Outlook: Dems Must Win Hearts, Not Minds
Monday, July 30, 2007; 11:00 AM
"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. ... 'She knows her stuff, but I just don't like her,' they mutter about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. ... 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 the way we think about politics."
Drew Westen, author of " The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" was online Monday, July 30 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article on how the Democrats should appeal to voters' emotions and tell compelling stories to take back the White House.
Dems, You Gotta Have Heart (Post, July 29)
The transcript follows.
Arlington, Va.: You make some excellent points in your article. However, it seems to me that some of your advice is difficult to follow, especially for woman candidates -- more than men do, they have to walk a fine line between appealing to reason and appealing to emotion, and how to pitch a response when swift-boated is not easy. Women often find themselves unfairly characterized as shrill or strident or whining whenever they respond to attacks on them. (Wasn't Geraldine Ferraro one of many woman candidates who faced the problem of being called shrill?) That's a classic form of put-down meant to demean the speaker and distract the voter rather than counter an argument put forth by the speaker. Female candidates also must guard against the vibe of "oh, you're a woman, you're too emotional." What advice would you give woman candidates in particular?
Drew Westen: That's a great point, and it was hard to write the book with advice in mind for female candidates using historical or other research on women candidates -- because at the presidential level, obviously we had no data until this year. I think the most important thing we probably can remember about women running for high office is that we're only 40 years into a revolution in gender roles that is historic and flies in the face of thousands of years of history. If we remember that most of us have competing and conflicting models in our minds about what it means to be a woman -- and talk openly about that -- we would do a lot better at electing female candidates, especially for president.
Personally, I think if Hillary Clinton is not our first female president, my money is on Claire McCaskill, who has a wonderfully folksy way about her -- along with a very sharp mind -- and who manages to blend traditional femininity with the toughness of a prosecutor, in a way that allows us to activate both of our models of womanhood: the more unconscious ones that come from (most of) our experiences being raised by a woman, and our more conscious values, which are more egalitarian. As I talk about a lot in my book, we haven't been good about speaking truth about conflicts like these, and where there's been social change -- race, gender, sexuality -- our conscious values are our better angels.
Fairfax, Va.: Your summary of George Bush's story that neither the Democrats nor the media would tell during the past two election campaigns explains so much about why the Democrats are perpetually stuck running away from who they are (unless of course they don't actually have a story to tell or beliefs to fight for). Because those Democrats who have (or had) passion died in unexplained plane crashes or are ostracized by their own party when they do speak out (Wellstone, Dean, Feingold) I don't see who in the party has the guts to speak from the gut to rebut the outrageous claims the vast right-wing/Republican/Democratic centrist coalition foists on the public on almost a daily basis.
Isn't there also another psychological dynamic going on? That is, people are fed so many obvious blatant lies by the top officials whom we are taught from grade school on to trust, that we come to believe nothing can be done about it anymore because all the politicians are doing the same thing (at least that's what the Republicans say -- again, without Democratic rebuttal).
I am sure you've noticed that in each election cycle the Democrats "save their ammunition" for the last few weeks as if that will be enough time to rewire the voting electorate once the Democrats get worked up enough to say something. Worse yet, our media persist in reporting on the "horse race" while keeping mum on what is at stake in the election and how people will be affected depending on who wins or loses.
Drew Westen: Ben Franklin said it best: We must all hang together or we will hang separately. Our leadership on the Democratic side needs to learn that there is safety in numbers, and that the best way to demonstrate to the American people that you can be tough on national security is to be tough when someone bullies you domestically. We are often too busy calculating potential seats lost and not busy enough calculating the number of lives lost.
The irony is that the best politics tends to be honest politics: Band together and say exactly what you believe with crystal clarity, courage and as much solidarity as you can muster, and people will think a lot more highly of you for it. The data are crystal clear that doing things like backing down to the president after he vetoes a responsible bill that puts a few restraints on his war spending always will lead to loss of stature for Democrats, and doubts about their strength and courage -- and hence their possible leadership on national defense. What happened after the vote to back down to a president at 28 president in the polls on an unpopular war was completely predictable -- and I predicted it to party leaders the second I read, with disbelief, what the Congress had done.
Laurel, Md.: Your column perhaps suggests a plan for winning, but is it a plan for governing? Federal politicians have bipartisanly decided that it's best for "both" sides not to make tough decisions about governmental pension programs, immigration reform and energy/environmental priorities despite evidence that action obviously is needed. "Telling them what they want to hear" might win the election, but will it solve problems?
