Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE POLITICAL BRAIN....Ezra Klein says I should read The Political Brain, a new book by Drew Westen. Maybe I will. But I got a copy last week and was immediately put off by sentences like this:

The vision of mind that has captured the imagination of Democratic strategists for much of the last 40 years — a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions — bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work.

I have no doubt that this bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work, but I'd like to know which Democratic strategists have ever believed anything like this in the first place. I'm open to being proved wrong, but surely no one over the age of 10 needs to be told that Earth isn't populated by exiles from the planet Vulcan.

Anyway, that caused me to toss the book into my vastly expanding pile of political books never to be read. But maybe I'll pull it out. I don't think any Democratic strategists actually believe what Westen says about them, but it may be that they act that way even if they don't know it. Next week I'll give him a chapter or two to convince me.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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Comments

There did seem to be an attitude of "Everyone will realize Bush is a jerk and an idiot, and that the 'invented the internet' slur and the swift boating are not just bullshit but pointless."

Posted by: Boronx on June 14, 2007 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

surely no one over the age of 10 needs to be told that Earth isn't populated by exiles from the planet Vulcan

Actually, there are people who need to be told that. But they tend to be Libertarians.

Posted by: thersites on June 14, 2007 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK
I have no doubt that this bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work, but I'd like to know which Democratic strategists have ever believed anything like this in the first place. I'm open to being proved wrong, but surely no one over the age of 10 needs to be told that Earth isn't populated by exiles from the planet Vulcan.

Your problem here is that you seem to equate "X is not a completely accurate description of how Y works" with "X bears no relation to how Y works".

Yeah, most people have long realized that humans aren't Vulcans. Quite a lot of people have, nonetheless, believed that rational choice theory is a useful model of social behavior in many contexts (and, indeed, it is a useful, though limited, analytical framework in many contexts), though presumably the author of The Political Mind will argue that it is not at all a useful model in terms of political strategy.

This is hardly a trivial point, or one that everyone, as you suggest, over the age of 10 already agrees with.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 14, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

The only thing that has "captured the mind of Democratic strategists" is "How many media dollars can I make?" Ironically, those incompetent hacks would fit in perfectly...in the Bush administration.

Posted by: cazart on June 14, 2007 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

BTW on a blog called Political Animal it's sort of a mistake to misspell "Policital" in a headline.

Posted by: thersites on June 14, 2007 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

The Dems in our statehouse do this all the time. They are so committed to keeping the government functional that they make deals to get Republicans on board, pass the legislation, and get the roads built, the universities funded, and so forth.

It has a bizarre consequence that in Seattle talk-radio describes the building and maintenance of roads as a conspiracy against poor people, who would otherwise have free roads if it weren't for those Democrats pushing for bond issues.

Sure, it's nice to have a functional government. But it lets the Republicans say anything they want, secure in the knowledge that Dems will keep stuff working.

Posted by: serial catowner on June 14, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like amateur politics and amateur neurology. Is the whole book like that?

Posted by: jookboxxe on June 14, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Quoting the graf above where Ezra starts his Westin graf, to illustrate what might be wrong with the book:

"Democrats typically bombard voters with laundry lists of issues, facts, figures, and policy positions, while Republicans offer emotionally compelling appeals, whether to voters' values, principles, or prejudices. As a result, we have seen only one Democrat elected and reelected to the White House since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Clinton, who, like Roosevelt, understood how to connect with voters emotionally) and only one Republican fail to do so (George Bush Senior, who ran like a Democrat and paid for it)."

Bush Senior didn't run like a Democrat, or much of anything; he certainly didn't run on "laundry lists." Sounds like Westin is taking a preconceived theory and trying to shoehorn anecdotal evidence to fit.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 14, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Tapped linked to an article by Drew West about how Democrats should strongly embrace gun control as a winning electoral issue. I don't think this guy is the greatest political mind to stroll down the pike.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano on June 14, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Kevin, maybe the fair way to take the sentences you find off-putting is as hyperbole. It's not that Democrat strategists REALLY think voters are Vulcans, but that they don't fully appreciate just how very far they are from Vulcans. That is, Democratic strategists have failed to give the irrational its full due -- whereas Republicans have embraced it and exploited it.

I'd try to get past the two sentences and see if there's something more substantial being said.

