Review of The Political Brain by Drew Westen
Why do Democrats keep losing elections, when Americans tell pollsters they prefer the Democrats’ positions on most of the issues to those of the Republicans? That is the question that Drew Westen, a self-described frustrated Democrat, set out to answer. The result is an insightful, passionate and entertaining examination of how voters make political decisions, and of what Democrats—or any party or politician who wishes to succeed—need to do to win their allegiance.
“The political brain is an emotional brain.” That is the central thesis of Westen’s book, backed by an explanation of how our brains evolved, scientific studies, including studies of brain scans of people presented with political information, and dissection of numerous failed and successful political campaigns.
Westen, a clinical psychologist and professor at Emory University, says that Democrats have gotten it all wrong. Voters make decisions with their feelings, not their brains. If the voters’ heads tell them one thing (“this candidate’s position on the issues is closer to mine”) and their hearts tell them another (“I like this guy better; he seems more like me,”) they will go with the heart. Republicans win because “they have a near-monopoly in the marketplace of emotions,” says Westen. The Democrats, in contrast, “have continued to place their stock in the marketplace of ideas.” And in so doing, he says, they have been trading in the wrong futures.
Drawing on the work of scientists such as Darwin, Skinner, and Freud, Westen concludes that what motivates people are their wishes, fears, and values. Emotion is central to all three. (Our values are our emotion-laden beliefs about how things should or shouldn’t be.) This means a successful campaign has to appeal to and manage the voters’ emotions. In deciding whom to vote for, voters ask themselves first how they feel about the candidate’s party and its principles, then how the candidate makes them feel, how they feel about the candidate’s personal characteristics, such as integrity, leadership, and compassion, and only last how they feel about the candidate’s stand on the issues. When Democrats have been able to connect emotionally with voters, like Bill Clinton, they win. Overall, though, Republicans have been much more successful in appealing to voters’ gut feelings, which is why, Weston says, they win elections.
One powerful factor at work in our brains determining how we vote is networks of association. These are bundles of thoughts, feelings, images and ideas that have become connected over time. Effective campaigns work to create positive associations with their candidate, and negative associations with the other guy.
President Reagan’s powerful re-election ad, “Morning in America,” for example, associated the President with images of families, picket fences, weddings, and flags. Many of these associations are made explicitly in political ads. But much of the activation of the networks in our brains occurs outside of our conscious awareness. Much political advertising works at this subconscious level, through imagery and sound. The “Morning in America” ad also carried the subconscious associations of home, community, the circle of life, and national pride.
Although this appeal to the subconscious can be used legitimately, it can lend itself to unethical advertising, by activating associations to appeal to what would be deemed improper motives and attitudes. One example is the infamous Willie Horton ad, run by a political action committee with close ties to the campaign of George H. Bush, against Michael Dukakis. On its face, the ad was about Dukakis’ purported soft-on-crime position. But subliminally, the ad also raised whites’ racial fears through its use of the image of a black man with the black-sounding name “Willie,” although the man in question had always been known as “William.” Because the ad didn’t explicitly say voting for Dukakis would enable black men to attack whites, viewers did not get the chance to evaluate and reject this appeal to racism. But racial fears in many whites’ subconscious were nevertheless activated by the ad. The Dukakis campaign responded to this emotional appeal with a reasoned explanation of the furlough program, and lost.
Besides creating associations, another way to appeal to voters’ emotions is to create a narrative, an emotionally compelling story. What is a party, what does it represent, besides a series of particular policies? Here too the Democrats have failed to keep pace with the Republicans.
If a party fails to present itself, and fails to challenge the other party’s self-presentation, the media will accept the other party’s framing. Republicans have been working for decades through think tanks to define Democrats and liberals as those who favor “taxing, spending, military weakness, special treatment of minority groups, low moral standards, and a host of other unsavory characteristics.” The Democrats have largely failed to counter this presentation, and to present a negative view of Republicans in return. As Westen says, “if this is how Coke marketed itself, we would all be drinking Pepsi.” He suggests, only partly facetiously, that Democrats stop offering voters a laundry list of policies and instead read voters the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, which he says embodies the values and issues of the American Dream and the Democratic Party: try to be a good person, understand that you are part of a community, share your blessings with the less fortunate, and so on.
Another problem Westen has with Democrats, besides their failure to appeal to voters’ guts, is their own lack of guts. He cites many examples of how, time and again, Democrats have failed to stand up to Republican efforts to pass bad legislation, or to portray themselves or Democrats inaccurately. Failing to fight back, or fighting back only after a delay, allows the opponents’ message to lodge in the public’s mind. A perfect example is the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry. Kerry’s failure to respond promptly to these ads allowed the claim—that Kerry was misrepresenting his war service—to go unchallenged for weeks. It also furthered the meta-narrative that Republicans were trying to create about Kerry—that he was a wimp. If Kerry won’t defend himself, voters could be pardoned for thinking, how will he defend our country?
Why have the Democrats allowed this to happen? Westen thinks that many influential Democratic strategists are intellectually oriented and uncomfortable with emotion. They advise candidates to avoid “controversial” issues, such as abortion, gun control, gay rights, etc. But it is these issues that arouse emotions, and if you cede these issues you cede passion, and people vote their passions. Republicans go for these issues, Democrats avoid them, and the public doesn’t get to hear a Democratic counter narrative on them. Weston also thinks that Democrats tend to be conflicted about the appropriate use of aggression. As Bill Maher, the TV host, says, “The Democrats have been the party that speaks softly and carries Massachusetts.” Westen is funny and scathing about political consultants (he names names) who keep advising Democrats to avoid contentious issues and not respond to negative attacks, whom the Democrats keep turning to even after they’ve lost a string of elections. “If Wittgenstein: The Musical isn’t a blockbuster,” he says, “perhaps it’s best not to start producing the sequel.”
Westen’s solution? Recognize the role of emotion in voters’ decisions. Show some of your own, including anger, where appropriate. Appeal to voters’ emotions, in an ethical fashion, by framing issues in emotionally compelling ways that reflect your own principles and values. Westen’s many examples of how to do this were an impressive part of the book. Suggestions include countering Republicans’ perennial attempts to pass an anti-flag-burning amendment to the Constitution with a “Flag-Hiding Amendment,” which would prevent the government from hiding the flag-draped coffins of soldiers returning from Iraq, and showing terrorists buying guns at a gun shop without having to undergo a background check.
After this book, which I suspect will be required reading for every serious politician, it will be difficult to find a candidate of any party who won’t at least attempt to appeal as much to voters’ emotions as to their intellect. Since Westen’s book was published in 2007, we have had three presidential elections, each, arguably, won by the candidate who best succeeded in connecting with voters’ emotions. Perhaps none of these has demonstrated more clearly than the 2016 election the truth of his assertion that campaigns are won by candidates “who can convince voters … that they share their values, that they understand people like them, and that they can inspire the nation or save it from dangers.” To the amazement of most political pundits, this last election was won by a self-described billionaire who managed to convince so many working-class white Americans that he best understood and would champion their economic concerns, and that only he could save them from the myriad dangers menacing them at home and abroad. Trump’s complete lack of government experience, his questionable personal behavior, and the much more detailed policy proposals and government experience of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, did not outweigh this appeal to fear and the sense of loss and grievance experienced by many in this successfully targeted group of voters. Whether or not we like his thesis, Westen has given us a new way of looking at how we make political decisions, and he makes a very compelling (and readable) case for it.
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