Book Review: Drew Westen’s “The Political Brain – The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation”

Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions.

Drew Weston is a clinical, personality and political psychologist and neuroscientist.  In his book “The Political Brain” published in 2007, he lends his expertise in psychology to address what he sees are core failures of the Democratic Party to reach the White House just 3 times in 30 years.

Even though Democrats were more aligned philosophically with the middle class, they were losing elections because they were not able to emotionally connect with their constituents.

What he terms as the “dispassionate mind” – where decisions are made by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusion  – he sees as old-school thinking that bears no real connection to how the mind and brain really work.

Before he gets into his many examples from various campaigns, he starts out with a research study he conducted with 15 committed Democrats and 15 committed Republicans.  He creates conflict between the heart and mind and demonstrates that when partisans are faced with threatening information they are likely to reason with their emotions and not with their heads.

He shows each participant 3 slides.  The first is a slide that makes a true statement.  The second slide makes a false statement creating distress due to conflict   – a clear contradiction in statements made by each candidate.   In each instance, the partisan found a way to reason to a false conclusion and as Weston puts it gives new meaning to “political junkie”.  Essentially what he is saying is that the political brain is an emotional brain – not a logical brain.

From here, Weston provides several examples of where Republicans successfully connected emotionally to people and Democrats repeatedly failed and the relatively few examples where Democrats were successful and Republicans failed.

The research was interesting and from my point of view I found it helpful given the recent primary election.  Westen’s rhetoric reminded me of Marketing and Branding 101:  Know your audience and develop a compelling narrative that emotionally connects so that you can build relationships with your constituents that are authentic.  In fact he clearly states that “political persuasion is about networks and narratives – same as for marketing and managing people.”

One of Westen’s examples of a successful democrat is President Clinton’s first ad introducing him as the Democratic Candidate in 1992.  The ad showed how he had a deep understanding of the “heartland” and was able to hone a message that resonated with people. He understood the “one,two” punch where he was able to connect with the audience by first setting up an emotional appeal, drawing his audience in and then following up with exactly how he was going to make their lives better.

In his ad, President Clinton spoke of hope and wanting to bring hope and the “American Dream” back to the American people.

Franklin Roosevelt was able to connect to his audience as well and Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  With the exception of Clinton, Republicans have had 30 years where they drew inspiration from this formula akin to operating like a well-honed marketing team.

In the second part of the book, Westen lays out a blueprint for creating emotionally compelling campaigns – a list that is very similar to successful storytelling.  Compelling political narrative must have the following elements:

  • It should have the structure our brains expect of narrative so that it can be readily understood, told and retold.
  • It should have protagonists and antagonists defining both what the party or candidate stands for and what the party or candidate cannot stand, most centrally, what the antagonists represent
  • It should be coherent, requiring few leaps of inference or imagination to make its plot line move forward or its intentions of its central actors clear.
  • It should have a clear moral (and generally subordinate morals, which refer to the party’s values).
  • It should be both vivid and memorable.
  • It should be moving.
  • It should have central elements that are readily visualized or pictures to maximize its memorability and emotional impact.
  • It should be rich in metaphor, both so that it is emotionally evocative and so that it creates and reinforces its intended analogies.
  • It should take elements of the opposition’s story including its metaphors and recast them as its own.
  • Finally, if the story is its party’s master narrative, it should be a story its framers would want to tell their children that could be illustrated in a children’s book – because it should be so clear, compelling, central to its members’ understanding of right and wrong that they would want their children to internalize the values it embodies.
    • Aka “The Little Engine that Could”

He cites Ronald Reagan as an example of a candidate that has the ability to successfully package and sell himself as a brand, successfully using all the elements above.  Reagan’s ideology was easy to understand and emotionally resonated with people even if they didn’t like his policies.  He was likable.

Overall, Westen nails the issues the Democratic Party has faced in terms of their inability at times to create successful campaigns to get their message across.  Candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry who by focusing on “dispassionate” strategies came off cold, condescending, and out of touch with Americans as a whole.

One of the negative examples that Westen discusses is the Swift Boat ad.  John Kerry’s message in his bid for president left the impression that he would be an ineffective president.

When Gore debated Bush, Gore was sidled as a slow, pragmatic thinker and Bush was perceived the winner since he came across as someone who cared more about people.

Westen provides great insight into how a persons’ mind works.  After all, he is a social scientist.  Much can be learned from “The Political Brain” but I think the application is broad, not just for politics.  It also applies to marketing, branding and communication in general.

I am sure that Westen would be pleased with Obama’s 2008 bid for President.  I’d be curious to get his thoughts on the 2012 election.

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  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy

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