Language lessons for Democrats, from the political brain of Drew Westen

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who've lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."

That's the advice of one of the party's newest and more unusual gurus, Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who, unlike most political advisers, has never worked full time on Capitol Hill or for a political campaign.

But party leaders in the House and the Senate brought in Westen recently to discuss his expertise: "The Political Brain," as he called it in his 2007 book. Westen argues that Democrats constantly try to sell policies to voters through reason and facts, ignoring research showing that people respond more to emotional appeals.

Westen advised some party officials in 2006 and 2008 but is taking a more formal role this year, producing detailed memos on language ahead of this fall's elections.

"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people's core values and concerns."

Democrats have heard this kind of advice before. Before the 2006 elections, they consulted linguist George Lakoff, who encouraged Democrats to fight back against GOP rhetoric such as the "death tax." And many elections provide examples of winners who connected on an emotional level with voters.

Westen's increased role comes as congressional Democrats are privately expressing frustration about their political prospects this fall. Many say they have completed an ambitious legislative agenda, from the stimulus to the health-care overhaul. But in their districts, they encounter fervent opposition from Republicans, little enthusiasm from Democrats and some of the lowest poll ratings in recent memory for Congress overall.

"The frustration our members feel is that we are not able to connect with our constituents," said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), a member of the party's House leadership team who brought in Westen to talk to lawmakers.

Some party officials blame, in part, the success of Republicans. And they attribute some of that success to Frank Luntz, a longtime political consultant who wrote a series of memos last year explaining what language to use in opposing Democratic initiatives.

Republicans have denied taking direction from Luntz, but some of their phrasing in the health-care debate, such as casting the overhaul as a "government takeover," echoed language he had advocated. (The GOP says the Democrats' problem is that voters don't like their ideas.)

"The other side has done a master job of using language and framing," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of the first Democrats to consult with Westen.

Democrats view Westen as their counterpart to Luntz, a man they both dislike and respect. Like Luntz, who often appears on television, Westen is not shy about offering his opinions or advice. In a piece for the liberal Huffington Post in December, the lifelong Democrat bluntly and sharply attacked President Obama for the way he framed the health-care debate.

Referring to Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who shouted at Obama during a health-care address to Congress, Westen wrote, "Instead of acting like a man and going after Wilson on the spot (the man just attacked him in front of the entire nation in a joint session of Congress), he accepts his apology the next day, and a day later rewards Wilson for his incivility and bigotry by tightening the rules so that illegal immigrants can't even buy insurance themselves on the health care exchange the Democrats are creating."

Westen said in the e-mail that "the White House has sharpened its message substantially since the president's first year in office," although he thinks it could still be more blunt in illustrating differences between the two parties.

Larson defended Obama's efforts to frame the Democratic message. But he and other lawmakers said they are eager to hear from Westen, who will probably brief lawmakers again next month.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company