on June 28, 2007
Though there is nothing entirely new here, in this large well researched book Westin manages to draw together several ideas that have been part of our intellectual discourse for some time in an engaging and informative way.
Westin uses 4 themes throughout the book. First, he explains how our human brain evolved over millions of years to make decisions first with our emotions and only secondarily with our logical faculties. This is because we evolved out of other life forms that had a simpler brain structure. The first uses of the brain were for sensation and perception, uses that would tend to keep the primitive forms that were the first conscious creatures alive.
Second, he uses this model of the brain to explain why emotional intelligence controls absolutely every decision that people make, and that this is no where more true than in electoral politics. The dominance of the emotional brain predates and supersedes the thin human veil of reason, and this has proved to be a successful adaptation over thousands of years.
Third, he shows that with the exceptions of FDR and Bill Clinton the democrats have been consistently emotionally tone deaf in their national campaigns, and that they will not be able to win until this is addressed.
Finally, he explores the importance of a consistent emotionally appealing story or narrative to present to the voting public about the values of the party and the candidate. Only after voters understand and resonate with these two things do they care about the issues. The right wing understood this when they supplanted the winning narrative of the new deal with their own narrative of small government and individual hard work. Westin writes this story well, and then shows how the democratic leadership could damage the power of this story and create one of their own that would be just as emotionally compelling or more so.
Throughout the book Westin offers detailed accounts of both successful and unsuccessful campaign strategies. He also describes some major flubs made by democratic candidates and describes what they could have said and done to win the hearts of the people. Westin tells us that a good story will speak directly to the emotional brains of the left wing and moderates alike, but if it does not anger the 30% on the hard right it has not been entirely successful. This is because a good story must knock down the antagonist as it builds up the protagonist. At the same time the democrats appeal only to reason they are also much too timid in defending the very real values that the party stands for.
If Westin is right the democrats need to nominate a truly charismatic candidate and then speak directly to the American heart. It's not enough that the republicans have made a colossal mess. To win, the democrats must offer an emotionally compelling alternative and not be afraid to shout it from the rooftops. Every democrat should read this book.
on July 31, 2007
I am a conservative Republican. I believe that, in the end, it is better that the Republican Party win elections than the Democratic Party. Yet, this book, in all of its hatred of Bush and the GOP, is excellent.
I am a psychology teacher and debate coach (and debate author...see Public Forum Debate (The National Forensic League Library of Public Speaking and Debate)) that has spent a good amount of my professional career trying to develop strong communication and persuasion in my students. I have not had the chance to use some of the specific recommendations that Dr. Westen recommends, but a lot of them are things I already do, albeit in less than organized or specific way...
I think anyone interested in politics and/or psychology...or ANYONE who wants to be more persuasive in their writing and their speaking should read this book.
My only negative comment, and the reason I gave it one less star, is that I felt it was too partisan. At times, the prose seemed so angry that it lost some credibility. I recognize that Dr. Westen purposely directed his book to the Democratic party, but it would have been more enjoyable (in some sections) if it had been a little more calm...and not all Republicans.
on May 10, 2008
As a frustrated Democrat who is tired of seeing his party cede important cultural territory, I devoured this book. The Political Brain is perhaps the best book I have read on crafting a party message that resonates with the American public. Drew Westin offers helpful advice to Democrats by showing them how to frame an emotionally compelling and principled stance on the issues that Republicans have used to defeat Democratic contenders for decades. Starting from the perspective of a cognitive psychologist, Westin weaves together the clinical and the politically practical in his diagnosis of the Democrats' "values" and message problems. This book is a perfect companion to George Lakoff and should be required reading for any Democratic strategist. If you have ever asked yourself what Democrats stand for or have noticed some dissonance between the Republican master-narrative and their governance, I suggest that you read The Political Brain.
The dust jacket has one line that is at the center of this book: "The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works." Drew Westen uses this thought as a takeoff point in his book, "The Political Brain." He asserts that (page xv) "The political brain is an emotional brain."
One point that he hammers throughout the book is that Republicans do a better job of connecting with voters at an emotional, gut level than do Democrats. Ds tend to make rational points; Rs wed their points to emotional appeals, ending up doing much better. He provides examples from the Gore-Bush and Bush-Kerry campaigns. One interesting feature of the book is the author's development of how Gore and Kerry could have crafted statements to wed emotion to policy talking points in a way to, in Westen's view, would trump the Republican efforts. As an example of where Democrats have succeeded, he notes Bill Clinton's wedding of talking points to emotional appeals.
