A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
No matter how good your policies are, if you want to win hearts and minds, you really have to start with the heart. Otherwise, people don't care much what's on your mind.
-- Drew Westen, author, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation
With the Democrats once again in a rout -- unable to triumph over a completely failed administration -- it has become more important than ever to understand how the Dem leaders don't understand the language of modern politics.
BuzzFlash has been conducting periodic interviews over the years about the importance of "form" in politics. For example, it is not particularly effective to talk about being strong against potential adversaries; what is important is to ACT with strength against political adversaries.
Why is this essential in understanding why the Democratic leadership has failed to successfully push back a discredited administration?
Because, to the electorate, the Democratic leadership acts weak, looks weak. If they cannot take on the Bush Administration, how can they be expected to deal with terrorists?
Drew Westen, a professor at Emory University, has written a nationally recognized book that offers insight into this phenomenon. That is because the Republicans understand -- particularly in an age of mass television influence -- that an appeal to emotions trumps an appeal to popular public policies.
Yet, the Democrats keep thinking they can win on the "issues," while the Republicans are playing the emotional piano of the voters.
And nothing activates our pre-cognitive rationality like playing the fear card. Self-survival is the most primal and powerful of emotions. You want someone who appears to be strong protecting you, even if that person is fighting the wrong battle.
It's all about emotions.
Listen to Drew Westen.
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BuzzFlash: Before we begin to talk about your book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, could you tell us about your background?
Drew Westen: I'm a clinical, personality, and political psychologist who's been doing psychology and neuroscience as a researcher for about 25 years. I have also been a practicing clinician for a number of years.
BuzzFlash: How would you define a political psychologist?
Drew Westen: A political psychologist is someone who tries to examine the psychological aspects of political decision-making.
BuzzFlash: Your book, The Political Brain, has caused quite a few waves. Let's begin with one of the things you concentrate on -- the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation.
Drew Westen: It's much more than candidates and campaigns on the left have typically understood it to be. The data over the last fifty years of electoral history document that the four biggest influences on voters' decisions are, in this order: first, their feelings towards the parties and their principles; second, their feelings towards the candidates, and particularly the gut-level feelings that the candidates elicit from them, whether they like them or dislike them, or find them believable, or phony, or trustworthy; third, their feelings about their more specific attributes -- particularly strength, leadership, compassion, and, to some extent, competence, although that tends to have less of an impact on many voters, particularly those who voted for our current incumbent. And finally, the fourth is their feelings towards the candidates' policies.
Fifth down on the list, and a very distant fifth, you get to people's beliefs about the candidates' policies and the facts and figures behind them.
If you were to think about the implications of that hierarchy, it means that the way to win elections is to start by very clearly enunciating, first at a party level, and second, at the level of the candidate, what your principles and values are. And second, picking candidates with good emotional intelligence who can resonate with the voters.
It's a question of resonating with the voters and training candidates to use language and imagery and metaphors and personal stories effectively so that people will hear their message. No matter how good your policies are, if you want to win hearts and minds, you really have to start with the heart. Otherwise, people don't care much what's on your mind.
BuzzFlash: In the first four influences that you listed, you used the word "feelings." You didn't say thoughts, but feelings.
Drew Westen: That's right. The reality is that, if you actually look at the data for over fifty years of presidential campaigns, it is in fact people's feelings that are determinative. It's emotions that are determinative.
When people come down to making voting decisions, what they want to know most importantly is, does this candidate share my values? And do I trust this person to act on them?
Some people have characterized my book or my argument as suggesting that we should dumb things down, or make unbridled emotional appeals, but it is actually not that at all. It's that there is a real rationality, if you think about it, to people not listening so much to your sixteen-point energy plan, because it's not going to make it through a Congress of 530 people intact anyway.
What they are most listening to is, what are your priorities? What do you really care about? Do you seem like the kind of person who will actually follow through with what you say you're going to follow through with? Those are largely gut-level judgments people make. They're not foolish ones to make at all.
