Thursday, October 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Political Brain

A book arrived in the mail, sent by Public Affairs, one of the publishers that Culture Kitchen and Daily Gotham has dealt with before. Based on what I had done with them in the past, they wanted me to review the book. At the time I was excessively busy and had little intention of getting around to it. But, just to be fair, and since I didn't have another book going at that moment, I picked it up for my subway ride to work. Well, I have to admit that it was inevitable that it would grab me. So here I am reviewing it.

The book is The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. It is no surprise that it grabbed me since it combines two of my obsessions: politics (particularly liberal politics) with science (psychology and neurosciences). More to the point, it takes the concept of "framing" and explains why framing is so necessary, and takes it one step further. The Political Mind is a must read for each and every Democratic campaign out there and it explains in no uncertain terms why Democrats, despite having a voter registration advantage, being better at governing, having better ideas, and, in general, better sharing the values of the average American, lose elections to Republicans whose ideas are atrocious and whose values consist of blind greed, corruption and cronyism.

Sometimes the best person for the job is not the best candidate. In fact very often the best person for the job is NOT the winning candidate. This is a flaw in any democratic system that is probably unavoidable. People win because they are considered appealing by voters, not because they are qualified. If all it took to win was the best resume and skills, Gore would have won by a landslide and Bill Richardson would be a shoe in.

But both in primary elections and in general elections I have seen how democratic elections favor the most appealing candidate, not the best person for the job. Again, this is probably an unavoidable flaw in electoral politics. But it also is something that has to be considered whenever someone runs for office, either in a primary or in a general election. If the best person for the job wants the job, that person has to ALSO be the most appealing candidate. That is where marketing comes in. Of course if you really ARE the best person for the job you have a better product to market. But marketing is still the key.

Democrats have been agonizing over why they fail in elections even though they have consistently been better at serving working class Americans, have presided over better economies and smaller deficits, and are generally smarter at government than Republicans. Since 2000 we have realized that two things (other than money) have given Republicans an advantage: fraud and framing. Well, let's leave Republican fraud and corruption aside for now. That is something that helped lose them the 2006 elections as more and more Americans started realizing how immoral the so-called "moral" party really was. But "framing" is really something that Republicans have carefully crafted for more than thirty years and which Democrats have started to pick up on.

But this is not the be all and end all of winning. In The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University uses an analysis of how the human brain functions to suggest political strategies for winning elections. In short, he argues that voters do not behave logically, but rather emotionally and the candidate who can appeal emotionally to the voter wins.

In fact, according to several studies cited by Westen, the breakdown is that voters vote 80% based on feelings, emotions and "their gut," and only 20% based on issues, their own self interest and their brain. Republicans have carefully established a campaigning method that appeals to that emotional 80%, generally playing on fear and hatred. Democrats have carefully established a campaign method that appeals to that cerebral 20%, generally addressing what is really better for most voters. Since 80% is larger than 20%, Democrats have a problem. And they have a problem by taking the more LOGICAL route.

Westen puts it this way:

Republicans govern with faith and intuition but campaign with the best available science. Democrats govern with the best available science, but campaign with faith and intuition.

First some background on how our brains work. This is my explanation, not Westen's, so don't hold it against him if it is clear as mud.

Our brain is not what we think it is...ironically. Our brain is scarcely more than a set of very intricately connected on/off switches. Nerve cells either signal or they don't. Nerve cells that signal can either act to inhibit or stimulate downstream nerves. Each nerve has a threshold below which they do not signal. So each nerve cell sums up all the inhibitory and stimulating signals it receives, and when that sum is above the threshold, it signals to the nerves it is connected to.

That is all the brain is: a bunch of these on/off switches connected to each other in a complex pattern. The pattern of connections is what makes up our memories, emotions, thoughts, etc. And that pattern is ever changing as we receive constant input.

These patterns of connections are also compartmentalized to some degree, with different compartments of the brain often responding in contradictory ways to the same input. We don't really have one "brain," we have a collection of interconnected organs that collectively makes the brain.

The brain is NOT a computer, even though both are composed of interconnected on/off switches. The way the on/off switches are connected and interact are different in computers and brains, though some researchers are trying to wire computers to emulate brains...with some success.

If brains were like computers, voters would calculate a straight self-interest based system when they vote and probably 90% of Americans would vote Democratic since 90% of Americans are better served by the policies of the Democrats (better healthcare, more equitable taxes, lower national deficits, cleaner air, etc.) than by the policies of the Republicans (tax cuts for the richest, cuts in service for the poor and middle class, massive national deficits, wars for corporate profit, etc.)

