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Tilting at Windmills

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June 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE POLITICAL BRAIN....I finished reading Drew Westen's The Political Brain last night. I was, no pun intended, of two minds about it.

First the good news: Westen spends about the first hundred pages telling us that voters respond mostly to emotion, not to facts or policies, and Democrats need to figure this out stat. I'm not sure he really had to spend a hundred pages on this, but who knows? Maybe Democrats really are so clueless that they need to be hit over the head with this. It's good advice in any case.

Unfortunately, Westen then falls into the same traps that George Lakoff falls into. First, he uses his position as a clinical psychologist to pretend that the advice he's offering is based on some kind of deep understanding of how the brain works. For the most part, though, it's really not, no matter how many times he tosses off the phrase "activating a network." There are a few nods here and there to brain research — some of which is genuinely interesting — but the bulk of the book is just Westen offering advice the same way any political consultant offers advice. This spurious appeal to authority probably shouldn't bug me as much as it does, but there you have it. It bugs me.

Second, Westen spends a good part of the book presenting faux speeches he wishes various Democratic politicians had given. His instinct is that any attack should be met by a quick and ferocious counterattack, an instinct that will certainly play well in the blogosphere. The problem is that his made-up speeches are practically parodies. They're so insanely belligerent that no politician in his right mind would give them. Even the wingiest of the wingnuts doing their late-night CSPAN schticks don't give speeches as aggressive as Westen's.

This is all especially weird considering his poll-driven approach to hot-button social issues. Here, for example, is his proposed Democratic position on abortion:

Abortion is a difficult and often painful decision for a woman to make. It's a decision only she can make, based on the dictates of her own conscience and faith, not on the dictates of someone else's. But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest, or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can, so she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person.

I dunno. This doesn't sound very different from the usual liberal spiel, and it certainly doesn't provide much guidance once you start poking around and asking real-world questions. What about IDX abortion? Parental notification? Foreign aid restrictions? I don't see how Westen's carefully constructed statement really helps much here.

So: Westen has good instincts (pay attention to emotion, construct a narrative, hit your opponent first before your opponent hits you, and for God's sake hit back if your opponent does hit first), but you'd be best off skipping lightly over the specific examples of political advice he offers up. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 12:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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Ugh. Progressives and wingers respond to things differently. That's why were different. A lefty acting like an insane demagogue just doesn't work the way it does for the wingers. I'm tired of this already.

Posted by: chris on June 27, 2007 at 12:19 AM | PERMALINK

One of my old sociology professors once told me that common sense isn't very common. If it was people like Westen wouldn't be able to sell very many books.

Posted by: corpus juris on June 27, 2007 at 12:22 AM | PERMALINK

On my bad days, I begin to think that most people, deep down, believe that the ideal form of government is an absolute dictator who believes exactly the same things they do.

Posted by: harry on June 27, 2007 at 12:24 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin: . . . voters respond mostly to emotion, not to facts or policies, and Democrats need to figure this out stat.

Somewhere (maybe on this blog) I read that the difference between the Republican and Democratic presidential debates could be summarized as, "Democrats think they're on Jeopardy and the one who gets the most correct answers wins. Republicans understand the show is really American Idol."

Posted by: DevilDog on June 27, 2007 at 12:42 AM | PERMALINK

The model speaches your describe do sound like they would grate, but I think your analysis is off. The Dem problem is that their responses are weak tea--too nuanced and thoughtful. The model speaches may be fire, but think of the book as a handbook. Campaign workers look up a section they remember and then start toning it down as they translate it into the specifics of the the speach they need. This is inevitable.

So a book of fiery speaches translates into a bit of heat in practice. A book of forceful but well-modulated oratory would translate in the midst of a campaign into... weak tea.

It's good psychology. :)


Posted by: Jim Lund on June 27, 2007 at 12:48 AM | PERMALINK

"Democrats think they're on Jeopardy and the one who gets the most correct answers wins. Republicans understand the show is really American Idol."

Sharp. Myself, I think the mistake many liberals make is that they believe political science to be sociology, when in fact it's really mathematics.

Westen's book seems to be more of the same - since most people vote with their emotions, it's mostly a waste of time to dwell on long policy statements. The downside of that, IMO, is that emotional voters seem to be harder to sway than rational voters. They get emotional because they know what's right and what's wrong, and they're sticking to it, by God, and no slick TV commercials or pointy-headed intllectuals are going to change their minds.

I still think what Democrats need to be doing is to not waste so much time on the shrinking pool of swing voters, and concentrate more of their efforts on the larger group of people that don't vote at all.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on June 27, 2007 at 1:20 AM | PERMALINK

What Chris said. It is in the very nature of liberalism that we aren't belligerent.

