The Political Brain

Boris pointed me to this review by David Brooks of Drew Westen’s book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” Brooks writes:

Westen . . . takes an interesting dollop of neuroscience and uses it to coat the conventional clichés of the Why Democrats Lose genre. . . . [Westen says] that Democrats have been losing because they have been appealing to the rational part of the mind. They issue laundry lists of policies and offer arguments with evidence. They don’t realize how the images they are presenting set off emotional cues that undermine their own campaigns. . . . Westen urges Democratic candidates to go for the gut, and includes a number of speeches that he wishes Democratic candidates had given. He wishes, for example, Al Gore had hit George Bush harder for being a drunk. . . . he imagines Gore exploding: “Why don’t you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbors’ kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.” If Democrats would go for people’s primitive passions in this way, Westen argues, they’d win elections. . . . This thesis raises some interesting questions. . . . the states of upper New England and the Pacific Coast regularly used to vote Republican in presidential elections but now they generally vote Democratic. Did people in those states become less emotional, and therefore more amenable to the Democrats’ rational appeals over the past few decades? . . . . how did John Kerry beat Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries? Was it because of his Oprah-esque displays of emotional intensity?

Is it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th century because they were right about the big issues — the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq? And if substantive policies correlate with political fortunes, what does that say about the human mind?

Finally, if voter decisions are driven by the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends, and if, as he writes, “a substantial minority of Americans hold authoritarian, intolerant ideologies driven by fear, hate and prejudice that are fundamentally incompatible with Democratic (and democratic) principles,” then shouldn’t we abandon this whole democracy thing?

I pretty much agree with Brooks here, but I think he’s overstating his case by implying that a single factor would cause everything. I haven’t seen Westen’s book, but I assume that it makes the case that these gut-emotional attitudes make a difference in the margin–so maybe Gore lost some small percentage of swing voters because of his style of presentation.

Regarding the other examples: Lieberman was politically in the center, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he beat Lamont in the general election. (Not that Lamont couldn’t have won, I’m just saying that no additional explanations are really needed.) Considering Edwards, Dean, and Kerry: primary elections with their multiple candidates are inherently unstable and so anything can happen–just because Kerry won the primary, it doesn’t mean that emotional appeals couldn’t have helped him.

Basically, though, I think Brooks is right, at least in a general election where the two parties have a chance to offer separate, coherent plans. The difficulty is when you agree with one candidate on some issues and the other candidate on other issues. At this point, the emotional arguments might help you justify a decision you’re making for other reasons.

Brooks concludes,

It’s not necessary to dumb things down to appeal to emotions. It’s not necessary to understand some secret language that will key certain neuro-emotional firings. The best way to win votes — and this will be a shocker — is to offer people an accurate view of the world and a set of policies that seem likely to produce good results. This is how you make voters happy.

I don’t necessarily agree with this last bit. The evidence seems to show that people vote based on policy concerns, but I don’t know the evidence for the claim that offering an accurate view of the world is a vote-getter.