The discussion of neurosciences and how they tie into the argument is a bit underdeveloped. Westen does discuss some studies and notes some of his own research. Nonetheless, he could have elaborated more completely and made a more compelling case. He also addresses the evolution of what he terms "the passionate brain," in which (page 51) ". . .Feeling and thinking evolved together, and nature `designed' them to work together."
He discusses specific policy arenas and how Democrats have ceded the potent ground wedding emotion and thinking, from abortion to gun control to race to taxes. He takes Democratic consultants and campaign advisors to task. There is a bit of "conflict of interest," in some senses, since he also consults for Democrats. He is most explicit about one goal of this volume during his policy arena by policy arena analysis on page 380: "The central point of this chapter is that Democrats need to talk about values, morality, and faith again, but not by talking like Republicans. They need to offer a counternarrative that has as its core beneficence, tolerance, and humility, not hate, contempt, and dogma." That quotation surely provides a taste of Westen's passion and his political perspective.
One real annoyance with the book that I purchased. Each chapter is studded with numbered footnotes--but nowhere in the volume are the corresponding citations. One must go to a web site to get them. This keeps the volume shorter, but it makes it more difficult to check out citations. One might not necessarily be near the Internet while reading the book and wanting to check something out.
His call to realize that there is a passionate component to politics and political discourse, his linkage of evolution and brain structure and function to political thinking and behavior is well taken. There are some less than optimal elements to the book, as noted, but, overall, this is a provocative volume that will get readers to thinking.
on August 28, 2007
Some months ago I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing a book by Dr. Frank Luntz titled "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." I thought this to be a valuable contribution to the general field of what traditionally is called "Rhetoric," that is, the art (and arguably science) of persuasion. Words have power, some specific words more than others. Words are used to influence and motivate; they are used to make connections between ideas and emotions. Words are, therefore, extremely important regardless of the context in which they are used: interviewing for a job, defending oneself in court, lecturing to an audience and, obviously, in political campaigns. In politics, Luntz is primarily a pollster and consultant for Republican Party interests and candidates. I submit that Luntz's work should be of vital interest to every aspiring politician.
We have available now another book which I think any aspiring politician needs to read and digest. And this work complements Luntz's book very well. Dr. Drew Westen, an experienced clinical and "political" psychologist, has written "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." For the sake of fairness and full disclosure, it should be said that Dr. Westen is a political consultant and advisor for Democratic leaders and candidates, although Westen does refer to Luntz's book on a number of occasions. Westen's book is probably the more directly partisan of the two, but that is not a major concern once one takes the party politics out of the picture and concentrates on the practical psychology that is being offered. While I think much of the advice Weston provides would enhance a political candidate's chances of being elected to office, I do have some ethical and philosophical reservations -- plus some plain old personal uneasiness -- about his recommendations.
There is little controversy regarding the reality of human emotions in political discourse, particularly when it involves important issues or candidacy for public office. An outgoing personality, the capacity to project a positive image, the ability to speak well, the flair one has for making contact on an affective level with another human being, that is, the overall "charisma" of a political candidate, has been known from antiquity to be one of the most valuable assets for anyone attempting to influence public affairs or get elected to office. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this and it was utilized by their great orators, and even a cursory examination of American political history will elicit many examples of charismatic politicians and social leaders.
Weston, however, adds a new dimension to the subject about which the ancients and, until quite recently, the moderns were unaware: the physiological principles foundational to affective behavior based on recent scientific investigation into the operations of the human brain at an empirical level. Previously, the whole matter of the "art of persuasion" rested for the most part on "rational" understandings. Aristotle, for instance, did not consider rhetoric to be a special science, but simply an art of general scope. Rhetoric explains how some people succeed in swaying audiences, either by natural gifts or through practice and study and then provides the relevant principles involved. This was a rational approach to the subject without any underlying physiological explanation or justification. This is not to say that Aristotle was wrong about the art of persuasion; it's to say that his analysis was merely incomplete (and understandingly so).