Posted by: KathyF on June 27, 2007 at 1:29 AM | PERMALINK

Hrm... I blogged about this about a week ago.

I think talking about "emotions" in politics can be misleading. While I don't consider myself to be a canonical rational choice guy, I think there's a lot of power in Rat Choice as a model for understanding voter behavior. I absolutely think that "emotional" variables must be considered, but emotional must not be equated with "irrational". Voters make rational decisions - they don't vote arbitrarily. Even party line voters have made a rational, utility saving decision to vote the way they (we?) do.

When one says that democrats need to focus on emotional issues, it comes across as sound like the suggestion is that democrats need to target the knee-jerk tendencies of a very frightened people. I do not believe that this is necessary or wise. Also, I don't believe we need to alter our core values to appeal to a wider audience (that 30% fence sitting group which is often considered up for grabs). The key is to illustrate how our platform is a rational one to adopt, and why it is rational for voters to vote for our candidates. We can do this by appealing to the principles that all Americans hold dear - liberty and equality. Equal access to basic human needs (healthcare, food, education) which allow people to achieve substantive liberty and achieve upward social mobility. These are all very rational goals, and we don't need to appeal to the worst in Americans to achieve electoral success as the Republicans have been inclined to do lately (since 2001? Or since... the 1970s?). Anyway, to say that the American electorate is fundamentally 'emotional' is, I think, kind of demeaning.

Anyway, check out the blog. Or don't. You probably shouldn't reward me for blog-whoring.

^_^

Posted by: Everblue Stater on June 27, 2007 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

Please, let yourself be bothered by the appeals to neuroscientific authority. Have you seen this?

Such pseudoscience has a pernicious effect on our discourse. Al Gore should've had a chapter about it.

Posted by: Greg on June 27, 2007 at 1:39 AM | PERMALINK

"But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest, or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can..."

Well, for one thing, it's a little redundant to write "except under exceptional circumstances..."

But my question is, is he saying that in the case of rape and incest, she shouldn't make the decision as early as she can?

Posted by: Alex F on June 27, 2007 at 1:40 AM | PERMALINK

"This spurious appeal to authority probably shouldn't bug me as much as it does, but there you have it. It bugs me."

Bugs me too.

There's nothing BUT emotion in Democrats' speeches - Repubs too, of course, but still. The belief that Democratic politicians give speeches that read like policy papers is too flattering to liberals. Leftie politians suck up to the hoi polloi almost as much as the Repubs. It's all "families" and babies and jobs, blah blah blah. Hillary sucks up to the military/industrial/AIPAC scare complex as much as anybody.

Democrats DO need to attack more forcefully, and to be properly dismissive of Republican assertions that have easy factual rebuttals (like in live debates). Their main problem is, in their attempts to appeal to the voters in the middle ground, they moderate their positions until they no longer stand for anything identifiable.

Middle voters don't really respond to issues - so it makes no sense to moderate the Democrats' positions to appeal to them. They respond to personality and charisma, which the Dems could only help by TAKING STRONG POSITIONS.

Posted by: luci on June 27, 2007 at 2:10 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe Democrats really are so clueless that they need to be hit over the head with this.

My gut feeling on this is agreement. Dems know something's wrong- you see the sentiment again and again from all of us on blogs, books like Lakoff's- but they don't understand thoroughly enough what's wrong. Think of it this way: out of all the kind of kitschy, emotional-appeal stuff you've seen in your life, all the stuff that's borderline patronizing- commercials for Flags of Our Fathers and similar "guys who went to WWII were so great" propaganda, promotional commercials for charities that help disabled people or people with a particular disease and stuff like that, commercials for the latest sappy story on an Oprah talkshow, and, of course, all the right-wing and Fundamentalist emotional appeals- out of all of that stuff, why have you never seen, say, a Democratic party montage video designed to promote the party and gain interest that, in that emotion/narrative-heavy, light-on-facts style, promotes our legacy of the civil rights movement? Or the '60s feminism? Like the kind of thing they'd use for a segue between speakers at the Dem convention, or any other left-organization's rally. Just celebrating us. We don't so a lot of that stuff, and if we did, it would communicate to a lot of people more, even if it's just because that's such a popular style of media now, and the whole short-attention-span thing.

This spurious appeal to authority probably shouldn't bug me as much as it does, but there you have it.