BuzzFlash: What does this say about the way that the Republican Party and the image consultants for the Republicans conduct business, versus the same for the Democrats? From BuzzFlash's perspective, we've seen the Republicans creating electoral framing around character. They aggressively try to tear down the character of any Democratic opponent, whether it's Kerry with the Swift Boating, or trying to make Gore seem like a liar and Dukakis into a wimp. They aggressively try to find a character flaw and then get the media to make it into a caricature.
The Democrats, on the other hand, figure, oh, that doesn't matter. The people are with us on public policy, so we'll keep articulating public policy.
Drew Westen: Right. You just have to look at the last thirty years of electoral history. We've only had one Democrat elected and reelected to the presidency, and it was Bill Clinton, who understood how much emotion and values mattered. He ran a very values-based campaign, and connected with people in an emotional way, as well as being phenomenally conversant with the issues.
In that same period of time, only one Republican has failed to win the election to the presidency since FDR, and that was George Herbert Walker Bush. He talked like a Democrat and paid for it.
BuzzFlash: You mean because he articulated public policy?
Drew Westen: Sure. He was uncharismatic, and he ran against Ronald Reagan in the primary eight years before he was nominated for president. He couldn't win the nomination the first several times because he just wasn't a very good candidate and didn't have much emotional spark that appealed to people. He ran a more traditional Democratic-type campaign against a very charismatic challenger and lost.
BuzzFlash: But in '88, with Lee Atwater, regardless of the fact that George Herbert Walker Bush was sort of an Eastern patrician Republican, they ran an emotional, negative campaign against Dukakis, including the infamous Willie Horton ad, which appealed to emotion.
Drew Westen: This is where I think Democrats have been completely complicit in jamming the emotional radar of the American people. Republicans have run these relentless character attacks, and many of them have been largely specious. The Democrats have really been complicit in not striking back and making that kind of character attack against someone of good character, into a character attack right back at them.
I personally felt that George H.W. Bush was a largely honorable man. I didn't agree with him on a lot of his policy positions, but he was very much that old-school, Bob Dole, Dwight Eisenhower kind of Republican who wasn't out to destroy the other side. He had his values and principles that he believed in, and he wanted to be president, and he made that happen. But his team, which obviously didn't do things without the candidate's approval, ran the Willie Horton ad.
Dukakis could have made that about Bush's character and brought them back to the fact that he had actually run an anti-civil rights campaign in 1964 in Texas when he was first running for office. Dukakis could have brought people back to the record of the Bush-Reagan years on poverty, and particularly black poverty, which skyrocketed as soon as Republicans took office again -- racism is a character issue.
Whether it's a kind of subtle racism, where you simply allow black people to get poorer and poorer every administration, or whether it's the kind of direct racism that was involved in that Willie Horton ad, that's a character problem. But Democrats have never talked about it as one.
Republicans since 1968 have run against Democrats using racist appeals, typically run as stealth appeals.
If you look at the 2000 and 2004 elections, I think it was not only bad judgment, from a political standpoint, because it was jamming people's emotional radar, but I think it was ethically questionable not to call attention to George W. Bush's character in those campaigns.
George W. Bush was running character campaigns against two men of far better character than his. He had lived one of the most profligate lives of anyone who's been a major party's nominee in the last century. He was the man who had his liquor cabinet better stocked than his bookshelves for most of his life. He had run business after business into the ground. He had been arrested. He got arrested for drunk driving once in Kennebunkport. Believe me, he'd been at it many more times, endangering the lives of the children of his neighbors. He had run a despicably unethical primary campaign against John McCain in South Carolina, where he made insinuations about a war hero's mental health, based on his POW years, and had run a whisper campaign about his having adopted a child from Bangladesh, suggesting that he'd sired a black baby out of wedlock.
