This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Sunday, 6 July 2008

The Political Brain

If you have ever wondered why Democrats have only won two out of the last seven Presidential elections, then Drew Westen may have the answer.

I have just finished reading his book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, which was published recently.

Using the best available evidence from neuroscience, psychology and politics, Westen makes a convincing and compelling argument why candidates who appeal to our emotions win elections.

Westen argues that all elections take place in a "marketplace of emotions" where voters make their decisions based on the feelings candidates and parties elicit in them. He shows that the Democrats have traditionally appealed to the dispassionate part of the brain where they expect voters to weigh up policy positions and then make a decision based on their relative utility.

This, he argues, will always result in a Democratic defeat. When reason and emotion collide, emotion always wins.

Westen shows that voters make decisions based on three factors: how they feel toward a party and its principles, how they feel toward the candidate and then, and only then, how they feel toward the candidates' policy positions.

Republicans, he believes, understand this. Great candidates like Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton also get it. They are able to tell emotionally compelling stories that resonate with voters and hit them right in the gut, influencing how they vote.

The book is well worth reading. Not only does it show how important emotion and passion are in eliciting support for a candidate, it also acts as a step-by-step guide for any aspiring Democrat politician. I was pleased that Obama seems to be doing many of the things Westen advocates.

The book also made me angry.

Angry that the Democrats have been so poor at framing their argument over the last eight years. If only they hadn't kowtowed to the Republicans on nearly every issue and instead offered their own passionate and principled stand we may not be suffering now from Bush's legacy of cynicism and despair.

It also got me worried about Gordon.

Candidates who are unable to connect with voters on an emotional level, appeal to their gut instinct and offer a compelling emotional narrative of who they are and what they stand for lose elections.

In one particular passage Westen analyses the types of personalities that are attracted to politics:

Some individuals are competitive and driven and may enjoy the fray of politics. They frequently hold values many of us would consider noble. They are particularly comfortable with policy, facts, figures and poll results...they may also require control in ways that others find overbearing.

But, then he argues, these individuals are also:

Misattuned to some of the most important emotional signals in electoral politics, such as whether a candidate has charisma, what nonverbal signals he or she is sending and what emotions the candidate is or is not activating in the electorate. They are fundamentally handicapped by an emotional style that runs contrary to what is required, particularly in the era of television, of someone charged with managing the emotions of the electorate.

When I first read this, my immediate thoughts turned to Gordon Brown. Based on Westen's research, there is no hope for him unless he changes his approach to politics.

Everyone running for office or interested in politics should read this book - starting with Gordon Brown, Stephen Carter and the people inside Downing Street.


Dun Ford said...

Hi Alex, Stu here. Liked the post. Doesn't this book simply spell out that it's not just that Gordon has to change his style of politics, but that his personality means he can't. I think so much of politics is about being able to have a conversation with the nation via a TV camera - and that is where this guy is spot on with non-verbal communication - and sadly it would seem that Gordon cannot do that. Unfortunately as soon as you try to coach someone to do that they look even more contrived and awkward. See my latest post on (I know there's probably a more snazzy way I could have embedded that link) with a killer illustration of Gordy's personality, or lack thereof.

TP said...

i liked it too. However, until I read the book closely, I am not so sure that I agree that the Democrats have failed to make an emotional appeal. And what was Blair's emotional appeal in 2005? Certainly not 'trust me'.
I think winning elections is a bit more complicated than just making an emotional appeal. Although i may have simplified the argument.
However, it is clear that in politics, as in so much else, it does help to be a fully signed up member of the human race.