You should be bugged. A lot of psychologists and doctors overestimate themselves. Granted, there are good psychologists, but sometimes it seems like every single psychologist thinks he's an infallible authority. People don't understand that psychologists are just people like other people, and a psychologist will just do the same shit / make the same shirking errors and mistakes that other people do. Like a psychologist will tell you to do X to get a certain reaction out of a person, and then when it turns out not to work, keep telling you to do it just because of hubris, the psychologist is standing by his (wrong) answer and expecting it to turn out right. People don't expect psychologists to do stuff like that, and psychologists don't expect it of themselves, but they do.

Also doctors and psychologists don't seem to understand that lawyers are in a whole different field and they're dabbling in a whole different world they don't understand if they try to give advice to lawyers. The politics world is basically a lawyer's world, and I have a feeling Kevin won't like me writing that, but it really has to do with law (legislating), a lot of lawyer's sub-cultural norms, and people competing against each other who mostly have been trained as lawyers. If you've ever read something written by a doctor, it's terrible compared to something written by a lawyer, because crafting ideas and a message just isn't a doctor's field. It's not what they're trained to do. So stuff like this kind of has an air of a vaccuum salesman and a baker coming into each other's shops and trying to tell each other their business. It's not that a psychologist or a doctor can't have something usefull to say, but for some people sometimes it's easy not to realize where what's useful that you have to say ends and bullshit starts.

I disagree with Jim Lund. If campaign workers read a bunch of what seem like crackpt speeches, they're just going to come off with the impression that it's a bunch of crackpot speeches and ignore it / throw it out. This guy hasn't reached the level of being a winning authority whose advice you have to figure out why you have to accept, even if it seems counter-intuitive at first. Instead he's a guy who's got to sell us all on why he's right.

Sorry for the long comment.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 2:11 AM | PERMALINK

My basic feeling is Democrats don't make it emotional enough, and they don't even really try.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

Look at Michael Moore. What he does is very emotional, but he seems like he's doing it with a light touch. He really hits all the buttons, like a roller coaster: he takes you from humor, to sympathy, to dramatic confrontation and anger, to comisseration and comraderie, to humor again. But ironically he makes you feel like he's this stand-offish character and not at all an over-bearing guy.

Look at guys like Newt Gingrich and the K-street guys (Blackwell, Norquist, whoever) and a thousand other GOP unknowns. They go straight to the National Socialist playbook for campaign strategy- and no, I don't mean intimidating people, but finding methods of dramatizing things. They do things from the Nazis too that we'd never think were right- like trying to scare people- but they're mining for the effective political strategy from what's worked in the past, and they're finding ways of dramatizing things, and they're copying and implementing the specific techniques. We don't need strategists who come from a boarding school and think that every voter should be just like a kid who went to boarding school, and then curse the voters for not accepting political discourse exactly the same way as people who've had teachers who really focused on analyzing stuff like that critically and rationally. Kids in public schools spend a lot of time in Shop class and Home-Ec class and Auto class that upper-class kids never spend (instead you're learning something else)- they spend a lot of time on hobbies or hanging out that a lot of political-minded, upper-class kids never spend, because their parents sent them to SAT classes or had them visit and talk with their state senator friends and their families, or whoever. We think we don't have class in America, but we do, and although upper-class people don't want to acknowledge that because they find it alienating, it makes a difference in what you get out of what you here and how you talk about things.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 2:26 AM | PERMALINK

Everblue Stater said, "I absolutely think that 'emotional' variables must be considered, but emotional must not be equated with 'irrational'. Voters make rational decisions - they don't vote arbitrarily."

Really, it seems like they do it every election. Why do blue collar folks vote Republican, when it's clearly against their economic self-interest. Emotional (i.e., "values") voting for candidates that outsource their jobs, support the oil, insurance, pharmaceutical companies that gouge them, and keep their real incomes stagnant for years is not rational.

Don't believe me? Read "What's the matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America " by Thomas Frank.

Posted by: DevilDog on June 27, 2007 at 2:41 AM | PERMALINK

The facts be damned, let passions rule.

Liberal Democrats started the war in Vietnam under Kennedy and Johnson, didn't they?

Kennedy was belligerent about the missiles in Cuba (which the CIA thought were not installed yet) and almost got us nuked. The Soviet Premier, always parodied for banging a shoe at the UN, saved us all by remembering what war really is like and backing down.

Republicans appear to be more protective of personal gain against offering a boost to those less fortunate. Republicans often appeal to base fears of immigrants and racial minorities.

Care to emulate that?

Posted by: deejaayss on June 27, 2007 at 2:46 AM | PERMALINK

I think basically the world view of conservatives is
competitive and that of liberals cooperative and that of the masses a combination of selfishness and ignorance.

Posted by: Luther on June 27, 2007 at 2:49 AM | PERMALINK

deejaayss, I don't think anybody is talking about doing stuff like that.

