Emotion Trumps Logic in the Voting Booth

All logic points to Republican losses in 2008. But logic doesn’t vote — and logic doesn’t win elections, argues Drew Westen.

October 24, 2007  |  An August op-ed in Kenya’s Daily Nation included this sentence: “The candidates will do well to go out and buy a book entitled The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen.” Quoting the article’s author, Charles Onyango-Obbo, “Westen has studied elections over the years, and found an inconvenient truth: People almost always vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the one who presents the best arguments.”

Closer to home, as Westen points out, the Republicans led by Karl Rove consistently beat the Democrats at playing to the electorate’s emotions. All logic points to Republican losses in ’08. But logic doesn’t vote — and logic doesn’t win elections. Will the Democrats once more snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, or can they finally learn the crucial lesson that hearts lead minds? Drew Westen weighs in.

Drew Westen received his B.A. at Harvard, an M.A. in social and political thought at the University of Sussex (England) and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. For several years he was chief psychologist at Cambridge Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He is a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered and teaches at Emory University.

Terrence McNally: Your Ph.D. is in clinical psychology. You were chief psychologist at a hospital. What was your path to your current focus on politics?

Drew Westen: I think that’s a question I’ve never been asked in about 200 interviews. As a clinical psychologist, I do research in psychology and neuroscience, but I’ve also been a practicing clinician for 25 years. Many might assume it’s an easy move from studying personality disorders to studying politicians.

As a clinician, when people are talking with you, you’re listening to hear what’s whirring in the background. What thoughts and feelings are connected in the back of their heads, leading them to do things they wish they could stop doing? You’re also listening for things they’re in conflict about.

In many ways, you’re listening for the same thing in politics — or you should be. What is whirring in the background when people get angry about immigration, or when there are only two flags burned a year, but they cast their votes based on flag burning? What’s getting triggered? That’s the piece that I think is continuous between my life as a clinical psychologist and now as a political strategist and adviser.

McNally: Thomas Frank’s big question in What’s Wrong with Kansas was why do people vote against their own self-interest? And that’s the same thing that a clinical psychologist is looking for, isn’t it? Why do people behave against their own self-interest?

Westen: Over the last year, I found myself speaking to a lot of Democratic and progressive organizations — particularly donors who’ve been giving lots of money to the Democratic Party and watching it go down the tubes. Almost invariably we get the question from somebody, “So what’s the matter with Kansas? How come people are voting against their self interest?” And my response was often the same, “Well, what’s the matter with you? Here you are, someone with the wealth to contribute to a Democratic campaign, which means you’re in the Republican tax bracket, yet you’re voting against your own self-interest. You’re doing it because of your values. And that’s the same reason that a lot of voters in Kansas are voting against theirs.”

As much as anything else, it’s the role of a leader to set the emotional agenda for what values are most central in an election year. And that’s where I think Republicans have been so much more effective than Democrats over the last 40 years.

McNally: Why did you write this book?

Westen: To tell you the truth, I’ve always followed politics carefully. I still remember to this day sitting in my living room with a group of people watching Michael Dukakis offer that horrible answer about what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered — which Bill Maher has summarized as “whatever.”

What really got me to write this book was having two little kids. Looking at the world that this administration — and at that point, the Republican Congress, who was pretty much rubber-stamping anything they asked for — were leaving my kids. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

McNally: Everyone writes a book hoping it matters, but you’ve touched a nerve, people want to know what you’ve got to say. Why do you think that’s so?

Westen: I wish I could say, well, of course it’s a brilliant book, and that’s why people are reading it, but I’m enough of a scholar of intellectual history to know that the times are often ready. It’s in the zeitgeist. Ideas are brewing in the air, waiting for somebody to spell them out systematically. In some ways, all I’ve really done is to articulate an idea that many of us understood in our gut.

When I say to you “the environment,” do you feel anything? Probably not. Or I say to you, “consumer affairs.” Go through the list of words that we on the Left use to describe things, and you’d have no idea that they matter to us. Emotion is central to everything we do in politics. It’s what arouses people’s interest as well as their motivation. Values actually matter. People on the Left have values just like people on the Right. We have competing value systems, and we ought to be enunciating exactly what those are so that people can make a choice. I think those are things that people were waiting for somebody to say in a way that they could hear.

McNally: The fact that you’ve got a book with buzz gives you an opportunity. You’ve got the ear of some people with power. You’ve spoken with Obama, Edwards and Clinton people. What do you hope to accomplish with this moment?

Westen: Two things.

One, to get people to rethink the words they use. I want them to talk about the environment in a way that’s emotionally compelling to people so that they’ll care. Right now 20 percent of pregnant mothers have enough mercury in their systems to damage the brains of their unborn children. Why don’t we talk about that when we talk about the environment?

In a wonderful speech the other day, I heard the House minority leader here in Georgia, a Democrat, say “I’m so tired of talking about the environment, let’s talk about the fish. I want to be able to eat the fish that my son and I catch in the streams of Georgia.” There’s a way to talk that appeals to rural America. So that’s the first thing I’d like people to hear. And that message I think is getting through.

The second one seems harder because it runs against the grain of the way Democrats have been thinking and taught to think for many years. If you find yourself having trouble defending the Constitution or protecting American troops from being slaughtered in somebody else’s civil war… If you’re having trouble voting for the things that you believe in, and talking about them in a way that people find compelling, then you need to find a better way to talk. And the better way is probably more the language of honesty and emotion, than it is political calculation.

I think the most devastating thing that Democrats continue to do right now is to cast votes for bills that they don’t believe in, because they’re afraid that they’re going to get branded as something or other. If you worry about what the other side’s going to say about you, instead of saying something about yourself through your actions, you’re going to lose a lot of elections.