Posted by: frankly0 on June 14, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

As I understand it scientists (see Iowa St.) have proven that no decision can be made/taken without emotion. You can learn a lot of information, but can't make anything of it for good or bad until your emotions evaluate it.

What bothers me is that Republicans have the facts, they know the damage they're doing and they have no remorse or feeling that it's bad for America. Why do they hate America?

Bill Clinton seemed to naturally understand the importance of showing people some kind of 'vision' (in his case the slogan was Bridge to the 21st Century) and then got people to feel good about him, so they'd let him become president and execute the plan. It's not so easy to get people excited about government policies, but they do like an individual (or not).

Posted by: MarkH on June 14, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Every Dem strategist would *say* they know this, but then turn around and use polling tools in ways that belie it. There is an overemphasis on policy/issue measurement and an underemphasis on rigorously theorizing how to tap into the emotional drivers of vote choice/political support.

Posted by: Jeff on June 14, 2007 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

They've run an except from his book dealing with gun control issues at The American Prospect

http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=guns_on_the_brain

It's pretty thin stuff. Westen doesn't understand the difference between the Brady Act of 1993 mandating background checks and the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban that sunsetted in 2004. He seems to think that all semiautomatic weapons were covered in the ban (not true) and doesn't seem to understand that the guns the VA Tech shooter used were perfectly legal under the Assault Weapons Ban. He also seems to think that new conservative Democrats like Shuler and Tester, who were both rated "A" by the NRA, are going to gleefully participate in anti-NRA pro-gun control TV ads.

Westen has no grasp of gun control law, weapons technology or of the political realities of gun control issues that Democrats deal with in Red states. I'm sure he'd be shocked to learn that Gov. Blanco (D-LA) proudly displayed her NRA membership card during debates in the last election.

If he can't do any better than this on this topic I shudder to think what the rest of the book is like. Sounds like you picked the right pile, Kevin

Posted by: Campesino on June 14, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

surely no one over the age of 10 needs to be told that Earth isn't populated by exiles from the planet Vulcan

Of course no one needs to be told that, because they're all able to assess the situation with dispassionate logic.

Posted by: Boronx on June 14, 2007 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Although a lot of liberal bloggers have ridiculed the GSA chief's testimony, and have done so quite correctly, if you watch the hearings it is difficult not to conclude that she was playing the Democratic members of the Congress for fools with great cooperation from the Republicans, and that the Dems did did come out looking like hapless idiots.

The Democratic Party needs a lot of advice. I think, howeever, that it is a stretch to say that this sort of 'neuropsychiatric' angle will do it any good.

Posted by: gregor on June 14, 2007 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

It's passing strange that Westen would argue that Democrats don't really have a handle on how the irrational works in voters, but then plunk down hard for gun control as a good issue for Democrats to press.

Who doesn't understand the irrational here?

Posted by: frankly0 on June 14, 2007 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

I think the crucial problem here is the misplaced focus on "strategists". We don't need more strategic professionals who know how to push people's emotional hot buttons more effectively to get "rational" policies enacted. What we need are politicians that truly have the *passion* behind those rational policies to *persuade* the public to get behind them. The real problem IMO is a crisis of apathy.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on June 14, 2007 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

I have a question for the kind of strategy that this picture of the mind seems to suggest:

If human beings are so thoroughly irrational that they're just not going to vote on the basis of policies, issues, evidence, and so forth, and all we're going to have is two political parties in a contest to see who can manipulate the largest number of people on the basis of the irrational, what exactly is the point of having a democracy?

This was sort of the problem I had with Lakoff's book (Don't Think of an Elephant). It might be an accurate picture of the human mind, but why bother with consent of the governed and all that, if we're just a bunch of easily manipulated sheep?

Posted by: DBake on June 14, 2007 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Two words - straw men. The right-wing is always attributing thoughts and ideas to Democrats and liberals that they don't hold or that never were. Rush Limbaugh, the thrice-divorced, college drop-out and full-time Oxycontin addict, is always doing it. In fact, Rush wouldn't have a radio program without making up stuff about Democrats.

You did the right thing, Kevin. I would throw the book away. It is horseshit.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 14, 2007 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Campesino, Frankly... agree with your assessments of Westin, too. Doesn't he read polls, either? Abortion would probably have been a topic where he could have found better talking points, or Social Security, certainly.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 14, 2007 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

You guys hang out in the wrong bars.

