This book was recommended to me by a friend, a “political brain,” who possesses a keen knack for politics. He explained to me the book’s theory: that voters make decisions using their emotional brain, rather than their rational brain. Or, they vote for the candidate that connects to them emotionally, and not the one that rattles off political positions or policies that the voter agrees with most.
And Drew Westen spends most of the first part of his book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” proving his thesis. I think he’s got his finger on something very important—that you can influence and persuade more effectively when you look for ways to connect to someone’s emotional triggers. There are obvious implications for politics, which is where Westen spends most of his time. But as interesting to me is the significance to other human dynamics—friendships, business decisions, and even marriages. John Adams once said “facts are stubborn things,” but maybe he didn’t realize the obstinance of emotions.
So, Westen, a clinical scientist who studied the brain, is the perfect guy to teach us a new way to reach voters, colleagues, bosses, loved ones, and even the guy you are trying to convince to give you a deal on a car. It is unfortunate, then, that he allows his hatred for George Bush and the modern Republican party to corrupt nearly everything he says. This book went from an interesting book about the political brain to a 400+ page tirade that is more suited for The Daily Kos.
Throughout the book, Westen uses his academic background to push us around. His theory (again, I think he’s on to something with his theory) is used as a cloak to create ridiculous liberal wet dreams that are grounded in Aaron Sorkin fan-fiction rather than political reality. I am not some brilliant political communicator, but I don’t think this guy wouldn’t have made it past the Capitol Visitors’ Center if it weren’t for the fact he has a doctorate and some moneyed political connections.
What do I mean? Throughout the book, he rewrites history as he believes it should have been written, and in a way that he says touches the political (emotional) brain, and not the rational brain. Let me give you a few examples.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan did a press conference in Mississippi. He used veiled language to send some dog whistles to southern conservatives. Jimmy Carter reacted as he often did—with a cool, disconnected response. Westen helpfully suggests that instead, Carter should have accused Ronald Reagan of wearing a white hood. Yes. He suggests that Carter literally should have accused Governor Ronald Reagan of being a Klansman.
Is that ridiculous enough? No you say? Want more?
When Saxby Chambliss ran a controversial ad in his Senate race vs. incumbent Senator Max Cleland, many cried foul and said that the ad was inappropriate because it tied images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to Cleland. Westen, full of rage, suggests that Cleland would have changed the conversation if he had just threatened to “kick [Chambliss’s] ass with the one arm [he] had left.” Oh-kaaaay.
Westen’s hatred for Bush knows no rational—or emotional—limits. He writes what he suggests John Kerry should have said in 2004 to help steer the populace away from the frame of the “war on terror.” Westen’s suggestion for John Kerry (Try to picture Senator Kerry saying this and be careful if you are drinking water at the same time for it will surely squirt out of your nose.): “We are not fighting a war on terror. Terror is a feeling, not an enemy. If the president wants to fight a war on feelings, I suggest he see a therapist.” As a dear friend of mine would have said during that campaign, “Woof.” The notion that in 2004 a Democratic nominee for president would deny that a “war on terror” existed is simply preposterous. I would not have wanted to be his press secretary in Ohio had he uttered that nonsense in Stark County.
Oh, there are plenty of these “feel-good” statements from Westen. They remind me of Meg Ryan’s character in “You’ve Got Mail”— she can never think of the right comeback when she’s in the moment. Turns out, that when she does utter the awful things she dreams of saying, she just sounds like a nasty old hag. Westen’s flaw is that he seems to have spent his life in an isolated and protected environment and never on a ballot. He has no idea what it means to campaign. He mentions several times that he sent memos to candidates over the years about how they should be saying something. Having received a few of those memos, I can tell you that we usually had a few good laughs at how the local neuroscientist felt we should be writing our press releases. Sure, he focuses on two campaigns—2002 and 2004—when Democrats did poorly (an understatement), but even when he expands the field, his historical view is mostly limited to the last 12 years. It’s as if he kept refreshing Atrios and Firedoglake while procrastinating over writing this book.
The book is told solely from the perspective of a liberal who nearly always feels that Democrats aren’t liberal enough. It’s the age-old condition that he ought to be able to diagnose himself: “Democrat Self-Hate.” He advises that candidates “never avoid anything.” Right. And he says, with presumably a straight face, that “Democrats should be talking about abortion virtually everywhere.” Ok, you go run in the Tennessee 2nd, Drew. Tell me how that district-wide forum on abortion goes for you. I’m sure you’ll get some good coverage.
The problem with this book is that it takes the theory to the extreme—it completely ignores the rational approach that our elected officials SHOULD take when it comes to politics. Several times during the book, he insinuates that Democrats should act more like the Republicans that he despises. He’s the guy who wants Democrats to run their own “Willie Horton” style ads. I want to win, but I don’t want to stoop to that level. Take the long view in history, and you will surely find moments when both parties had trouble connecting with the populace. Instead, the book is current as of 2006 and given the events of the past six years, doesn’t feel right. Obama didn’t say anything that approaches the level of “rage” that Westen suggests in 2008. He developed an emotional narrative that appealed to Americans’ passions. He proved Westen’s theory, without acting like a raging fool, as Westen would have suggested he do.
In fact, Westen’s afterword is highly critical of President Obama, as if he is a Kerry-esque figure. I knew John Kerry, I worked for John Kerry…oh nevermind. Last year, Westen wrote a ridiculously long op-ed in (where else?) the New York Times, and just trashed Obama. For not being liberal enough. I’ve got a number of perfectly reasonable Republican friends who would disagree a little, I’m sure. I mean come on. It’s easy to levy these kind of criticisms from a well-funded tenure track position at the local neuroscience institute. But forgive us politicos if we don’t heed your every word.
Now I’m ranting. Peggy Noonan has gotten on my nerves of late, but I think her book “Patriotic Grace” was a thoughtful attempt to help Americans look for a new way to approach politics. Grace is a magnificent word that triggers many emotions. And she’s right to stamp her feet and demand that we look for grace in our politics once again. Westen’s book is not the guide to grace. It is a guide to rage and anger and contempt for one another. It envisions two political parties that win by provoking our worst emotions instead of our best. We’re close enough to that already. And I’m afraid more of that is what Westen recommends.
You can’t fix the deficit or health care or the war on terror with emotion alone. You also need ideas and a rational discussion of those ideas. I don’t discount the central theory of this book—that emotion can persuade, often more effectively than reason. But I do completely disagree with the type of emotion that Westen favors. Rage and anger will get us nowhere. But grace just might.
Thanks for reading.