Luther, I think you're too cynicaly about the masses. I think most less-politicized, "regular" people are really good when you tell them about the facts of the matter, as opposed to a lot of ideologues, both right and left. Regular people are coming from just trying to live their lives and not push other people around- that's their basic philosophy- and that's why they're a lot wiser than a lot of people who are pushing for implementing untested ideas, even if the regular people are more ignorant.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 3:05 AM | PERMALINK

Democratic leadership has given away their most useful tools because they are on board, for the most part, with the deindustrialization and military imperialism that the corporate masters demand. Loss of living wage jobs and budget busting defense outlays leave nothing for working families.
There is class warfare in America and working families are its victims. Only fringe candidates like Kucinich and Paul have the guts to point this out and we know where they stand in the polls, dead last. "Moderates" will be the death of us and US.

Posted by: AColtharp on June 27, 2007 at 3:55 AM | PERMALINK

Devil Dog: Why do blue collar folks vote Republican, when it's clearly against their economic self-interest. Emotional (i.e., "values") voting for candidates that outsource their jobs, support the oil, insurance, pharmaceutical companies that gouge them, and keep their real incomes stagnant for years is not rational.

They vote that way because they place a higher value on moral issues than economic. Or, they percieve the Republican economic platform to be beneficial, or the so-called "values" issues have more utility to them than economic issues.

Also, a (vast) majority of the voter behavior literature suggests that party ID is the most explanatory variable in predicting vote, and those party ID preferences tend to develop in young adulthood; it's very difficult to change that pattern.

If a voter has to decide between A and B, and the utility (however defined) of A is greater than that of B, then that voter will vote for A. It's a rational decision, not to be confused with logical. Emotional variables are rational because people derive utility from them and rank those preferences accordingly. Democrats can appeal to these emotional variables in good faith, I think, without working towards the lowest common denominator.

Posted by: Everblue Stater on June 27, 2007 at 4:41 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, the reason books like this are written and you read them is, in part because you think there is some hidden reason, some dark secret possessed by GwB inter alii, that led to the Democrat's losing in 2000 and 2004. There is a secret but it's in plain sight.
The media, especially the NYT, the Wapo, NBC etc., no longer care to write about the issues. They're absorbed by trivia and people like you don't want to jeopardize future employment prospects by pointing that out.
Somerby has laid out the real reasons for the Dem defeat in 2000. The MSM doesn't have a liberal bias, they have a rationality bias. They don't want to do the heavy lifting of policy analysis and so they trashed Gore when he had a 12 point lead in polls as late as Sept. 2000.
Oh, and admit it, you very much intended that pun, you clever, clever boy.

Posted by: TJM on June 27, 2007 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

The Dems should focus on contraception as a means to prevent most abortions. Countries that have higher rates of contraception use have much lower abortion rates than the US. Consenting adults need to be responsible.

Posted by: bakho on June 27, 2007 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

Please do not denigrate my beloved CSPAN. Their programs involve reasonable discourse, not wingnut tomfoolery.

Posted by: absent observer on June 27, 2007 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

Why do blue collar folks vote Republican, when it's clearly against their economic self-interest.

They just have some fantasy that if they keep voting Republicans, it's going to make all the blacks and Latinos go away, or keep them as far away as possible.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin commenting on books about what motivates average voters is like having a cat comment on a book about what makes dogs bark. Doesn't get it.

Posted by: Chrissy on June 27, 2007 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

We don't need strategists who come from a boarding school and think that every voter should be just like a kid who went to boarding school, and then curse the voters for not accepting political discourse exactly the same way as people who've had teachers who really focused on analyzing stuff like that critically and rationally. Kids in public schools spend a lot of time in Shop class and Home-Ec class and Auto class that upper-class kids never spend (instead you're learning something else)- they spend a lot of time on hobbies or hanging out that a lot of political-minded, upper-class kids never spend, because their parents sent them to SAT classes or had them visit and talk with their state senator friends and their families, or whoever. We think we don't have class in America, but we do, and although upper-class people don't want to acknowledge that because they find it alienating, it makes a difference in what you get out of what you here and how you talk about things.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 2:26 AM

Couldn't agree more. And the trouble with the Democrats is that too many of its leaders either went to boarding schools or have the boarding-school mentality. If the Democrats talk about class in the right, most effective ways, it can be a tool to win back the White House. Edwards knows it; Clinton and Obama, perhaps because of their boarding-school-cum--Ivy ties, don't.

Posted by: Vincent on June 27, 2007 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

Is the premise of the book that there is something wrong with the Democratic party? The Dems control Congress right now, and almost won the last presidential election--looks like they are doing fine.

