Between 2000 and 2006, a specter haunted the community of fundamentalist Democrats. Members of this community looked around and observed their moral and intellectual superiority. They observed that their policies were better for the middle classes. And yet the middle classes did not support Democrats. They tended to vote, in large numbers, for the morally and intellectually inferior party, the one, moreover, that catered to the interests of the rich.
How could this be?
Serious thinkers set to work, and produced a long shelf of books answering this question. Their answers tended to rely on similar themes. First, Democrats lose because they are too intelligent. Their arguments are too complicated for American voters. Second, Democrats lose because they are too tolerant. They refuse to cater to racism and hatred. Finally, Democrats lose because they are not good at the dark art of politics. Republicans, though they are knuckle-dragging simpletons when it comes to policy, are devilishly clever when it comes to electioneering. They have brilliant political consultants like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, who frame issues so fiendishly, they can fool the American people into voting against their own best interests.
This literature was never taken seriously by sophisticated Democrats, but it thrived nonetheless. Still, you’d think it would be pretty much extinct now that Democrats are winning and Republicans are in the midst of a historic meltdown.
But Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, has come forth with a late entry in the field, and his book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” is enjoying a vogue. He takes an interesting dollop of neuroscience and uses it to coat the conventional clichés of the Why Democrats Lose genre.
Westen begins by noting that recent research has shot holes through the theory of the dispassionate rational mind that emerged from the 18th-century Enlightenment. People rely upon emotion to drive the decision-making process and reach conclusions that make them feel good.
Reason and rationality, therefore, play a limited role in political decisions. “The dispassionate mind of the 18th-century philosophers,” Westen says, “allows us to predict somewhere between 0.5 and 3 percent of the most important political decisions people will make over the course of their lives.”
He then goes on to assert 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.
For example, the right side of John Edwards’s mouth tends to curl up. “Humans innately dislike facial asymmetries,” Westen observes, “and this should have caught the eye of his advisers.” In Connecticut, Ned Lamont ran a commercial showing Joe Lieberman morphing into George Bush, but in the ad Lieberman was smiling. “Smiling faces innately activate parts of the brain (and facial mimicry on the part of the observer) that reinforce happiness, not distaste.”
Republicans, Westen continues, are brilliant at using words and images that set off emotional cascades. Ronald Reagan used the word “confiscation” in reference to taxation, and was able to persuade people to agree to lower taxes. He called Nicaraguan contras “freedom fighters” and was able to secure them funding.
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 wishes Gore had interrupted a presidential debate and barked at Bush, “If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn’t a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father’s own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings.”
At another point, 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. First, why did someone with so little faith in rational inquiry go into academia, and what does he do to those who disagree with him at Emory faculty meetings, especially recovering alcoholics?
Second, 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? If so, has this led to a drop in Valentine’s Day purchases, at least compared with people in passionate states like Nebraska?
Fourth, 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? Shouldn’t we have a coup, led perhaps by the Emory psychology department, which could prevent the brutish and hate-filled from ever gaining control?
It’s rare that one comes across a book that raises so many questions. Of course it’s rare that one comes across a book that so avidly flatters the prejudices of its partisan readers.
The core problem with Westen’s book is that he doesn’t really make use of what we know about emotion. He builds on the work of Antonio Damasio, without applying Damasio’s conception of how emotion emerges from and contributes to reason.
In this more sophisticated view, emotions are produced by learning. As we go through life, we learn what cause leads to what effect. When, later on, we face similar situations, the emotions highlight possible outcomes, drawing us toward some actions and steering us away from others.
In other words, emotions partner with rationality. 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.