Those were things that the American people needed to hear in order to make a judgment about whether this man had the character to be the President of the United States. The Democrats refused to do that, because of some mistaken view of the role of negativity in campaigns, and because of a truly misguided view of when it's appropriate or inappropriate to attack character. That's why both Kerry and Gore lost, to the extent that they lost. To have not called attention to those aspects of his character was really doing a tremendous disservice to the American people, who needed to know that.
BuzzFlash: It's willful ignorance not to bring it up.
Drew Westen: I couldn't agree with you more. Again, the Democrats get confused about the relation between rational and emotional, positive and negative, and ethical and unethical campaigning. There is absolutely nothing unethical or irrational about running attacks against someone who deserves to be attacked, to speak directly about the moral failures of a man who is going to be the most powerful person in the world. To me, it indicates not only a political failure, but a moral failure. We have countless dead Iraqis, and now tens of thousands of dead or wounded Americans, because Al Gore and John Kerry listened to their advisers, who told them that Americans don't like negative appeals.
It's not only a misunderstanding of what Americans can tell you in focus groups, but it really did involve jamming people's emotional radars. If you realize that people are voting with their emotions, then the last thing you want to do is to jam those radars.
BuzzFlash: You're a professor at Emory University and a specialist in behavior and psychiatry and the brain. You discuss that the emotional responsiveness of the brain preceded our ability to rationalize.
Drew Westen: Right. Researchers have studied the evolution of the human brain, and the brains of organisms that preceded us, including the apes who are our nearest neighbors, like chimpanzees, and benobos, and the proto-humans who preceded us. They all had well-developed capacity for making decisions based on whether something made them feel frightened, or excited, or happy, or sad. Those feelings remain the basis of all of our judgments today. What has happened from an evolutionary standpoint is that we have added all kinds of levels of cerebral cortex that allow us to think more clearly about how to reach our goals, and to some extent have influenced the goals we pursue.
Last week I was in a parking lot, and my three-year-old started to wander away from me for a second. I didn't stop and calculate the likelihood of a car moving at a particular velocity towards her. I immediately felt scared, and I grabbed her and pulled her in towards me. Those gut-level feelings are at the root of everything that we do, whether it is how we decide who we want to marry, or whether it's about business decisions -- and it is behind our decisions on candidates.
The Democratic Party had an idea for years that if you just lay out the right policies and positions, with the facts and figures to back them up, people would be rational and will realize who is really supporting their self-interest -- essentially, present the numbers and they will come. If you think about how the brain actually works -- it don't work like that. Our rational sides and our emotional sides are intricately intertwined. We make more decisions based solely on reason, and we make a few decisions based solely on emotion. Most of the time, what we're doing is we're bringing those things together.
If you appeal primarily to people's reason without first getting them to feel the significance of the issue you're talking about, they're not going to be interested. From an evolutionary standpoint, our emotions play two major roles. One, our emotions appear to capture our attention, so if you don't make emotionally compelling arguments, if you don't use stories or examples to grab listeners, they won't hear important things you have to say. The other role of emotion, which is probably most crucial, is that emotions motivate us -- positive feelings pull us towards things that are generally good for us, and negative emotions move us away from things that are generally bad for us. They're not flawless, by any means, and that's why reason is so helpful to help us tell the difference between a false smile and a real smile, or between a plan that makes sense and a plan that doesn't.
Ultimately the goals that we pursue with those plans are primarily emotionally based. For example, why would I care about poverty? I'm a tenured professor, so I'm never going to be poor. So why do I care about poverty? It's not in my rational self-interest to care about poverty. It's not going to happen to me. But it does matter to me, because I have feelings about it when I see somebody else suffering.
BuzzFlash: You mentioned telling stories. Ronald Reagan was a master of the anecdote, or perhaps his scriptwriters were. Michael Deaver, who just passed away, is credited with the innovation of calling attention to regular American people -- role models, to sit up in the balcony, and the president would point them out. Reagan was a master of following a script that recognized the common American, as we call these people, and drawing attention to them. Meanwhile, the Democrats draw charts and figures. What does that do?
