Autumn 2007: Dynamic Forces
Professor at the Polls
What decides elections? According to Drew Westen, feelings . . . nothing more
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
Professor Drew Westen has spent a quarter century trying to figure out what makes people tick. But he never imagined he would become an expert on how they vote.
In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Westen explores the motivations of American voters from the armchair of a psychologist, concluding that logic and reason have precious little to do with their decisions at the polls.
“If you want to win people’s hearts and minds, you’d better start with their hearts,” Westen says—advice he finds himself giving to political candidates with increasing frequency as the election season heats up.
Historically, it’s the Democrats who have suffered for their inability to grasp this fundamental political truth, Westen laments, making no secret of his left-leaning loyalties. Time and time again, Democratic candidates look to issues, statistics, and evidence to convince voters of their promise, appealing to intelligence rather than tugging at heartstrings.
Westen offers plentiful evidence, recounting numerous scenarios in which Democrats fumbled while their Republican competitors scored emotional touchdowns.
For instance, in a 1988 debate between George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, a question was put to Dukakis regarding whether, if his own wife were raped and murdered, he would support the death penalty for the killer. Dukakis offered his standard death penalty answer: “I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
“What was wrong with that answer,” says Westen, “was literally everything.” On an instinctive level, the audience wanted to hear how Dukakis would feel and react if faced with a brutal attack on a loved one, not his position on the death penalty, which most of them already knew. The real questions, writes Westen, were, “Are you a man? Do you have a heart? And are we similar enough that I could trust you to represent me and my values as president? For most Americans, the answer to all three questions was no.”
Westen has been interested in politics since he was a kid, helping his older brother hand out Humphrey and Muskie bumper stickers during the 1968 campaign. Later, he earned a master’s degree in social and political thought from the University of Sussex in England, writing his thesis on the psychological theories of liberal political philosophers. He went on to complete a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan.
After watching the disastrous 1988 Dukakis-Bush debate, Westen recalls, he wrote a letter to the Dukakis campaign, proposing what he thought they did wrong—and how they might correct it. Westen thinks an intern probably threw the letter in the trash, but for him, but it was a wake-up call.
“This is obviously something that has been percolating in my mind for years,” he says.
A professor in the Departments of Psychology, and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences since 2002, Westen specializes in personality disorders and psychotherapy research, and has long studied the role of emotion in decision making. In The Political Brain, he draws on years of clinical experience and scientific research in his analysis of American voting habits, suggesting that all political candidates tap into mental “networks of association” that are far more complex and evocative than the issues on the surface.
Westen recently made headlines for leading a watershed study at the University that used functional neuroimaging to examine self-identified Democrats and Republicans, who were asked to evaluate negative information about their preferred candidates just prior to the 2004 presidential election. The network of emotion circuits lit up in the brains of the subjects, while areas of the brain normally engaged in reasoning showed no increased activity.
Democrats, Westen says, continue to operate on the assumption that voters logically weigh positions and coldly calculate which one is in their self-interest—which is why, despite higher numbers of registered Democrats and higher consensus on key issues, they have been losing elections for forty years. Rather than challenge their Republican counterparts on tough topics, they back away, hesitant to turn voters off by seeming aggressive or extremist.
“Democrats won’t speak candidly,” he says. “They’ll say, don’t touch that, it’s radioactive. Well, if it is, you’d better address it. If you don’t try to shape public opinion and the other side does, the other side will shape public opinion.”
Republicans, Westen points out, have certain advantages. “They tend to come out of the business world or the church,” he says. “So they understand marketing and the importance of telling a good story. They know you have to have a coherent brand. They’re for national defense, low taxes, small government, life, and God in the classroom. What’s the Democratic brand?”
For most Americans, according to Westen, major issues actually activate conflicting networks, and successful candidates need to take a nuanced approach. Take immigration, for instance: plenty of voters experience discomfort around those who look different and can’t speak English. Democrats might start, Westen suggests, by embracing certain truths from the conservative side—and then reminding voters that Americans are a nation of immigrants.
“How about this,” he says, getting warmed up over a cup of coffee in the Emory Village Starbucks. “If someone wants to come to America, they need to learn our language—because if they don’t, their kids will never know what the American dream feels like.”
Think Westen has a future in this sort of thing? In fact, The Political Brain is filled with ideas for what Democrats might say in critical situations, making for some of the most compelling reading in the book. This keen ability to suggest effective expression is probably why Westen has found himself in high demand lately by Democratic candidates looking for a secret weapon.
“Drew Westen is a must-read and must-hear for any Democrat who wants to win in Mississippi, Colorado, or rural Ohio,” reads an endorsement by Howard Dean on the book jacket. “In 2008 we will win the presidency if our candidate reads and acts on this book.”
Westen just smiles, shaking his head. “If you had told me a year ago I would give presidential candidates comments on speeches or ads, could drop Howard Dean an email, or would know my way in and out of the Senate,” he says, “I would have suggested that you get back on your antipsychotic.”
And then his Blackberry vibrates madly, dangerously near his coffee. Could it be our next president calling?
If so, he or she is likely to hear this: Westen believes national defense will be a critical issue in the 2008 election, and Democrats have some catching up to do to convince the American public they can stand strong.
“Kerry was seen as weak in the face of aggression,” Westen says. “What the Democrats don’t understand is that actions speak louder than words. They repeatedly make all these political calculations about how to win the center. You win the center—like people right here in Georgia—by showing some guts and taking a stand.”