Posted by: theAmericanist on June 14, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

At least we could praise that kind of "mind that has captured the imagination of Democratic strategists for much of the last 40 years — a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions." I do think that kind of mind is more prevalent among Democrats than among Republicans, but of course there are many around that are quite unlike that ideal. We could also try appealing to such folk, however many beasts there are out there.

tyrannogenius

Posted by: Neil B. on June 14, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Must I be the one to point out that Vulcan exiles were banished precisely because they would not adhere to the tenets of logic?

Posted by: Grumpy on June 14, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

One party best be based in reality and it sure isn't the Republican party. I think the Dems have to go tough but rationale rather than go metaphorical. Should the US really be guided by rhetoric in dealing with the disaster in Iraq? That has been tried. Metaphorically speaking the book sounds like rubbish.

Posted by: Apollo on June 14, 2007 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

What really boggles me is the way libertarians combine rational choice theory (ultra-rationalism) with the free market (using market forces as a kind of magical force to sweep away what can't be explained by rational choice). "And a miracle happens here."

The 1,728th Encyclopedia Britannica in the year 3000 or so will define "economist, twentieth century American" as a kind of conjure artist or witch doctor.

Posted by: sara on June 14, 2007 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

Total cheap shot. This book merits serious study. Exactly which Democratic strategists have ever understood the role of emotion and used it? Let's hear the proof on that.

Kerry started off with a litany of dull, dry policy positions that not a soul remembers. But people do remember the emotional ammunition that was fired from the right.

Posted by: Chrissy on June 14, 2007 at 7:23 PM | PERMALINK

Correction. Actually Shrum and Cahill probably remember those brilliant policies that were going to sway the American public. But probably not anyone else.

Posted by: Chrissy on June 14, 2007 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

I think what he's saying is not that considering things in this fashion is not a good thing, but that Democrats have imagined voters to be utterly rational, and underestimated the influence of the emotions on judgment.

And I think think they have a point if they're saying that. Truth of the matter is, that is how Neuroscience researchers now see the mind. Rationality and irrationality are two modes of the same systems, reflecting the relative strength of inputs from one particular neural circuit as compared to another.

If we want to properly imagine our voters, we have to understand that they are capable of being swayed by irrational appeals, and at least be on our guard about them, and prepared to fight back when necessary.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty on June 14, 2007 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

I am not a brilliant pundit or anything, but I was overall impressed by the piece. I think the following is right on the money:

"...you have to consider the different associations the word "gun" evokes in urban and rural America. If you prime voters who have grown up in big cities with the word "gun," you are likely to activate a network that includes "handguns," "murder," "mugging," "robbery," "killing," "crime," "inner-city violence," "machine guns," and "criminals." If someone in New York City is packing a piece, he isn't hunting quail.

But now suppose we prime a group of voters -- let's make them men -- in rural America with precisely the same word, "gun." This time, the associations that come to mind include "hunt," "my daddy," "my son," "gun shows," "gun collection," "rifle," "shotgun," "protecting my family," "deer," "buddies," "beer," "my rights" -- and a host of memories that link past and future generations. A voter who lives in a rural area knows that if an armed intruder enters his house, it could take a long time before the county sheriff arrives. The notion of being defenseless doesn't sit well with southern and rural males, whose identity as men is strongly associated with the ability to protect their families.

...

This convergence of networks suggests a simple, commonsense, principled stand on guns that Democrats could run with all over the country:

>"

So damned simple. It's just sad that Dems haven't managed to articulate that clearly, forcefully, and repeatedly. Every time the subject of guns comes up they run from the room.

Posted by: Kent on June 15, 2007 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Oops, here's what was cut out.... the proposed Democratic standard stump speech position on guns:

"Our moral vision on guns reflects one simple principle: that gun laws should guarantee the freedom and safety of all law-abiding Americans. We stand with the majority of Americans who believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns to hunt and protect their families. And we stand with that same majority of Americans who believe that felons, terrorists, and troubled teenagers don't have the right to bear arms that threaten the safety of our children. We therefore support the right to bear arms, but not to bear arms designed for no other purpose than to take another person's life."

Posted by: Kent on June 15, 2007 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

apollo: One party best be based in reality and it sure isn't the Republican party.


Majority of Republicans Doubt Theory of Evolution - Gallup 6/11/07

Posted by: mr. irony on June 16, 2007 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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