Reviewed by Chris Lehmann
Sunday, July 15, 2007
THE POLITICAL BRAIN
The Role of Emotion in Deciding The Fate of the Nation
By Drew Westen
PublicAffairs. 457 pp. $26.95
In the thick of another overheated election cycle, it would seem the time is ripe for an exploration of how political enthusiasms play out on the neural paths of the brain. Drew Westen, the psychologist and author of The Political Brain, supplied an important study in partisanship when he (with colleagues Stephan Hamann and Clint Kilts) examined the neural patterns of hardcore supporters of George W. Bush and John F. Kerry in the waning months of the 2004 presidential contest. The idea was to give 15 test subjects in each camp a series of openly contradictory statements from each candidate. Sure enough, each partisan overlooked the contradictions of his or her candidate while protesting indignantly the follies and howlers of the other guy. That by itself was not surprising, but Westen and his associates dug further to find that committed supporters were essentially doping their own neural circuits: "The partisan brain didn't seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their 'fix,' giving new meaning to the term, political junkie."
These findings, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2006, are sharp and suggestive -- and certainly comport with human experience. Unfortunately, The Political Brain doesn't follow up on the implications of this research. Rather, Westen, who describes himself as ardently "pro-Democratic," transposes his clinical findings into one-sided campaignspeak. By his reckoning, Republicans have gained power by engineering lavish campaigns to stimulate the brain's centers of emotionally heightened experience -- most especially the amygdala, which generates fear at the margins of consciousness.
Democrats, by contrast, remain perverse hostages to what Westen calls "an irrational emotional commitment to rationality," time and again nominating bloodless technocrats to lead the country and appealing to a "trickle-up" vision of politics -- i.e., one that appeals to a voter's calculation of what issues matter most and how a given candidate reflects those interests.
The Political Brain is not, in other words, a dispassionate foray into neuropsychology, but rather another in the long and ongoing series of treatises on what's wrong with Democrats and how to fix them. Westen trots out the same basic advice to address a host of issues from abortion and gay marriage to gun control and the War on Terror. Democrats, he preaches, need more genuine emotion to enliven their campaign rhetoric and extend their brand appeal to the hotly coveted voters at "the middle of the political spectrum."
If this sounds monotonously familiar, that's because it is. Westen, like many a self-appointed liberal consigliere, wants Democrats to toe a strict centrist line on most issues while pitching their campaigns at the mythic creatures who inhabit "Red State America" -- flaunting their credentials as game hunters and religious believers while exposing the hypocrisy and "hate" behind the GOP mask of power. The idea is to be more genuine while also paradoxically more aware of the cynical market power of the brand. "The left has no brand, no counterbrand, no master narrative, no counternarrative," goes one of Westen's typical refrains. "It has no shared terms or 'talking points' for its leaders to repeat until they are part of our political lexicon. . . . If this is how Coke marketed itself, we would all be drinking Pepsi."
Westen even presses his case into the realm of body language: He cites research purporting to show that "Male Independents" were especially captivated by President Ronald Reagan's "facial expressions," particularly his "relaxed head, which moved to the side with ease and fluidity." Poor Howard Dean, running for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, was cursed with a "tight jaw and neck and appearance of prickliness" -- a tic that, if corrected in a more Reaganesque fashion, Westen argues, "could have made the difference between victory and defeat for Howard Dean -- and between life and death for many in Iraq."
Putting aside the hyperbole, the dysfunctions in both parties arise from much more than failed ad strategies. Consider the current plight of the GOP. For all its hectic post-9/11 efforts to brand itself as the party of national security, it now stands at a grim disadvantage on security issues in many opinion polls. But Westen seems incapable of diagnosing such broader breakdowns of ideological appeal -- just as he seems never to grasp that the Democrats' 60-year status as the nation's majority party didn't grow out of some collection of emotionally satisfying ad refrains, but rather the death of the New Deal social contract, tragically run to ground by the same campaign-savvy, free-trading "New Democrats" whose campaign mantras Westen intones again and again in this book. Who needs ideology when you can issue bully-pulpit assaults on the GOP, calling for the personal "strength and warmth" of a leader who harks back to the charismatic presidents -- a new kind of Democrat "with cojones"?
Westen's case would be stronger if he tendered persuasive campaign advice. His judgment is nowhere so shaky as in his handling of racial questions. In response to the George H.W. Bush campaign's infamous "Willie Horton" ad, for instance, Westen counsels that Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis should have hammered at Bush's 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate in Texas, when Bush opposed the Civil Rights act: "All Dukakis needed to do was link this overtly racist stance in 1964 with the covertly racist Willie Horton ad twenty-four years later." But the whole reason that Bush was able to exploit the ugly emotions at the heart of the Horton ad in the first place was that he had a legitimately moderate voting record on racial issues in the U.S. House of Representatives -- most notably in supporting President Johnson's landmark Fair Housing act in 1968 over the loud objections of influential segregationists in his home district. To overlook such an elementary political fact is not a sign of cojones; it is, rather, a peculiarly indignant brand of naivete. Likewise, Westen urges tireless Democratic exploitation of Trent Lott's 2002 endorsement of Sen. Strom Thurmond's abortive Dixiecrat candidacy for the presidency in 1948, replete with newsreel footage of Thurmond's incendiary speeches featuring repeated use of the N-word. Then, he suggests, sit back and watch the election returns roll in -- a natural effect, he writes, "of shining the bright light of twenty-first century conscious [sic] values on mid-twentieth-century bigotry."
It's a highly selective bright light, to put things mildly. Westen entirely fails to mention that Lott already went through a public relations offensive to atone for his remarks, up to and including the surrender of his Majority leadership and a shaming appearance on the BET network. He also says nothing about the fact that Strom Thurmond himself, the centerpiece of this hypothetical ad offensive, died nearly five years ago.
None of this is to say that Democrats can't run sharper, more emotionally resonant campaigns or nominate candidates who possess actual charisma. It is, however, to suggest a pair of cautionary lessons, as embattled liberals ponder emotional appeals to the electorate: Those who dwell on a junkie's vision of the political process may themselves be mainliners; and voters of any political persuasion lose out when candidates -- and campaign consultants -- ignore their brains and do the bulk of their thinking with their cojones. ·
Chris Lehmann, a former deputy editor of Book World, is currently an editor for Congressional Quarterly.