Dems, You Gotta Have Heart

By Drew Westen
Sunday, July 29, 2007

To understand why Democrats have had such a hard time winning the White House, consider two scenes from last week's CNN/YouTube debate. First, Sen. Chris Dodd offered a highly precise response to a question about energy: "The 50-mile-per-gallon standard is something I've advocated by 2017." Then former senator John Edwards told a moving story about a man who couldn't speak for 50 years because of a severe cleft palate: "For five decades, James Lowe lived in the richest nation on the planet not able to talk because he couldn't afford the procedure that would've allowed him to talk."

Which appeal was more compelling? Which one grabbed you in the gut?

For much of the last 40 years, Democrats have ignored their guts and searched for the best facts and figures. But the most compelling fact is that during those 40 years, only one Democrat has been reelected to the presidency. Bill Clinton was also the only Democrat who intuitively understood that the best appeals seize people with something emotionally compelling, lay out the alternatives posed by the candidates and "close the argument" with inspiration or outrage.

Now, perhaps you're sure you're a rational voter and you think that it's just uneducated people who vote with their gut. Well, listen over the next few days to your most educated friends' explanations of why they prefer one candidate over another. "I find him inspiring," they gush about Sen. Barack Obama. "He tells it like it is," they say about Edwards. "He's boring," they sigh about Gov. Bill Richardson. "She knows her stuff, but I just don't like her," they mutter about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now those are reasonable arguments.

The philosopher David Hume had it right: Reason is the slave to the passions, not the other way around. Recognizing the primacy of passion in everything we do has profound implications for politics. Reason is the middle manager in decision making, not the CEO. Policies are nothing but the frontmen for values. You listen to the middleman's "pitch," but you go straight to the top when it's time to choose. You go, in other words, to your emotions -- particularly your moral emotions -- when you pull a lever in the voting booth.

Behind every campaign lies a vision of mind. That vision is rarely articulated, but it influences everything a campaign does or doesn't do. If you start with the wrong premises about the minds of American voters, you'll reason your way to a concession speech. (In the interests of full disclosure: I'm not working for any one candidate, but I've given advice to the Clinton, Obama and Edwards campaigns.)

Two visions of mind and brain have dominated contemporary American politics. One is a dispassionate vision, which suggests that voters choose candidates by examining their positions on the issues and coolly calculating their relative costs and benefits. The other, a passionate vision, suggests that voters are moved by the feelings that candidates and parties elicit in them and are guided by their shared values and goals.

The dispassionate vision has guided much of the strategy that has reliably cost Democrats winnable elections over the past four decades, and it could do so again in 2008. It suggests that the way to convince voters is to offer them the portfolio of issues, policies, facts and figures that most appeals to their self-interest.

But this vision flies in the face of everything we know about how the mind and brain actually work. It flies in the face of 40 years of social science research. And it flies in the face of modern American political history.

Think Michael Dukakis. Think Al Gore. Think John Kerry. They all ran on laundry lists. They never told coherent stories about themselves or their opponents. I can't for the life of me remember the narratives any of them laid out about why we should vote for them instead of their opponent. But I remember clearly the stories their GOP rivals told. That's what advertisers call "memorability," and if it isn't memorable and emotionally compelling, it doesn't sell.

Armed with nothing but laundry lists, all three Democrats got taken to the cleaners. It didn't matter that the public agreed with them on most of the "issues." While the Republicans were impugning their characters (think Swift boats or Willie Horton), all three nominees took the high road. They refused to wipe themselves clean of the attacks for fear of "dignifying" them -- and refused to air the genuinely dirty linen of their foes. We clean the stains out of our clothes. We should do the same in politics.

Why is it almost always unwise to "refuse to dignify" a political attack? Because of the way our brains function. Our brains are nothing but vast networks of interconnected neurons, which join thoughts, images, sounds, memories and emotions. Why did Clinton have to disavow the label of "liberal" in last week's debate, even though she explained the term's noble derivation? Because conservatives understand how to make associations stick, and they have so thoroughly contaminated the neural networks in American minds that define what it means to be a liberal that even Jefferson couldn't win an election today if he called himself one -- which he did, liberally.

If the other side is trashing you and you say nothing or back down, you cede to your adversaries the neural networks that constitute public opinion. People vote largely with their passions, and if you jam their emotional radar, you prevent them from making emotionally informed decisions. Consider the case of George W. Bush, whose life story telegraphed everything voters needed to know to make an informed decision about him: He had dodged the Vietnam-era draft while avidly supporting the war; he had drunk his way through much of his adulthood, even while he had young children at home; he had shown extraordinary incompetence in the business world; his campaign had smeared Sen. John McCain with stories about mental instability and an allegedly illegitimate baby to get Bush through the South Carolina primary in 2000; and he had mocked a fellow born-again Christian whom he put to death as governor of Texas. It was quite a story. The problem was that the Democrats wouldn't tell it.

When you hear a pollster or strategist say, "We've got 'em beat on the issues," you know you're on the dispassionate river, and you know you're going under. By my count, voters disagreed with Ronald Reagan on about 75 percent of "the issues." But they liked him. They believed he would restore America's greatness. They voted with their values.

So do Democrats, but their candidates too often hide their values in the fine print of their policies. Democratic pundits, strategists and primary voters require their candidates to do precisely the things that lose general elections: to offer their 16-point energy plans rather than to offer their life stories, their values, their visions and a couple of well-chosen "signature issues."

Data from thousands of voters surveyed since the late 1940s suggest that voters tend to ask four questions (in this order) that determine how they vote:

· How do I feel about the candidates' parties and their principles?

· How does this candidate make me feel?

· How do I feel about this candidate's personal characteristics, such as integrity, leadership and empathy?

· How do I feel about this candidate's stands on issues that matter to me?

Candidates who focus toward the top of this hierarchy and work their way down generally win. They drink from the wellsprings of partisan sentiments, which account for more than 80 percent of votes. They tell emotionally compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in. They don't say, "Karl Rove needs to testify under oath about the CIA leak case because we must have a transcript." Rather, when the president invokes executive privilege, they ask, with righteous indignation: "Mr. Bush, just what is it about 'So help me God' that you find so offensive?" Likewise, if you don't make people feel the health care crisis -- either as a disaster that could one day hit them or as something that just isn't right -- you won't win on health care, regardless of how sound your plan is.

In the Democratic debates thus far, the most memorable lines have all come from moments when a candidate created a feeling: Edwards's suggestion that you can't "split the difference" between economic fairness and unfairness; Obama's principled stand on immigration ("We are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of immigrants"); Clinton's recognition, when vowing that she would respond aggressively if al-Qaeda again struck in the United States, that the first task of government is to protect its citizens' security.

For some reason, I can't remember the candidates' plans on biofuels. But perhaps they'll come back to me.

Drew Westen is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company