Besides, I'm not at all convinced that voters respond primarily to emotion. Actually, I think voters respond primarily to their evaluation of the candidates' character and policies. To have any chance of being elected, you have to be in line with what people expect there. So, for the swing voters at the end, other stuff comes into play. That makes it kind of look like emotional reactions decide the campaign, but in fact the campaign has mostly *been* decided by then. Sure, an effective campaign manager will help the candidate learn how to connect with voters, but that's not news.

In short, I think the actual practitioners in the Democratic party know a lot more about how to win elections than assorted academics.

Posted by: Foo on June 27, 2007 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

That is pretty lame advice to liberal politicians for defending the reproductive rights of women from intrusive state police authority, which is the way abortion should be defended. Just once I would like to hear a liberal politician accuse the anti-choicers of being rude, intrusive busy bodies who want to use the police to make women have babies they do not want.

Posted by: Brojo on June 27, 2007 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

I dunno. This doesn't sound very different from the usual liberal spiel, and it certainly doesn't provide much guidance once you start poking around and asking real-world questions.

Kevin, go read the first one hundred pages again. Apparently, you do need to be hit over the head with this.

Posted by: Brautigan on June 27, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

One more thing about regular people: because regular people have the attitude they have, they fight for things only when they're something really worth fighting for. Because of this, they bring a whole other level of fight to a political campaign or a war than activist twerps can ever hope to muster. Republicans activists like to think of themselves as some kind of fighters, but they're really shown up as douchebags compared to the regular people, who will show you the difference between fighting for something because you need it for your life, and fighting for something just because it's your pet opinion.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

The magic we can do is showing people how the things we're urging them to take an interest in really effect them, and cutting through the conservatives' efforts to obscure this.

Posted by: Swan on June 27, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

I'd still be very interested in what Westen has to say. I'm a big fan of Lakoff.... there's a lot of valuable thought in what he and these others are saying, which is unfortunately often dismissed as merely a "spin" methodology. Where I do find Lakoff sorely lacking, though, is when he gets more deeply into actually applying the principles, especially when I've seen him in person being asked to think on his feet. The principles are solid, and we should pay attention, but it's much better left to others to express in real terms.

Example: The Westen paragraph that Kevin quotes closes "she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person." contains the glaring error of using the word "person" in the argument, regardless of whether it's used in the rape/incest/health of mother context. The anti-abortion crowd has just cheered that a pro-choice argument has acknowledged that even a blastocyst could be considered a person.

Westen fell headfirst into the anti-abortion narrative, and he thought long and hard about this wording too.

Posted by: Randy Gold on June 27, 2007 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Emotion, yes. Hope over fear. Some guy 75 years ago had it right.

Posted by: snicker-snack on June 27, 2007 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Digby is far better at rhetoric than any of these guys.

Posted by: MNPundit on June 27, 2007 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK
...you omit 98% of liberal politicians. meathead republican at 12:51 PM
And 100% of Republican ones.

Humans respond to speeches. It seems to be something atavistic in us because we do it all the time: business and/or political conventions, elections, pep rallies.

The best speeches are of the more noble call to action: FDR's, Kennedy's and King's are the ones most remembered today. The speaker is generally calling for rational reaction but in an emotional way. A great acceptance speech of a candidate can electrify the listeners and change the course of the campaign. Sometimes a speech can even change the course of history. It's an amazing phenomenon to watch and I've never met anyone immune to it no matter how cynical they are.

Posted by: Mike on June 27, 2007 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

On abortion, the fact of the matter is that rates of abortion decline faster under Democratic economic policies than they do under Republican leadership. In fact, under Bush's tenure, the two-decade decline in abortions flatlined.

I've got a write up of the numbers and a linguistic approach to the topic at Newshoggers here.

Posted by: shamanic on June 27, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Emotion is not irrational. Ignoring emotions make one oblivious and repressing them makes one an easily manipulated fool.

That we had roughly 30 years of Liberal politics was just a stroke of good luck. Purely liberal politics are a loser in general, because people are easier to divide then to unify, and easier to fool then to edify.

Don't believe me? Look at American political history. The so called liberal politicians haven't been liberals, they've been pragmatists who used some liberal verbage but mostly not. Even FDR was more concerned about restoring the American economy then he was with liberal values.

I say this as someone who has detested all Republicans since Eisenhower.

Posted by: Archie on June 27, 2007 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

Instead of giving in to the emotion-driven voters, maybe we should try to raise and educate people who make preferences and decisions more rationally ...

Posted by: Neil B. on June 27, 2007 at 9:57 PM | PERMALINK
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