Things have changed mightily over the past 2,400 years and new technologies and methods now permit a detailed examination of what actually goes on inside the human brain, but I might suggest that this knowledge can be used for nefarious purposes as well as for the opposite. Weston states: "The vision of mind, brain, and emotion ... is very different from the vision that has dominated much of Western thinking about judgment, decision making, and political behavior over the last three centuries. Emotions provide a compass that leads us toward and away from things, people, or actions associated with positive or negative states. Organisms survived for millions of years without consciousness and without the faculty philosophers have extolled for 2,500 years as reason." That may be the case; Yet, I would argue, it is the use of human reason, and not the application of human emotions, that has furthered the advancement of mankind and civilization.
In his counsel to Democratic candidates, Weston often appears to relegate the importance, and even the worthiness, of an issue to second place in favor of appealing to the emotions of the voting electorate rather than to their reasoning capacity. He writes: "The data from political science are crystal clear: people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments." I won't deny that is true; I have followed American politics for well over half a century. But is this the best way to conduct public affairs or promote the public good? Human emotions are a double-edged sword in politics; they can be employed, for instance, to promote and justify the annihilation of a racial or religious group as well as to support one or grant it special privileges.
There is also the matter of the "argumentum ad populum" logical fallacy which, in its narrow sense that I am using here, is the attempt to win popular assent to a conclusion (issue or candidate) by arousing the emotions and enthusiasms of the public, rather than by appeal to the relevant facts (or arguments). It seems to me that the worthiness (truth, efficacy, desirability) of an issue matters very much and that a political candidate's stand on an issue may be much more important than the "charisma" the candidate may project. Of course, Westen could argue that this is immaterial and irrelevant if the candidate can't win the election to support the issue involved. And, naturally, he is right about that.
My recommendation, therefore, is this: Any aspiring political candidate or political junkie (as I am), no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, ought to read Weston's "The Political Brain" because it's filled with solid practical, scientifically validated information about the place of emotions in the political enterprise. But also read Luntz's "Words That Work" because he covers the linguistic angle in political advocacy and discourse. Then, above all, read Aristotle's "Rhetoric" because he is concerned, not only with the mere art of persuasion, but with the truth or falsity of an issue, how to examine both sides of an issue, how to properly develop an argument regarding an issue and, most importantly, how to develop the ability to present a persuasive argument. With these three books in hand, how could anyone lose an election?
on July 2, 2007
Fascinating. Westen uses findings from cutting edge brain science to reinvigorate the classic arts of political persuasion and rhetoric. The Political Brain demonstrates how all of us actually process political information, and even the most educated and informed of us are not rational decision makers, calculating the cost and benefit ratios from a candidate's list of policy proposals.
But instead of lamenting some long-lost rational utopia (which never really existed), Westen explains how we all use emotions as an integral part of our decision making. The most successful political communicators have always known this: harnessing the power of emotional connections, telling stories that resonate with voters, and framing arguements in terms of values.
Westen's book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how politics and elections actually work. The Political Brain will be to the 21st Century what Tony Schwartz's Responsive Chord was to the 20th Century.
on March 7, 2011
I have a strong interest in political psychology, and was looking forward to reading what appeared, from the back cover,to be a solid (and lengthy) handbook on it.
However, The Political Brain is only about 10% psychology in its content. The rest is an impassioned rant. The author appears to wish that he could rewrite the political script in the U.S. from the last 10 years, and provides several hundred pages of his own drafts from his version of that script. It's heavily partisan, to the point of being offensive even to a centrist (to say nothing of what someone of a conservative bent would think of it). The writing, while engaging at times, is also very repetitive, and at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the text could (and should) have been edited out.
That really is unfortunate, because some of the research he mentions in passing is solid work that will only suffer because of his use of it in so heavy-handed a way.
A better alternative is The Sentimental Citizen by George Marcus. Marcus's take on the same general topic of emotion and politics meets the standard for both popular and scholarly writing, providing a great overview of the psychological research as well as some ideas about possible application of those ideas - but without partisan venom.
Why did George Bush's message resonate better than Al Gore's and John Kerry's, even when Bush was totally wrong on the facts? The Political Brain will make that clear to you.
Professor Drew Westen is a political psychologist at Emory University and draws on psychology to explain the way voters form decisions about candidates during campaigns. For those who favor the policy wonk approach that is so appealing in debates at the Kennedy School of Government on PBS, this book will be quite an unpleasant surprise. Positions on issues sway voters about 2 percent of the time.