But brains do NOT function like computers. In fact, brains function predominantly in irrational ways because emotions are an evolutionarily successful short cut by which we can live day to day without having to work out everything we do to ten decimal places like Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Truth is, Star Trek Vulcans may not be evolutionarily possible, at least not in the context of human history to date.

(NOTE: the Vulcans on Star Trek did NOT evolve right to a pure logic brain…they evolved similar to humans and at a later stage developed their logic when faced with extinction through war, if I remember my Star Trek even Vulcans were irrational as humans at first).

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen argues that Democrats lose because they fail to understand how the human brain works. Since Democratic politicians are, in general, far better on the issues, far more fact-based, and far more understanding of working class Americans and their values, Democrats assume that all they have to do is tell the facts and voters will calculate the logical conclusion that they should vote Democratic.

Westen's book is divided into two parts. Part I describes how the brain works and how this influences how voters vote. I already gave away one of the punchlines by indicating that voters vote 80% based on gut-level emotions and 20% on rational, issues-based decision making. Party affiliation, one's emotional, gut-level response towards ones chosen party, is the MOST important factor in how people vote. Second is their emotional response to a particular candidate. And only third or fourth come issues. This is how voters vote. Democrats AND Republicans behave the same in this way. So the candidate who appeals better to a person's gut will win over the candidate who appeals better to a person's mind. If it was otherwise, studies show that Democrats would win overwhelmingly almost all the time. The secret of Bill Clinton's success is just this. He was one of our most intelligent, fact BRILLIANT of presidents. But that isn't how most people saw him. They saw him as hopeful, empathic, emotionally appealing. Bob Dole was also highly intelligent. But he was about as emotionally appealing as a plate of over-cooked spinach. Clinton won. FDR's secret was a brilliant mind AND an ability to reach into a voter's heart and make them feel GOOD about voting for him. This combination of brilliant ideas AND emotional appeal are unbeatable.

Part II is an issue-by-issue analysis of how Democrats can do better applying this more emotional appeal to elections. In many ways I found Part II more tedious, but it is precisely the part of the book that will be of greatest interest to people running campaigns. To each and every Democratic campaign in the nation I tell you: read this book and take careful notes. It teaches how to avoid both the disastrously failed campaign approach Democrats have been using AND the highly successful but sleazy, lie-based approach Republicans specialize in.

Westen doesn't spend much time talking about Independents since, quite simply, most people naturally and consistently vote for a PARTY, not a person. This has been the case since Washington left the White House and not even Theodore Roosevelt, one of America's most popular presidents, could change that. Here is where many Independents get it wrong as well. They assume that if people are dissatisfied with the political parties they will be open to voting for someone unaffiliated with a political party. This is not how people generally behave. They do NOT reject the party they are affiliated. The rationalize why, despite their dissatisfaction, they should still vote for their chosen party. A few independents take it one step further. They turn being "independent" into an almost party line in itself, cursing both Democrats and Republicans equally, claiming that they are the same. This is just as irrational as strict faith in one party over the other. Democrats and Republicans are NOT the same and never have been. They differ in many ways and this plays out in the policies that dominate when one or the other party is dominant. When the government is split between the two, then some form of compromise has to result, which leads some to equate such necessary compromise with an equivalence between the compromising parties. In other words, Greens, Reform party, and independents make the SAME mistake Democrats do: they assume voting is a strictly rational behavior. They spend so much time telling us why we should abandon our party all the while we, on a gut level, understand why we feel very comfortable identifying ourselves with our party...even when we are dissatisfied with how our party is at that particular moment.