Drew Westen: Well, what it's designed to do. And this is where voters have to be discerning about whether or not they believe it. It's designed to let you know where his heart is. And the thing that you can say about Ronald Reagan -- although I disagreed with virtually everything Ronald Reagan did, you cannot accuse him of hiding his convictions. He told us that he was going to practice trickle-down economics. He told us how he was going to handle foreign policy. He told us what his attitude was towards welfare. He told us what his attitude was towards large government and taxes, and then he followed through with virtually everything that he said.
To be honest, George Bush did some of that, too. He didn't follow through with fiscal conservatism or with making government smaller, and he didn't follow through with conservatism in foreign policy -- not nation-building, et cetera. But he told us that he was going to cut taxes on wealthy people and he thought that was the way to go. He let us know that he was going to put a right-to-life person on the Supreme Court. So what conservatives have repeatedly done is to level with the American people this way. And the conservatives have used illustrative examples to tell people where their heart is.
Democrats have tended instead to turn to pie charts. If one side is appealing to the gut and giving them the pie, while the other side is essentially giving them the pie chart, people are going to go for the pie.
BuzzFlash: People are going to go for the gut.
Drew Westen: Exactly. They're going to go for the real pie and not for the pie chart. And we can certainly be led to make highly irrational decisions that way. But we can only be led to make highly irrational decisions like that if one side understands how the brain works and the other side doesn't. If both sides were offering compelling stories to pull people in, and to illustrate what it is that they cared about, we'd probably actually end up with much more rational discourse.
Right now, what we have is one side that can make people feel something. In every election, they pick out a group to hate. Or they claim that the other side is weak on national defense. The other side never calls them on their hate campaigns, and cowers in the corner much of the time when they're told that they're weak on national defense.
If they don't throw a strong right hook, and demonstrate that they can be strong, people get a very cool message about what the two parties stand for. For example, the Democratic Congress repeatedly subpoenas Alberto Gonzales, and then signs into law a wire-tapping bill that gives him the right to read their e-mails. If the American people come away with that believing that the Democrats are fearful in the face of aggression by a bully, I think they're drawing the correct conclusion. If and when the Democrats decide that they're going to start showing some guts in response to Republican hate appeals and terror appeals, then I think the American people will come along with them. But if they continue to respond by cowering in the corner any time the other side threatens them by saying you don't support our troops, or you're weak against terror -- if they cower in the corner, they're simply illustrating exactly what the Republicans are saying about them, and they deserve to lose.
BuzzFlash: The Democrats clearly have been cornered in a cul-de-sac of fear since 9/11. The Republicans have used the cudgel of fear of terrorist attacks to consistently defrock the Democrats again and again and again. In fact, the Patriot Act, some people forget, was passed during that short period of time when the Democrats controlled Congress, when Jim Jeffords came over to the Democratic side.
Most Americans think the war in Iraq is a mistake now, that it's increased terrorism and so forth, and Bush is certainly at a low point in the polls. But regardless of the risk assessment about terrorists, is this form meeting content in terms of appeal to emotions? Even if one regards Bush as a dimwit and Cheney as somewhat Machiavellian, to say the least, they project, in their own way, a sort of stubborn, rock-like strength. In the emotional context, and in that part of the brain where fear resides, would you rather have someone that's got this stubborn streak, even if they're Dr. Evils, to protect you from this fear that's out there that's been kind of cudgeled into your brain since 9/11? Have the Democrats, by not standing up to Cheney and Bush, thereby shown that they're too weak to handle what people fear?