What does work? According to the research cited by Professor Westen, it's pretty simple:
Voters usually ask four questions to pick a candidate to back:
1. How do I feel about the candidate's party and its principles? (The Democrats are in trouble here because their positions are usually portrayed without the context of timeless principles.)
2. How does this candidate make me feel? (How did Al Gore and John Kerry make you feel? Many people would have answered, "Bored.")
3. How do I feel about this candidate's personal characteristics, particularly his or her integrity, leadership, and compassion? (John Kerry's unwillingness to defend himself against Bush's unwarranted attacks made Kerry seem like a person with something to hide who wouldn't be a good leader.)
4. How do I feel about this candidate's stands on issues that matter to me? (Common sense answers built around every day stories work well. References to House and Senate bills don't.)
If you think this point of view is oversimplified, you should read the book. The research is quite impressive in supporting these conclusions.
Will any Democrat follow this advice? Probably not. Professor Westen describes how Democrats favor the same campaign advisors who always lose, rather than ones who give effective advice. Many Democrats are also afraid that they can't compete at this game with the Republicans. Others think you have to be sleazy, like some emotional campaigns are. Professor Westen shows that if we want to have a well-run company, it's unethical not to convey important information in ways that it can be understood and appreciated.
The most interesting parts of the book come where Professor Westen takes on the leading issues of past campaigns (abortion, gun control, race, estate taxes, compassion, character assassination, Iraq war, and gay rights) to show the effective things done (usually by Republicans) and how someone opposed to those positions could have made a better impression than by doing what was done. I'm not convinced that each of his scripts would work, but they are certainly thought provoking.
If you are a Democrat, give a copy of this book to those you know who are running for office. If you are a Republican, study how President Bush has been making mistakes since 2004 and pass along the message to those who are running.
As a side note, I think Professor Westen missed several reasons why past candidates have chosen to avoid using emotional appeals. Having watched many elected officials in Washington up close, I'm struck by how they go from being people who want to overcome wrongs into people who seem to want to belong to a club of well-dressed, wealthy statesmen. It would be embarrassing for such a gentleman or lady to appeal to ordinary people using ordinary methods of communication. I suspect the bottom line of this shift is that these politicians don't really care all that much for people outside of their own family, friends, and allies.
By comparison, I remember being at an event with my over 80 year-old father while Bill Clinton was president. Dad had just recovered from heart bypass surgery, which had been paid for by Medicare. You could tell Dad was recovering from something. Clinton plowed through quite a large crowd to shake Dad's hand, ask Dad if he was feeling all right, and then conversed about his experience with Medicare. Before leaving Dad, Clinton mentioned that one of his top priorities was protecting Medicare benefits for seniors. Now, that sounds like Clinton was campaigning. But he wasn't. He was just expressing his natural feelings towards an older man.
In one small section of the book, Professor Westen talks about the importance of picking the right candidates. I suspect that if both parties picked candidates who naturally wanted to serve others and deeply cared about everyone they met we would have better government and more effective campaigns.
This is one in a series of books I've read in recent years pointing out that Democrats are years behind Republicans in various campaign techniques. I hope that those who are running for office are reading these books. Otherwise, we'll have one-party government in the future. That's not good for anyone.
If you do buy this book, let me caution you that the copy I read had the pages misbound so that the pages from 297 through 320 follow page 272. Try to get a book that is bound in the correct order.
on November 22, 2008
This book contains many layers of analysis, all of which are connected to the methodological machinery of recent brain research; and all of which are imminently plausible in the context of contemporary American politics. However, each has its own rather subtle flaws.
At the first level of analysis, the Machiavellian like advice given to democrats: that they must move away from taking "the intellectual high road" and move to a more "gut level emotional approach" to politics if they are to ever expect to reach the "Guns, God and anti-gay" (or Sarah Pallin) faction of the American electorate, is on its face not just reasonable but entirely sage advice. But also, if one takes into account the larger tectonic forces that tend to move the American electorate, then this advice is trivially true and obvious. And here, by tectonic forces I mean economic issues, issues of America's role on the international scene, and issues of general fairness. However, as anyone who has studied the American political mind, or the political process, know all too well, both are ever evolving dynamic and organic systems. And thus, what may have been sage advice today may be entirely irrelevant advice even a few months later -- as the election of Barack Obama so aptly demonstrates: Apparently, some of Westen's so called "emotional racist elements" evidently had to find it within their hearts, and within their emotional power to vote for Obama overriding and trumping their emotional anti- minority ideological posture. For it is a given that in order for Mr. Obama to have achieved a 56% mandate to rule, he had to have had at least a sizeable chunk of that faction's vote.
