June 25, 2007
59, Number 33
Words of Westen
How could the leading Democratic presidential candidates improve their chances, based on what is known about the role of emotion in processing information? Drew Westen offers the following tips.
Hilary Clinton: “People want to feel that their president is both strong and warm. Strong because they want to feel protected and warm because they want to think you care. She does strong very well and warmth not so well. She needs to smile more and use humor effectively. She’s clearly improving at it. Whether she can pull her negatives down enough to win in the general election is an open question.”
Barack Obama: “My advice for his campaign is to let Obama be Obama and don’t crowd his head with position statements. He’s a candidate who knows how to connect with voters and he’s far better on the stump than in a debate, when you can tell he’s been over-prepped.”
John Edwards: “Edwards, like Obama, has tremendous emotional intelligence. He’s also clearly learned something the Democrats in Congress should emulate: the best strategy is it to let the voters know who you are and not to look to the polls for your values. The major mistake his campaign has made thus far is the one [John] Kerry made: to let a negative story fester. When someone runs a concerted campaign to challenge your masculinity, particularly in the post-9/11 world, you need to respond aggressively.”
June 25, 2007
Drew Westen’s ‘Political Brain’ gets Democratic candidates thinking
by carol clark
Drew Westen’s cell phone is ringing a lot these days. “Sorry,” he says, “I had to take that. It was about a meeting with a candidate.”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” he replies.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” Westen repeats, but he probably wouldn’t win at poker.
An Emory professor of psychology and psychiatry, Westen looks the part of a serious academic, a bit harried and disheveled. His eyes, however, continuously sparkle with light-hearted humor.
The phone rings again. Westen checks the caller ID and smiles mischievously. “It’s my editor. He can wait.”
Last September, The American Spectator magazine invited Westen to Washington to talk about the book he was writing, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” to a private political audience. Interest in Westen’s work has been building ever since, and will likely intensify with the book’s publication this month by Public Affairs of New York. Democratic party leaders, congressional representatives and leaders of progressive organizations have all been on Westen’s calendar.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, gives this endorsement on the book’s back cover: “Drew Westen is a must read for any Democrat who wants to win in Mississippi, Colorado or rural Ohio. In 2008, we will win the presidency if our candidate reads and acts on this book.”
Westen, who grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta, has been a Democrat since he was a child and passed out Hubert Humphrey bumper stickers at a shopping mall with his brother. “I’m hoping that the messages in my book will be more effective than the leafleting I did as an 8-year-old,” he says. “I wrote it because I couldn’t stand the direction the country was going anymore, watching the Iraq war, the spiraling deficit and the timidity of the Democrats.”
The main thesis of “The Political Brain” is that emotion is more important than logic in determining how people vote. This explains why Democrats keep losing elections “despite polls showing that the average voter agrees with Democratic positions on most policy issues, from protection of the earth to fairness to middle-class taxpayers who want nothing more than a better life for their children,” Westen writes.
The book offers a scientific analysis of voter psychology based on Westen’s decades of research and clinical experience. It’s also a primer for Democrats on how to stop hemming and hawing and craft compelling campaigns that grab the electorate in the gut.
“The reality is, if you can’t speak the truth and win elections, then you’re probably speaking the truth badly,” Westen says. In the political arena, he contends, facts and logic don’t necessarily speak for themselves — they need candidates who can step up to the plate and hit verbal home runs.
Al Gore blew it during a 2000 presidential debate by being dispassionate, Westen says. When George W. Bush accused him of improprieties in campaign fundraising, Gore responded with statements like, “Look, Governor Bush, you have attacked my character and credibility and I am not going to respond in kind.”
Westen says Gore would have won a lot more votes by launching a fiery counterattack on Bush’s character, drawing on a huge store of ammunition. In “The Political Brain,” Westen writes the response he wishes Gore had made, including lines like: ‘When I enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, you were talkin’ real tough about Vietnam. But when you got the call, you called your daddy and begged him to pull some strings so you wouldn’t have to go to war. So instead of defending your country with honor, you put some poor Texas mill worker’s kid on the front line in your place to get shot at. Where I come from, we call that a coward.”
Gore checked his emotions at the door because poll results showed that people don’t like bickering, Westen says. Democrats have run such lackluster campaigns the past two presidential elections, “Winnie the Pooh could have beaten them,” he complains.
Westen joined Emory in 2002, where he specializes in personality disorders, psychotherapy research and political psychology. For 20 years, he has explored the role of emotions in how the brain processes information. A recent groundbreaking study he led at the University used functional neuroimaging to examine committed Democrats and Republicans, who were asked to evaluate negative information about their 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.
“The Political Brain” is a hybrid of such scientific research and his passion, Westen says. “I realized that I couldn’t just write a dispassionate treatise. That would mean writing in a style that runs against everything I’m advocating. Science without passion and values behind it doesn’t do anybody any good.”
The science on global warming has been clear for at least a decade, he notes, “but it wasn’t until Al Gore stopped talking like a politician and started talking like a passionate person that people paid attention. God bless Gore for pulling together the data on global warming. But God bless the producers of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for knowing how to make those data scary and moving enough to get people to act.”