McNally: About halfway through the ’04 campaign, I got the feeling that one of Bush’s distinct advantages was that he seemed to be saying what he actually believed, while Kerry seemed to be figuring out what to say. Whatever you thought about their positions or their arguments, Bush seemed authentic, and Kerry, like Gore before him, did not. How does that perception fit what you’re talking about?

Westen: It fits in exactly with what I’m saying. The data show that all voters are values voters. The biggest influence on people’s voting behavior is their feelings toward the parties and their principles. With the exception of the Clinton years, Democrats have not enunciated their principles effectively in over 40 years. Clinton talked explicitly about values — about opportunity for all and responsibility from all — he was very specific about that. On the major wedge issues — whether it’s gays or guns or abortion — most Democrats are consistently trying to be as quiet as they can because they’re afraid that the people aren’t with them.

McNally: When issues touch emotions, they get nervous.

Westen: And when they get nervous, they run.

They look like they’re searching the polls for their principles — and the reality is that they are. If voters reject a party that says, “I’m not going to tell you what I really believe on this,” or “I’m going to hedge and get defensive,” or “Let’s not talk about abortion, I want to talk about social security” — I think the voters are picking up something accurate.

McNally: We’ve been talking about words, but you actually say that deeds matter more than words. From watching the way a Democrat responds in a debate, people are deciding how they’d respond in a crisis or in a confrontation with another country. Is that pretty fair to say?

Westen: In much of America, I think the way you answer a question about abortion has more of an influence on what people think about you on national security than how you answer one on national security. If you project cowardice to people, if you back down when the president says boo, it doesn’t matter what words you use. People get the message that this is a person who’s afraid of aggression and doesn’t know how to stand up to a bully. Do you want somebody who doesn’t know how to stand up to a bully running your foreign policy? I don’t think so.

McNally: In the book, you offer some speeches you wish Democrats had given. Can you give an example?

Westen: When George W. Bush presented his Protection of Marriage Constitution Amendment in 2004, John Kerry issued a quiet little press release that he hoped would be buried in the news. It essentially said, “This isn’t very nice.” That was the extent of his response. To use Republican language — all it did was embolden the enemy. It led the Republicans to put anti-gay ballot initiatives on the ballot in 10 or 15 states, and those initiatives actually carried the election for them.

McNally: What would you have said?

Westen: I would have had John Kerry come out swinging. I don’t mean to ignore the electoral reality that people have prejudices against gay people, and that a lot of people have religious beliefs about what constitutes marriage. But I think Kerry could have very effectively answered George W. Bush in the very same idiom he was using, which was a religious one. He could’ve begun by saying, “Mr. Bush, that was one of the most un-American, hateful, blasphemous things I have ever seen a president of the United States do in my lifetime. I don’t know what God you think you’re worshiping, but the God that most decent Americans worship, and the God that I worship is a God of love, not of hate. He would never countenance building hatred into the sacred Constitution of the United States. And you owe every American — and not just gay Americans — an apology for trying to wrap hatred in the language of sanctity.”

McNally: You now have set up shop as a political consultant, but the book includes some of the actual clinical research that backs up your theories. Can you describe the key study that a lot of people are referring to?

Westen: The book is filled with research. It’s really about how to run a campaign based on a 21st century understanding of how the mind and the brain actually work. I was tired of watching Democrats run campaigns over and over that seemed mired in 18th century philosophical understandings of the mind.

McNally: Why not use what we know?

Westen: Absolutely. It’s an irony that Republicans actually know the scientific research that bears on elections very well. So the party that governs with faith and intuition tends to campaign with science. And the party of science, the Democrats, tends to campaign with faith and intuition.

The study I think you’re referring to is the brain imaging study we did in 2004 looking at the way partisan Democrats and Republicans responded to threatening information about their candidates. The quick version is that we presented partisans with threatening information about Bush and Kerry, and watched what their brains did in response.

We first presented one slide with something good about their candidate, then the next slide presents him contradicting himself or showing something slimy he’s done. Then we asked them to consider whether or not there’s a contradiction.

We found that partisans did a wonderful job of standing by their man. They were able to twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until it came up with emotionally gratifying results, and they ended up believing whatever they wanted to believe. The most fascinating thing, though, was to watch what happened in the brain as they did it. Probably the two most important things I could say are: One, the reasoning circuits did not turn on.

They were supposed to be engaged in a simple reasoning test: Are A and B compatible or incompatible? They were always designed to be incompatible, so they can’t both be true. But the circuits that have been shown to be active in dozens of studies where you give people reasoning tasks were essentially a dead zone. What turned on instead were circuits involved in emotion, particularly distress, and emotional regulation attempts to turn off that distress. The partisan brain was remarkably adept at doing that.

The major conclusion of it all is really the central point of the book, that the political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine. If you try appealing to people by picking the issues that are 60 percent in the polls and listing all the facts and figures behind them, while the other side is using emotion effectively and talking about values, you are pretty consistently going to lose.

McNally: Your simplest piece of advice to Democrats is to go back and look at Jim Webb’s response to Bush’s 2007 State of the Union. Why?

Westen: Because he was able to wed reason and emotion in just the ways that are most effective in elections. To give an example from that address, he made this statement: “You know when I was in college, the average CEO made about 20 times what the average workers in his company made. Today that’s 400 times. What that means is that your CEO makes more in one day than you make in an entire year.”

Now why is that effective? He’s using numbers, and a lot of people accuse me of saying we shouldn’t rely on facts and figures. But what do those numbers do? They immediately elicit two things: one is a value, fairness, and the second is a feeling, this is not right. It gives you a sense of righteous indignation. Those kinds of moral emotions are — and rightfully should be — central to the electoral process.

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