Thursday, August 09, 2007


Political Brain Disappoints on Reason, Emotion and Voting

I was quite excited to read in The Guardian that Drew Westen's book, The Political Brain is 'essential summer reading from Washington to Westminster'. Having read the extracts I found them interesting but scarcely 'essential reading'. The extracts focus on campaign ads and presidential debates during the nineties. He basically argues that:

'people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate with the best arguments'

He goes on to claim that, apart from Clinton, the Democrats never 'got' this message while the Republicans did, especially GW Bush. He analyses the marketing of 90s US politicians in some detail to support this general thesis but having read the extracts I was left thinking: 'what's new?' For any experienced campaign strategist this must be page one stuff. Of course we know voters absorb emotional messages before they do rational ones.

This is why campaign slogans have been crucial in setting their tone ever since modern democracy began. This is why politicians like Stanley Baldwin used his relaxed radio chats to the nation to give an impression of a cosy, reliable stability; Harold Wilson smoked a pipe and let it be known he favoured HP sauce, for the same reasons.
I was waiting for some possibly scientific evidence to support these non-revolutionary assertions, but such evidence came there none. Not even any breakdown of 'emotional voting' according to, say, social class. So, he's just like any of us non neurologist amateurs trying to make sense of the political world. Well, I'm not sure he takes us very far anyway. Seems to me voters apply their magic cross for a variety of reasons; some emotional and some rational.

Westen is suggesting the emotional is dominant. Maybe, but the rational is not considered at all in these extracts, except to be dismissed. Surely the emotional catches out attention but then the rational comes into play? People vote Conservative basically because they have calculated they will get a better deal from a small government, tax cutting party. Labour voters have calculated, on the other hand, that a party supporting the poor and providing welfare support is better for them. The fact that the former is usually wealthier than the latter underlines the rational basis of the vote-casting.

To take another angle, Cameron was seen as charismatic as he wandered the 2005 conference stage, speaking without notes. He was also good looking and articulate: he blitzed the leadership vote against boring old David Davis. But after a while Conservatives began to ask questions: why no promise of tax cuts? why the rejection of traditional Toryism and the embracing of virtual New Labour values? Suddenly his charisma is not so important. You could say the same thing happened with Blair: infatuation followed by disillusion as the rational brain caught up with the emotions.

But Westen is right to suggest Gore could have come back robustly when Bush accused him of being a liar. Adding his version of what Gore could have replied to Bush in that debate, makes my post a little too long, but read it and you'll agree it's worth it:

"Governor, you see those two young women sitting there in the front row? Those are my daughters. And that woman sitting next to them? That's my wife. And the woman next to her - that's my mother.

"You have attacked my honour and integrity in front of my family, the people of my home state of Tennessee, and millions of my fellow Americans. So I think it's time to teach you a few old-fashioned lessons about character.

"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 honour, 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.

"When I was working hard, raising my family, you were busy drinking yourself and your family into the ground. And not just in your own home, setting a terrible example for your kids. Why don't you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbours' kids?

"Where I come from, we call that a drunk.

"When I was serving in the United States Senate, your own father's government had to investigate you on the charge that you had swindled a bunch of old people out of their life savings by using insider knowledge to sell off stocks you knew were about to drop. And you know who bought those stocks? The people right out there in America who are listening right now, looking you right in the eye.

"Where I come from back home, we call that crooked.

"When you were in a tight primary battle with John McCain in South Carolina this year, people started getting these phone calls telling them he had sired a black baby. Yes, Governor, that baby did have dark skin - because Senator McCain and his wife had adopted that child from Bangladesh. And funny, something similar happened the last time you were in a tight race, running for governor of Texas against Ann Richards, when suddenly rumours started flying that she was a lesbian.

"Where I come from, we call someone who does those kinds of things a disgrace to his family, his state, and his country.

"So, Governor, don't you ever lecture me about character. And don't you ever talk about me that way again in front of my family or my fellow citizens."

Oh Boy, that would have clinched the vote, hanging chads notwithstanding.

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