This Is Your Brain on Politics. Any Questions?
From the Los Angeles Times on Monday:
Drew Westen, a genial 48-year-old psychologist and brain researcher, was talking to a rapt liberal audience about the role of emotion in politics, how to talk back aggressively to Republicans, and why going negative is not to be feared.
. . . Example: When President Bush recently refused to allow Karl Rove to testify under oath about his role in the sacking of federal prosecutors, Westen said, Democrats blundered. Instead of insisting Rove testify under oath, they simply should have said (over and over), “Mr. Bush, just what is it about ‘So help me God’ that you find so offensive?“
. . . In his new book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Westen, who is not affiliated with a particular candidate, lays out his argument that Democrats must connect emotionally with the American electorate — and that he can teach them how.
He writes that when Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts let a Swift-boat veterans group drag his reputation through the mud (2004), when Al Gore put a nation to sleep with his talk of lockboxes and Medicare actuaries (2000), and when Michael S. Dukakis said he didn’t believe in the death penalty even in the event of his wife’s rape and murder (1988), Democrats were exhibiting their single worst tendency: intellectual dispassion.
That style is ballot-box poison, said Westen. “The political brain is an emotional brain,” he said. “It prefers conclusions that are emotionally satisfying rather than conclusions that match the data.”
When Westen and his Emory colleagues conducted brain scans during the 2004 presidential campaign, they found that partisans of either side, when presented with contradictory statements by their preferred candidates, would struggle for some seconds with feelings of discomfort, then resolve the matter in their candidates’ favor.
Westen gets a little carried away with his theorizing at times (in a similar article in the New York Times, he offers some dubious advice about using the fear of terrorism to boost support for gun control), but much of what he says fits well with the framing theories of George Lakoff, not to mention the less academic (and, uh, less rapturously received) arguments I’ve been floating for the past couple of years.
Too often, Democrats and other progressives treat politics as a courtroom or a classroom, where the most comprehensively documented and tightly reasoned case will carry the day. While that may appeal to our way of thinking, sadly it just isn’t so for everyone; many voters simply don’t have the time or the inclination to pay that much attention. So the difference between winning and losing elections can be a candidates’ ability to send the clear emotional/moral signals that get low-information voters to rationalize in favor of them instead of against them.
This is one reason why I’ve favored a censure motion over the Libby commutation — not as a step that excludes impeachment or other measures, but as an opportunity to draw a moral line in the sand right away, making clear to Americans who is on which side. After all, Nixon resigning in the face of impeachment didn’t stop the same criminal crowd from coming in with Reagan six years later, and the Iran-Contra convictions didn’t stop them from coming back with Shrubya.
The only real solution, in the long term, is to rewire voters’ subconscious associations so they stop linking the GOP strong-daddy pose with morality and common sense — and, as a result, stop electing the crooks who wind up deserving to be ousted or imprisoned. In that sense, Nancy Pelosi or John Edwards or Howard Dean saying, “This is an issue of right and wrong, and [insert name of Republican] just doesn’t get it,” is more damning than any legal indictment or bill of impeachment.
Of course, leave it to Democrats to need a brain researcher with a Ph.D. to explain this to them. Without the references to neural circuits and the amygdala, they wouldn’t buy it.
(Photo of Bush via the Associated Press.)