Republicans have specialized in the irrational and so have shown a better understanding in the human brain as it really evolved than those who actually understand evolution do. Westen is not advocating that Democrats emulate the cynical lies of Karl Rove to win elections. Rather he advises Democrats to emulate great politicians like FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton who COMBINED great intellect and very rational policies with effective emotional appeals that show an empathic UNDERSTANDING (rather than a merely rational understanding) of the voters. Republicans predominantly use fear and hatred as their emotional appeals. Fear and hatred beat out rationality almost all the time, and that explains most of the elections in American (world?) history. But when Democrats present an emotional appeal based on hope (Clinton's favorite theme) and empathy, they win over fear and hatred based appeals. FDR, both at the low point of the Great Depression when he first took office, and immediately after Pearl Harbor, got on national radio and emphasized HOPE and OVERCOMING fear. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" is of course the most famous expression of this desire to REASSURE Americans. George Bush and the vast majority of the Republican Party today do the opposite. They emphasize fear and intolerance. Bush, Cheney, McCain, Giuliani and the Congressional Republicans all seem to WANT Americans to be afraid and especially to fear the rest of the world. This is precisely the message that FDR, Kennedy and Clinton AVOIDED during periods of economic, political and international instability. Democrats focus, in general, when the focus on emotions at all, on hope and overcoming fear. Republicans thrive on encouraging fear. This is a primary lesson Westen is conveying in his book. Democrats fail if they pit reason against Republican fear mongering. But they win if they pit hope and empathy against Republican fear and intolerance. Democrats have become bolder in their appeal to emotions. Bottom line is, if Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh aren't frothing at the mouth in impotent rage at what we are doing and saying, we aren't doing our jobs.

One fundamental message Westen delivers, particularly in Part II, is that Democrats don't have to mislead when they make emotional appeals. In fact, Democratic values are far closer to the values of the vast majority of Americans. Democrats do best when they HONESTLY and EMOTIONALLY express their values to the voters. Republicans, who focus on a much narrower and atypical part of the American electorate (primarily the very wealthy and fundamentalist extremists), basically have to mislead to establish their emotional appeal. They have to call a bill that guts clean air standards and aids polluters something like the "Clear Skies Initiative." They have to lie and say Saddam Hussein somehow had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (a pure fabrication based on NO evidence) in order to get America behind invading Iraq. They have to call ICBMs "Peacekeepers." All are just lies or, to borrow and Al Franken phrase, weasel words to hide the fact that Republican values don't really agree with the values of the vast majority of American citizens. Study after study shows that American voters identify themselves far more with Democratic values, but emotionally lean Republican. If Democrats were more open and emotional about the values they genuinely hold, they would do far better. But pundits and advisers tell them to AVOID the emotional issues and focus on the intellectual appeal to issues...and so they lose. Many Democratic advisers have lost far more elections than they have won...yet candidates still hire them. Who knows why!

This is what Part II of the book is all about: how Democrats can craft their honest message to appeal on a more gut-level to the voters.

I will use one example: abortion.

Abortion is an issue that polls show split American voters. This has led many Democrats to try and find lukewarm stands that hopefully will please everybody, but in reality please no one. By comparison, the Republicans take as their party platform the most extreme right wing, most inflexible and most unreasonable stand: that abortion is murder. Many studies show that it isn't just America as a whole that is split on abortion, individuals are split within themselves. So why do Republicans get away with an extremist point of view? Because the Democratic statements on abortion generate little emotional enthusiasm among voters divided within themselves on the issue while Republican extremism DOES produce an emotional reaction. And that emotional reaction makes people feel that Republicans are somehow "value driven" on the issue, even though there is so much evidence that they are not.

Studies show that people DO on some level view an unborn child as a living child. They also DO consider a woman's right to her own body a critical right and view government intervention in her choices highly disturbing. This is where the conflict comes from. Most people, however, have an emotional continuum wherein a fertilized egg really isn't a child, but a term-fetus about to be born is, and each step in between falls somewhere between "non-child" and "child." Each individual has their own gut-level feeling of where along this continuum from fertilization to birth a fetus becomes a "person." And at that point, the life of the "child" may well have an emotional value that makes abortion on demand uncomfortable for that person.

The Right wing extremist view that abortion is murder is NOT the view most Americans have…not even most religious Americans. But most people feel that at SOME point limitations on abortion seem reasonable and they can get a gut-level feel for where Republicans stand on the issue, but are left unmoved (emotionally) by the Democratic stand. Democrats appeal to their reason, and do take the more reasonable stand. But Republicans take a more emotional stand and that leaves a stronger impression on the voter.

Westen's solution is to articulate the Democratic stand, which really matches the gut-level feelings of Americans better than the right wing extremism of Republicans, in a way that Americans can FEEL in their gut. His suggested wording is:

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.

Now many Democrats may feel uncomfortable with this because it leaves open a window for limiting abortion. On the other hand, this recognizes the fact that most people become increasingly uncomfortable with abortion as the fetus nears birth. It recognizes that abortion of an early term fetus is not the same as abortion of a late term fetus and that recognition is all most people need to accept abortion in general It also recognizes that under no circumstance should a woman be forced to carry to term a pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest or that endangers her own life, which is also in line with what the vast majority of voters believe. Westen's statement in essence reflects a pro-choice stand that recognizes the concerns people might have about abortion. Westen's main point, though, is that it reflects a true majority view in America AND will appeal to voters.