Drew Westen: Definitely an inherent problem in a democracy, which is the least-bad form of governance humans have discovered. But the best way to make honest and tough decisions is to attack anyone who demagogues them against you for their character. That is a character issue, and it should be talked about that way. It also requires our politicians within their caucuses ask three questions: First, and foremost, what's the right thing to do? Second, once you've decided that, what's the best way to make an emotionally compelling case to the American people for it? Third, how can we think like chess players -- to imagine six moves ahead what the other side is going to do and be ready for it -- and lay traps for demagogues, not to back off because we're playing checkers and thinking one move ahead (e.g.: "We better not do that because they'll say we don't support our troops").
Bowie, Md.: I've read two books advocating Democratic strategy in the last year: "Take it Back" and "Whistling Past Dixie." The ideas are completely opposite: Either win the South, or run against it. Do your suggestions tie in better with either?
Drew Westen: I think Democrats either ought to move belatedly to accept the South's offer to secede from 150 years ago, or ought to recognize that we have to appeal to people everywhere in this country. I vote for the latter. Our "Southern strategy" often has been to try to ignore the South and win without it. As we saw in 2004, that's a very politically risky strategy, and I think it's one that forgets that we're one country, and -- despite regional differences -- that we share a number of core values.
New York: As a conservative Republican with many liberal friends, we often agree only on one thing -- we (as parties) both are fighting for a politically/historically/current events-ignorant public. That is the group of individuals who voted for Clinton twice then Bush twice. But the ignorance is just as loud with the white-collar, six-figure-salary crowd when asked the question "why" about a candidate or policy. I think it does no harm in at least debating an intelligence test for voters. I am just as confident that an intelligent, fully informed public would vote for a Republican as my Democratic friends are that they'd vote for a Democrat.
Drew Westen: I'm with Al Gore in that I wish the American people were more interested in what was happening in the world than in Paris Hilton. We might want to learn from Hollywood, though, which has found ways to get the average American thinking about issues like race in movies like "Mississippi Burning" and "Ray." If we make clear why something is important -- not with numbers but with emotion -- people will listen to the numbers. But we currently have a runaway process where our news media respond to ratings that are highest for the irrelevant stories by including more and more irrelevant stories. That is without doubt bad for all of us. Perhaps CNN ought to read my book to learn about how to make the deficit emotionally compelling!
Falls Church, Va.: I've always wondered if Democratic campaign consultants with a long history of losing (e.g. Bob Shrum) were somehow in the pocket of the Republicans. But it may be more likely that right-wing strategists whisper to the herd-like mainstream media that emotional appeals are counterproductive, and this becomes the conventional wisdom that everyone then repeats to the clueless Bob Shrums of the world. What do you see as the genesis of the Democrats' wrong-headed view of how to campaign?
Drew Westen: That's a long answer. I hate when authors are self-referential and say "I have a long section in my book, 'The Political Brain,' on that," but I have a long section in...
The short answer, I think, is that Republicans understand market forces. If a consultant is successful -- not in getting Ted Kennedy elected in Massachusetts -- but in races that are close, Democrats look at the size of a consultant's resume and say "wow, he has experience." That's the biggest difference.
Takoma Park, Md.: Hello Dr. Westen. Thanks for your useful work. It reminds me a little of George Lakoff, but you are such a nicer guy than he is. If you ever have seen him speak in person, he can be a bit hyper and irritable and it seriously annoys me, even though he does good work. I would vote for you for campaign staff adviser over voting for him, if I were on a hiring committee. Hey, I think I just proved your thesis. Cool.
Drew Westen: :>
Baltimore: For a long time I have felt that the Democrats have lacked something in the way they campaign. I think you have hit the nail on the head -- it's not that they need to "go negative" and smear their opponents, they just need to get visceral in how they portray the issues. No one cares that Gonzales lied to Congress about the U.S. attorneys, as it doesn't really effect the public -- but translate lying to everyday concerns and then you have a story and an issue that resonates! When will the Democrats learn how to effectively translate rhetoric into compelling narratives that capture the public attention? They have ceded the platform to the Rush Limbaughs of this world for too long!
Drew Westen: Thanks. At the risk of doing that awful self-referential author thing again, I spend a lot of time in the book on when to "go negative," on the psychological and neurological basis for why you need both positive and negative appeals, and on the difference between negative campaigning and unethical campaigning. I think it was unethical not to talk about George Bush's character in 2000 and 2004. We've seen why.
Detroit: One significant emotional aspect about liberal-minded people's feelings of Hillary Clinton I don't see often written about is not of her, but of her husband. There are many Democratic voters who attribute the fact that Al Gore is not president to the influence of the self-indulgent behavior of Bill Clinton on voters in 2000. If the latter had kept his primal urges under control, the world would have been a different and far better place. There are many people who do not want Hillary Clinton as president because of emotional disgust with her husband, and they don't want to see the latter, even as a spouse, back in the White House.