Drew Westen: I think you're absolutely right. And this is a quite possible example of where the Democrats' irrational commitment to rationality has led them not to recognize that if you don't develop a message and infrastructure, if you don't develop emotionally compelling ways to talk about what you believe, you become vulnerable to exactly what the Republicans have done to them, which has led to death and destruction and bad policy in the last several years. If you cast votes for resolutions and acts that you don't believe in, because you're afraid they'll say you don't support our troops, or that you're weak on terror, you are complicit in what the other side is doing. And the best way to not find yourself cowering in the corner is to develop ways to talk effectively and evocatively in a strong way, as well as an emotionally evocative way, about what it means to be resolute in the face of terrorism, or what it means to support our troops.
Instead of knuckling under every time the Republicans say boo on terror, the Democrats need to instead hook onto something like the Patriot Act or the illegal wiretapping that has now just been legalized. Instead, they might say something as simple as, we were supposed to teach the Iraqis about democracy, not the other way around. Or, they might remind American parents that the rules of the game have now been changed, and you better not send your college-educated kids abroad this summer because any third-tier dictator can determine now that any American citizen abroad is an enemy combatant, and can be snatched up, and can be tortured. And you will never know what the charge is, because we have just set up the rule that says that they don't need to give one -- and that they never have to release them.
The Democrats have never invested their time or money essentially in the infrastructure of emotion, the infrastructure to understand how to take something like national security and speak about it in evocative and powerful and strong ways, in response to an administration that is demogoguing terror. The failure to do that is what has made Democrats vulnerable to appearing and repeatedly being weak in the face of terror attacks at home by the leading purveyors of terror in America -- George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Republican Congress.
BuzzFlash: We say on BuzzFlash repeatedly that it's tragically ironic that the Democrats have let Bush and Cheney get away with the betrayal of our national heritage. Bush is constantly saying over and over ad nauseam that the terrorists want to take away our freedom. Well, Bush is doing that for them.
Drew Westen: That's exactly right.
BuzzFlash: It's like he's saying, to keep the terrorists from taking away our freedom, I have to take away our freedom.
Drew Westen: That's right.
BuzzFlash: And the Democrats don't seem to be able to point out this basic tragic irony, that Bush is the one capitulating to the terrorists. The ultimate weakness of the Bush administration is that, to keep terrorists from taking away our freedoms, the Bush administration has taken away our freedoms, therefore accomplishing the terrorists' goals.
Drew Westen: It's a wonderful way to put it. Imagine if the Democrats had just said, at every step of the way, if I sign this bill, the terrorists win, because they have destroyed our Constitution and it's the basis of our freedom. How difficult would it have been to say those words? But what our leaders did, and our leading strategists did, was to calculate in their minds the number of seats that they would lose if they potentially balked against one of these Republican scare campaigns. If they had instead just stepped back for a moment and thought about, boy, how do I present this in a way to my constituents that they will feel in their gut where it actually matters -- they never would have had to pass the Iraq war resolution. They never would have had to pass the Patriot Act in the form that it was passed in. They never would have had to pass any of the versions of no rights left behind they've passed repeatedly. It's precisely because they don't take emotions seriously, and they don't take emotional appeals seriously, and they don't understand how you would frame an emotional appeal right back up. Yet they have committed one irrational act after another as legislators.
BuzzFlash: It's September of 2007, and the majority of the American public is skeptical about the Iraq war, skeptical that it's done anything really to fight terrorism, and they're skeptical about the Bush administration. But the problem is our fear, given the emotional evolution of the brain as a precursor to rationality. When a rabbit sees a dog, the rabbit doesn't sit there going through some cognitive process. It just runs, as fast as it can. It's instinctual. And this is where our heritage is from as humans, even if we sometimes forget that, because we see ourselves as cognitive creatures. Most Americans, even if they disapprove of the war, even if they think that it may be increasing terrorism, they still say, well, terrorism is a threat. I'm fearful of terrorism. The Bush administration may have goofed it up, but I'm still fearful.
