citizens.
I believe that Gore might still be President if he had used such a speech.
As resonant as the message of The Political Brain may be, it is also slightly uncomfortable. The Greeks, writing millennia ago, recognized politicians who “activate networks” and gave us a word for them: demagogues. Which, of course, is precisely Westen’s point; we Democrats may not like the fact that people choose leaders emotionally rather than rationally. Maybe someday we’ll evolve into Vulcans. But until we do, if we want to win, we had better get into the game.
Reading The Political Brain at the start of my campaign for Congress in CT-04 has been eye-opening. As a candidate, I’m thrilled that Dr. Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain and Professor of Psychology at Emory University, is joining us here tonight at the FDL Book Salon. What practical lessons can Blue America candidates learn from Dr. Westen’s research? Please join me in comments to welcome Dr. Westen to Firedoglake and to discuss his important work.