Drew Westen: See what you think of the discussion of Gore's decision to distance himself from Clinton in my book. There's no question that, had Clinton not gotten entangled with Monica Lewinsky, Al Gore would have been the next president. There's also, I think, no question that had Al Gore not refused to utter Clinton's name -- and hence prevent himself from telling a positive story about what the two of them had accomplished in eight years in office, and from responding to attacks that tried to elide Clinton's indiscretions with a trumped-up issue about Gore's character -- he wouldn't have needed a recount in Florida.
Boston: I agree with your premise that emotions about candidates trump reason in individual voting decisions. My question relates to serial votes (or multiple iterations of the same experiment): How many times will an individual voter allow emotion to trump reason when there have been negative consequences for previous "emotion" votes? Bush looks great clearing brush on his ranch, but how has that worked out for voters in 2000 and 2004 against consequences like Iraq and the Katrina response?
Drew Westen: The data are pretty clear on this: If you can wait a couple of years, people in the middle are capable of shifting their emotional attitudes, which is why democracy tends to be self-correcting over the long run. But those can be very painful years -- as the families of our soldiers in Iraq know, as Japanese Americans knew in World War II, and as African Americans knew for a lot longer than a couple of years. But you generally can't change 30 percent of minds -- for instance, those who still supported Joseph McCarthy after he was disgraced.
Fairfax, Va.: Do you believe that the electorate's mindset is immutably wired on issues like liberalism? Is that why Democrats run away from and refuse to defend any common-sense thought they propose that is then attacked as being liberal? Or is there some other reason -- sloth, cowardice, etc.? What role has the mainstream media played in wiring the electorate to respond emotionally as it does? Your article was terrific and is a perspective we rarely see in the MSM -- that is, an attempt to explain what is going on instead of the "he said-she said" flow of blather that fills up the pages but is forgotten as soon as it's read.
Drew Westen: The best research estimates that about 40 percent of our tendency to be conservative or liberal is actually genetic, and that you can predict remarkably well from preschool behavior who will become liberal or conservative in adulthood. On the other hand, most of our partisan feelings reflect the values we learn at home.
The other major influence -- and the last time for changing most people's partisan affiliation -- is between age 18 and 30, after which these things calcify, and the brain tends to work overtime to deny realities it doesn't want to believe from a partisan perspective. That's why it's so important now for the Democratic Party (if you're a Democrat) to tie every Republican incumbent to George Bush and the War, and to start telling a coherent, compelling story about what it means to be a Democrat and why you'd want to be one. The conservatives knew this a long time ago, and they established their "brand" really clearly under Ronald Reagan.
Arlington, Va.: I voted for Al Gore in 2000 based on the stands he took. I couldn't have voted for somebody who reduced his opponent to this: "He 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." What does this type of discourse show about the candidate's leadership ability? That's my question.
Drew Westen: When someone is attacking your character, as Bush did with Gore and Kerry, the failure to attack back generally is taken as a signal either that you have no answer or that you're weak. There are regional differences on this, which I talk about in my book, that are incredibly important for candidates to know about -- and are a reason why Southern consultants generally have been most successful in electing presidents since the 1960s.
Kettering, Md.: I've been a life-long Democrat, but now I see the party doesn't represent my views and values. I think the last straw was the Democratic party support for illegal immigration. I see that as an attack on the American poor. These illegals are taking away jobs and depressing wages, along with putting a strain on social services. I can't support the Republican Party because of their blind support for big business ... I pray for a third party! Why has the Democratic Party forgotten about the American people, specifically the middle class?
Drew Westen: One of my main pieces of advice to Democrats was Bill Clinton's advice: appeal to the middle class and middle-class values. I do believe, however, as someone who is middle-class, that those values include hard work, responsibility, and compassion for people who want their children to have a better life than theirs. That's what I wanted for my kids, and I was lucky to be born American. Do we have an absolute right to protect our borders and decide who comes into our country? Absolutely. Democrats should start there. But we all need to distinguish legitimate concerns like the one you raised from the hatred and contempt we all -- including me, by the way -- can feel when someone is different from us or speaks our language poorly. It's too easy to elide legitimate concerns on all the "wedge" issues with hatred.
My advice to Dems is to talk with their constituents about this. Where I live, in the South, one of the right idioms with which to do that is religious: If you respond regarding gays -- or welfare, affirmative action or immigration -- with feelings of hate, you're not responding with the values of your faith. We all have to keep straight in our minds those natural human responses to differentness from legitimate issues. Democrats always should acknowledge the legitimate issues. Republicans should put a lid on the hate -- and if they don't, Democrats should call hate by its proper name until it's no longer politically advantageous to play on it.
Drew Westen: Wow, I wish I could respond to all these thoughtful comments and questions. I've got to go soon, but I'll answer a couple more.