In conjunction with this clearer statement of a Democratic, stand, Westen strongly recommends a much more honest assessment of the Republican extremist view that abortion is murder. Don't let them claim they are pro-life! Tell the voters what their stated platform really means:

[Republicans put] the rights of rapists above the rights of their victims, guaranteeing every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child. What [Republicans] propose is a rapists' bill of rights...

[Republicans believe] that if a sixteen-year-old girl is molested by her father, she should be forced by the government to have his child, and if she doesn't want to, she should be forced by the government to go to the man who raped her and ask for his concent.

This is an honest, if brutal, portrayal of the consequences of the Republican platform on abortion. And if Democrats don't tell it like it is, it allows Republicans to claim that their rapists' bill of rights is somehow a moral, pro-life stand. It isn't, so why let them call it that?

I am not doing Westen justice presenting his approach so briefly, but I hope you can see that he is advising Democrats to stay honest, but embrace the emotional, gut-level side of voters that Republicans have been appealing to for decades. Hit the Republicans with reality in a powerfully emotional way, and honestly state the Democratic view, with all its complexities and ambiguities, in a way that voters can understand in their gut.

Many Democrats will have a gut-level sense of rightness (my phrase) about this characterization of both our stand on abortion and the Republican stand on abortion, even if many of us will feel a concern that it leaves open a window to limiting choice. But the thing is, most moderate Republicans and Independents will also have a gut-level sense of rightness about it. Many might agree with every word, but most will sense that it makes sense and it converges on their own views. Most people would vote for the candidate that can convincingly phrase it this way, as opposed to the rigid, uncompromising, extremist view of the Republicans that really does favor the rights of a rapist or incestuous father over the rights of a young girl or mature woman. This is how Democrats should face the voters and honestly, and from the gut, tell the voters where they stand and what the consequences are of the Republican stand.

I would add that in many parts of the nation a Democrat could say, "I believe the right of a woman over her own body is a fundamental right that government should never interfere with" and, in conjunction with the honest and brutal portrayal of the "abortion is murder" view as a rapists' bill of rights, would win the issue easily. Most Americans would easily, and SHOULD easily, place a woman's right to control her own body over the rights of rapists. If nothing else this would force moderate Republicans to abandon the "abortion is murder" line and form their own nuanced view.

Personally I think most of our Founding Fathers, by and large products of the enlightenment, would be horrified that an appeal to emotions trumps rationality in American democracy. But that is how voters work and, from what I can tell from my own reading of history, that is how citizens have behaved throughout history. In fact, go back to ancient Greece and I have always been stuck by how irrational the votes were in that supposedly reason-worshipping society. We are NOT rational animals. We are animals that evolved rationality. But rationality isn't the only tool we have and few people really are as rational as they think. Rationalizing, maybe. But we are more emotional and less rational than we believe ourselves to be.

The book is a bit too long and needs some editing. In many ways Westen, like me a scientist, is over doing his logical and scientific presentation. He gives extensive evidence for each point and picks apart speeches extensively and clinically. The book makes a great point with somewhat excessive detail. Still, it is the next step in the evolution of a more effective Democratic Party that can better present its candidates not just as rationally better than Republican fear mongering and intolerance, but as emotionally better because they appeal to hope and empathy rather than fear and hatred. We already know that "framing" is something we have to work on…and HAVE been working on. Westen gives the scientific, neurological and evolutionary basis for why framing is so important. Brains are not predominantly rational, though they are fully capable of rationality. They are predominantly emotional. People respond to emotions far more than rationality. And Republicans have shown a better understanding of that than Democrats, giving them the edge in elections. Westen also gives blueprints for how a campaign should approach practically every hot-button issue, pointing out that if you avoid the hot buttons, you will inspire no passion in the voters. Every Democratic campaign should read his blueprints for discussing issues, even if they then, as they naturally should, take those blueprints as merely rough drafts for their own, individual message. Campaigns that ignore Westen's book are likely to continue the same mistakes Democrats have made for decades¦and continue to lose. Which is a shame because I think Westen is right: with honesty and passion, democrats CAN and SHOULD win.

Return to Mole's Book Page.

Return to I Had a Thought

No comments:

Post a Comment