For my money, if "emotional politics" are to be used as a basis for electoral analysis," I prefer the more indirect approach of Dick Morris perfected through his "triangulation process, a process put to such excellent effect by "Team Clinton." The Morris approach, took implicit advantage of the dynamic qualities of the American political mind (and process) without having to characterize it either positively or negatively. For once an emotional valence is attached to the political process that attachment then becomes a self-fulfilling part of the political narrative itself.
At the second level of analysis: of voter decision making based on interrogation of brain cells via "implanted electrodes." This is at the very least tricky, "cutting edge" and "risky" scientific -- not to mention political business. And while the author's analysis in this area does indeed track well with the seminal work in this area of Daniel Goldman (in both his "Emotional Intelligence" and his "Primal Leadership") as well as that of Michael S. Gazzaniga's "The Social Brain," the research here is not done nearly as carefully as that performed by say, Andrew Newberg, et al in their "Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief." (See my Amazon review).
In that book, the reader may recall that those authors performed a similar analysis: interrogating subjects about their beliefs as electrodes were inserted into their brains. To their credit, Newberg was very modest and restrained in the claims he made about the mapping between feelings and beliefs based on brain states -- and indeed in what that might all mean to an individual's belief in God. An accurate summary of their very restrained approach could be paraphrased as: "Brain scans can indeed show that something is going on among the neurons that doesn't happen at other times, but there is no way to know exactly what that something is. Suffice it to say that it is incumbent upon the researcher to make clear what it is that "electrode interrogation" is measuring and more important, what it is capable of measuring. Not only has Westen not done this, his research in this area has such a paucity of citations, one wonders whether or not he is working entirely alone and in the dark?
Finally, this approach, of "tracking" the discrepancies and contradictions in the decision making and emotional judgments of individuals, has a rich and well-known pedigree in the literature on "Cognitive Dissonance," invented by Leon Festinger (in his Theories of Cognitive Consistency: A Sourcebook) and made famous by Shel Feldman (in his Cognitive Consistency). I was disappointed not to see this large and important body of literature even mentioned in the author's analysis. I tried unsuccessfully to connect to the website with his larger bibliography and set of references.
Despite these concerns, this author has hit a rich mother lode and is pushing forward, with or without relying on his academic bone fides. Five Stars for sheer intellectual guts.
on June 3, 2008
Drew Westen's The Political Brain describes why Democrats routinely lose to Republicans despite being right on the issues. Democrats approach elections like job interviews, whereas Republicans see elections as dates. Specifically, Democrats foolishly believe that voters are "dispassionate" calculators of relative utility whereas Republicans understand that to win the mind you must first capture the heart.
Democrats will find the passages dealing with Bush/Gore and Bush/Kerry agonizing reading. Again and again, George Bush and his attack dogs mauled Al Gore without any response. Gore foolishly allowed Bush to go scot free on his drunken-cocaine-belly up business record.
Kerry stupidly allowed draft dodging war zero Bush to "swift boat" him into oblivion. Both Gore and Kerry thought they were taking the high ground by ignoring Bush's slimy attacks. Instead, they took the fast track to oblivion.
In both cases, Kerry and Gore chose not to rebut Bush's vicious attacks and by so doing, they appeared weak. Voters thought 'if you can't fight back against Bush, how will you fight back against America's enemies'?
Westen's most compelling passages are his proscriptions to Democrats. When Republicans demagogue on Flag Burning, Democrats should counter with "Flag Hiding" proposals that legally require all deceased service people to be brought home in flag draped coffins in public. That way, Republicans are forced to show the true cost of their wars and bloodlust.
The GOP "death tax" is countered by a Democratic charge of a Republican "birth tax", i.e., the monstrous Bush-Cheney deficits impose a gigantic tax burden on every baby born in every state in this nation.
Some of Westen's more detailed explanations of scientific procedure and methodology are turgid and difficult reading. But hopefully, he can release a new book in a role playing format.
Barack Obama receives high marks for his intuitive, charismatic style. But all Democrats can and should learn from this important book.