New York: I'm not sure I wholly agree that Democrats are themselves their only problem. I think -- and I can hear the mainstream media denying this now -- that there is within the national papers and major TV networks/channels a bias toward hale-fellow-well-met candidates, even when they have clear flaws. It's almost like the MSM has a reaction formation against guys who are too much like themselves, e.g. upper-middle-class guys with great educations, good haircuts and connections. Look at their nattering about John Edwards. Who cares how much he pays for his haircut? Who even cares if he lies about it? That's Monica Lewinsky territory and it just trivializes the election. That's why I'm somewhat skeptical that anything the Democrats say will matter. I would think that after 3,000 bodies in lower Manhattan, 3,000-plus dead American soldiers, 1,000 or so dead in New Orleans and who knows how many dead Iraqis, we'd be past this cheap-shot stuff and have some serious news coverage. And, yet, here we are with the ludicrous notion that Edwards's being less than forthcoming about ridiculous questions is somehow telling. By the way, Edwards is not my choice. Good luck to you; I don't think you can change the trivial nature of the MSM coverage of Democrats.
Drew Westen: I think you're right about the fault of even some of our best newspapers. And I think the assaults on Edwards -- e.g. the claim that his focus on poverty is somehow opportunistic, when that's the last issue you'd run on if you wanted to be opportunistic-- has been both unfair and reflective of the biases of a lot of reporters who didn't like Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, either. They do have one common denominator ... I think our media should look at their own cultural biases on issues like this, because there are cultural differences --among men, women, Northeasterners, Southerners, Westerners, blacks, whites, etc. -- in response to so many attributes of candidates, their values, the way they talk (not just their accent but their use of emotion), etc.
But the job of a campaign is to respond immediately to those attacks, and to call the media on their biases. The Edwards campaign now seems to be doing that much better, at least responding to attacks. Republicans are much better both at doing that and at "working the refs" than Democrats, in part for the same reasons they win national elections: they understand how to appeal to journalists emotionally -- even when the journalists don't agree with them -- and they're very sophisticated at it (e.g. tying their hands by talking about biases in the "liberal media").
Warrenville, Ill.: Mr. Westen -- thanks for this chat. You are absolutely right: voters' evaluation of a candidate's character trumps the candidate's plans, no matter how logical, no matter how accurate. Sometimes a candidate signals his real story to us, betraying who he really is. I remember watching Bush the father debate Clinton. The most telling moment of the debate was when Bush quietly but clearly signaled by checking his watch that debating Clinton was a waste of presidential time. That little gesture told a big story. That moment made me believe that Clinton could win. As you argue, Clinton is the only Democratic presidential candidate to have won in the past 30 years. And he did so because he consistently told the same story about himself and his life: "The Man From Hope. "
Thus I couldn't believe four years ago that Kerry never told the story of Bush's life. Instead, Kerry allowed Bush's team to tell Kerry's story and to tell Bush's story. (And the Democrats' lack of passion undermines them again and again. When Dukakis was asked about his reaction if his wife were raped, he quietly tried to be reasonable about a horrific violation. What else could voters think but "if the guy won't stand up for his wife, how is he going to stand up for the country?") The Democrats -- if they are to win -- must find help in telling their story. Otherwise, four years from now we'll all be discussing yet again how the Democrats can reinvent themselves yet again.
Drew Westen: I couldn't agree with you more. Campaigns need to keep the stories they are telling and the stories being told front-and-center, and never lose sight of them. Our brains are wired to expect a certain structure to narratives. Democrats offer laundry lists. Those aren't stories.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I recall Nixon even noting that the key to Republican success was the appeal to emotions. Democrats tend to appeal to logic, but logic involves boring details whereas the emotional appear gets people to vote. The Republican message was: keep our country safe from (communists, criminals, and now terrorists). Does that seem to have become the consistent way Republicans win elections? Would you agree with this analysis from political history, or have I missed a key point?
Drew Westen: Absolutely. Where I would recommend doing things differently is in three things: make sure your emotional appeals are ethical appeals (e.g., make people think about their values on issues like poverty or tax fairness, with compelling examples that make them feel and think); never use hate appeals, which divide us against each other; and speak truthfully about the facts, and wedge them into emotionally compelling arguments.
The latter have the following structure (differing from a logical argument, which presupposes that people are emotionally engaged enough -- i.e., motivated -- to think about the issue): Draw people in with something that grabs their attention -- which means grabs their emotions -- and activates their values, concerns or hopes; give them the reasons they should listen to you on this -- this is where your data and logical arguments come in, although it's still not devoid of emotion, because you want their minds and values engaged; and end with an appeal to their emotions, values and what they need to know about you, namely that you share their values and you understand and care about people like them.
Drew Westen: I wish I could reply to all of these. Thank you all for your really thoughtful -- and, where you disagreed with me, respectful -- questions. I saw a lot of reason and a lot of passion in people's comments and questions. Our brains were wired to integrate the two. Our campaigns need to be, too.
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