So people say, okay, this is not going well. It was a mistake to get into Iraq. But we're there. We're stuck. Terrorism is a reality. I'm not sure Cheney and Bush know what they're doing, but at least they're strong. And the reality of this is my fear working within me is I look at the Democrats. I think if they can't stand up to Bush and Cheney, who have been so ineffective in the war, then I'm stuck with Bush and Cheney, because the Democrats are wimps who can't even beat these guys down. They can't even make a case against these two guys who have screwed things up so much.
Drew Westen: Honestly it's difficult to beat that logic. And that's where I think our primate brains are actually accurate. I think it would be irrational for voters to trust Democrats with national security until Democrats start showing that they can respond domestically with some guts. Until they do demonstrate that, I don't think Americans are behaving irrationally to vote for the Republicans. I say this as a staunch Democrat.
John Kerry got hit with the Swift Boat attacks in the midst of a campaign in which the Republican story about him was that he's weak in the face of aggression -- yet he did nothing in response to it, except to wait three weeks, and then send his female campaign manager to write a letter to Bush's campaign manager, imploring him please to take it back. I watched that as a voter, and to tell you the truth, as someone who even who knew that George W. Bush was a draft-dodger, and that John Kerry was a war hero, I watched Kerry's response to it, and I had serious questions about whether or not this is a person I would trust if America were attacked. And that's my feeling as a strong Democrat and Kerry supporter.
I do not think was an irrational feeling, I think it was a completely rational response that was emotion-based. Democrats have got to understand that people don't just listen to their words. They watch their actions. If your actions radiate fear in a time when people want resoluteness, you will lose election after election, and you should lose election after election, until you can produce a candidate who can show some toughness.
The irony of all of this is that so much of the Democrats' buckling under in the face of demands by Bush and Cheney to do things that they knew were wrong has been an effort to secure the middle, or to avoid losing seats for Democrats. There was a fear that taking a "leftist" position on the war would alienate centrist voters. The irony of that is that the stance that actually resonates with voters who are disgusted with the Republicans and looking for any reason to vote Democratic is a muscular response. We saw that when Jim Webb, who was hardly a leftist, slammed the President in his response to the State of the Union address this last year. He basically said I come from a line of warriors, and we make a basic bargain with our leaders, which is we'll be the ones who go out there and put our lives on the lines around, but you have to weigh carefully, and use good judgment, and take seriously that sacrifice we're willing to make. And you didn't do it.
Here is a centrist Democrat enunciating a position that is bold and strong, and highly anti-war. And that was rated extremely well with people in the center. So when Democrats are making their calculations about winning the "center," they're missing the point. The point is to simply display some courage and some conviction. If you display courage and conviction and resoluteness, that's what will teach the American people that the Democrats are ready again to govern in a time when Americans are fearful.
And just a last thought on the 2004 election. What Democrats should have done was just to juxtapose for the American people what a real leader looks like in a time of terror, and what George W. Bush looks like. All they needed to do was to play those audio clips of FDR telling us we have nothing to fear but fear itself. FDR reassured the American people at a time of fear in the depression, and then in the face of Hitler, who was a far more dangerous foe than Osama bin Laden. He reassured Americans: Don't worry. There's someone at the helm here who's going to do his best to protect you. And it's going to take sacrifice from all of us. And it's going to take resoluteness from all of us. And we may take an awful lot of hits. But we will ultimately prevail. And the last thing you should do is to be afraid.
George W. Bush did the exact opposite, and the Democrats let him get away with it. If they had simply juxtaposed those two ways of handling fear, we wouldn't have had four more years of George W. Bush, and it would have been the end of those kinds of fear attacks. Every time they pulled out those "look out for the terrorists, they're about to attack us" appeals, the Democrats could have, once again, said to the American people: This is not how a leader acts in times of fear. A leader reassures us. A leader doesn't scare us.
BuzzFlash: Professor Drew Westen, thank you for the interview, and thank you for your wonderful book, The Political Brain, which is available at BuzzFlash.com.
Drew Westen: Thanks very much for your time.
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
The Political Brain: The Role or Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen, A BuzzFlash premium.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW