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A brainless analysis of American politics

Drew Westen’s attempt to explain voting patterns in America by examining the nerve activity in voters’ brains is light on political insight and heavy on Yank-bashing.

Stuart Derbyshire

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The election contest between John Kerry and George W Bush in 2004 was a puzzling one for Democratic supporters who couldn’t understand how they lost to Bush.

Many of my Democrat friends drew the conclusion that American voters are stupid – how else to explain returning an obviously failed and incompetent president to the White House? It rarely seemed to occur to Democrats that they must be doing something appallingly badly if they can be beaten out of the White House by an incompetent failure not once but twice.

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen identifies some of the gratuitous errors of judgement made by the Democratic Party during its last two campaigns for the White House, and tries to link those errors with ideas about how our brains naturally work.

In 2000, Democrat presidential hopeful Al Gore ran a campaign by the numbers. During each debate with Bush, Gore trotted out a stream of statistics on Medicaid, social security, crime and so forth, but actively avoided discussions of abortion, restrictions on guns and issues of character. Bush painted Gore as an emotionless policy wonk, with his ‘fuzzy math’ and Washington insider speech; Gore was one of ‘them’, not ‘a regular guy like us’. According to Westen, Gore’s use of the numbers was an attempt to appeal to reason, but the human brain is wired to respond better to emotion as demonstrated by brain imaging (1).

Four years later and Kerry repeated the same mistakes. When the Bush campaign dishonestly attacked Kerry’s military record, creating the new term ‘swiftboating’, Kerry failed to respond until the damage was done. This failure came on the back end of a campaign that had already encouraged the view of Kerry as a stuffed-shirt liberal who was unable to speak until the polls and focus groups told him what to say.

Westen is an ardent supporter of the Democrats and is understandably angry and frustrated at the evident weaknesses of his party. I understand his annoyance, but I can’t forgive him this book. Certainly The Political Brain is broadly correct in that people do respond more readily when politics is felt, but Westen so overstates the role of emotion and exaggerates claims from neuroscience that it is simply embarrassing. In summary, Westen argues that the Republicans win elections by manipulating voters with psychological techniques that tap into the way our brains naturally work. Democrats, in contrast, rely much too heavily on the use of reason and so they lose. Democrats, argues Westen, should do the same as the Republicans, and then they will win. Westen spends 450 pages telling us that voters are stupid, Democrats are inept and Republicans are savvy. And this ‘insight’ is meant to explain the past 50 years of American politics.

Westen begins with the description of a study involving a group of Democrat and a group of Republican supporters (1). Both groups were presented with descriptions of Kerry and Bush in fictionalised but plausible scenarios. In some scenarios the candidates were shown to flatly contradict themselves. When this happened, Democrats rated the contradiction as larger for Bush than for Kerry and Republicans rated exactly the inverse. Brain activation recorded while the study volunteers were reading the scenarios revealed ‘emotional’ areas of the brain activated when processing a contradictory statement from their own candidate but not when reading contradictory statements from the opposing candidate. Westen and his colleagues interpreted this finding to indicate that partisans are threatened when faced with negative information about their own candidate, but not when presented with negative information about the opposing candidate.

There are many technical reasons to be concerned about the merits of this study. For example, the particular areas of the brain observed as active are notoriously influenced by artefacts from nearby sinuses, and imaging in general is plagued by small signals observed in small numbers of volunteers. In short, general statements about populations based on observations from imaging studies must be made with considerably more caution than evidenced by Westen. Even at face value, however, it isn’t obvious why Westen is so excited about his brain pictures. At most they demonstrate that people think differently about their preferred presidential candidate compared to the opposing candidate. More contentiously, people become concerned, anxious and/or emotional when their preferred candidate is shown in a bad light, but are not so affected when the opposing candidate is shown in a bad light. Part of this emotional response could be due to the effort exerted in trying to minimise the conflict when receiving negative information about a preferred candidate.

None of this sounds particularly surprising or even relevant to the course of an election, but Westen argues that it is the activation of these responses, or brain networks, or frames, which predicts people’s voting behaviour. People do not so much reason as feel their way towards a position: ‘The data from political science are crystal clear: people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments.’

Westen provides a number of examples of when voters were emotionally manipulated, such as when Lyndon Johnson ran what became known as the ‘Daisy’ ad in the 1964 presidential race (2). This ad shows a little girl picking petals off a daisy and counting. Eventually her innocent counting is replaced by the booming voice of a countdown and then we see, through her eyes, the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.

Westen draws attention to a very different ad that Ronald Reagan’s campaign ran in his bid for re-election in 1984, known as ‘Morning in America’ (3). This ad starts with the phrase, ‘It’s morning again in America’, and goes on to describe Americans heading off to work, buying houses and getting married. The ad asks: ‘Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?’

A final example is the infamous ‘Willie Horton’ ad that supporters of the first President Bush ran in 1988 (4). Democrat candidate Michael Dukakis was accused of being ‘soft on crime’ because, as governor of Massachusetts, he had allowed prisoners to have weekend passes. One of those prisoners was Willie Horton who escaped to commit kidnap, murder and rape. A mugshot of Horton featured prominently in the ad and, according to Westen, played ‘on every white person’s fears of the dangerous, lawless, violent, dark black male’.

Westen argues that these ads touch us emotionally and it is that emotion which drives us to the voting booths. He overstates, but he obviously has a point; these three very different ads have very different motivating properties. The Daisy ad evokes fear, ‘Morning in America’ evokes pride, and the Horton ad evokes racial prejudice. According to Westen, these ads tap into primal neural circuitry that cannot fail to drive appropriate emotions, and by attaching the relevant neural circuitry and emotion to the relevant candidate, elections are won and lost.

By this analysis, elections are nothing more than marketing campaigns and should be run just as you might run a campaign to promote Pepsi over Coke. Pepsi and Coke are both carbonated water, flavoured with corn syrup, that taste essentially the same. As there is no actual difference in the product, the only way one product can sell more than the other is based on marketing. If David Beckham and Madonna drink Pepsi, then Pepsi sells more than Coke. If Coke has a competition where you might win a new car, Coke outsells Pepsi. If the motivation to vote is provided by similar marketing techniques, then it is because political differences have been hollowed out, leaving two parties that are essentially the same, just like Pepsi and Coke. Politics might be like that in America today, but it certainly hasn’t been like that for the past 50 years.

Westen notes that there was once an obvious story to tell about the Democrats:

‘The New Deal was the Democrats’ morality tale, and the best Republicans could be was Democrat-lite. By the mid-1970s, the position of the Republican party had gone from unenviable to untenable, compounded by Watergate, as less than 20 per cent of voters identified themselves as Republicans.’

What Westen doesn’t do is explain what happened next. Richard Nixon was dragged down by opposition to Vietnam, the oil crisis and Watergate combined. Jimmy Carter defeated a dishevelled Republican party in 1976 by attacking Washington and the overreach of government. In his inaugural presidential address, Carter stated, ‘We have learned that more is not necessarily better, that even our great nation has its recognised limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems’ (5). President Carter then proceeded to trim down government spending and attempted to introduce labour reform – effectively bringing to an end the Keynesian era. Austerity measures at home and humiliation abroad following the Iranian hostage crisis compounded a sense of malaise that Carter himself identified in a speech made in 1979 (6). Worried about their jobs and livelihood, threatened by the Middle East and disillusioned with a morose, sermonising president, Americans flocked to Reagan in 1980.

Reagan blamed the problems of a broken America on the perceived excesses of the 1960s, but also connected his anti-statist views with the mistrust of power fostered by the counterculture and by the Carter administration itself. Reagan created an image of America as needing to dig down to a glorious core to beat back the excesses of the past, liberate Americans from the suffocations of big government and face down the Middle East and the Soviet Union. It was a potent mix that united baby boomers and blue-collar workers with natural Republican supporters. Reagan’s formula worked all the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.

The Democrats didn’t lose their narrative at the end of the 1970s because of some sort of loss of nerve or because they couldn’t find emotionally compelling words – they lost it because of real events that took New Deal politics and the central role of government away from them. Similarly, the Republicans held sway for a decade by dividing the world into ‘them and us’, but by the early Nineties it was no longer clear who ‘them and us’ were, a fact that Clinton ably exploited in his bid for the presidency. Bashing the enemy at home and abroad no longer made sense when that enemy was no longer apparent.

Contemporary politics is now plagued by the absence of big ideas and narratives. Having successfully rolled back the state and seen the disintegration of the former enemy – the Soviet Union – the distinction of left and right and other common reference points of the past have been lost. Today both Democrats and Republicans face the same crisis of meaning and battle over the same middle ground. Westen believes, wrongly, that the Republican story is still easy to tell, but the story he thinks the Republicans are telling is a story from the 1980s. Back then the Republicans stood against big government, but Clinton declared that era to be over some 15 years ago. In the 1980s, the Republicans stood for free market principles, but after Enron it is hard for Republicans to argue for an unfettered market. Railing against the liberal excess of the 1960s won’t work now either; Republicans know they can’t win states like California and New York by bashing gays and attacking abortion. Strong military leadership is gone as well. The end of the Cold War and the public relations disaster that is Iraq means that the ability of America to lead the world militarily is severely curtailed. The truth is that both the Democrats and the Republicans lack a narrative and a purpose, which means that party politics has become a battle over nothing and is focused on feelings and images rather than substance.

Unable to provide an inspiring narrative or vision, both Democrats and Republicans increasingly focus on voter preoccupations that they discover in polls and focus groups. To some extent, this ‘evidence based’ or ‘electorate focused’ approach to politics makes sense as a way of doing politics in the absence of any real alternative vision for society. Unfortunately, these approaches are useless for tackling the absence of vision and, in fact, the absence of vision is intensified as ever more petty and narrow concerns – prescription drug coverage, pensions, school vouchers, body armour – displace discussion of universal issues and alternative visions of the future.

These actual events of American political history barely feature in The Political Brain, which allows Westen to exaggerate the extent to which political events are driven by irrational, emotional concerns and to encourage a view of Americans as idiots: ‘That Americans pay too little attention to competence in electoral decisions is beyond doubt. They put an exterminator (Tom DeLay) in charge of the Congress and a man who spent the better part of his life with his liquor cabinet better stocked than his bookshelf in charge of the world.’ Westen compares Americans to monkeys on at least three separate occasions – he thinks he is being profound (7). But if America suffers the politics of the jungle it is because those in the main political parties are unable to provide anything better than a snide, cynical and narrow non-debate about non-issues that is off-putting to most Americans who, quite sensibly, no longer bother to vote.

Given the directionless and largely meaningless nature of American party politics it is quite possible that the Democrats will lose again in 2008, even if Drew Westen is campaign leader. If that happens, I wonder just how negative Westen will then go on the American people?

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, England.

The Political Brain: How People Vote and How to Change Their Minds: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen is published by Public Affairs. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Drew Westen, Pavel S. Blagov, Keith Harenski, Clint Kilts, Stephan Hamann. ‘Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, November 2006, Vol. 18, No. 11, Pages 1947-1958.

(2) You can watch the Daisy ad on YouTube

(3) You can watch ‘Morning in America’ on YouTube

(4) You can watch the Horton ad on YouTube

(5) The Inaugural Address of Jimmy Carter

6. The so-called ‘malaise’ speech was a nationally televised address delivered in July, 1979. In it, Carter talked about ‘growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives [and] the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation’. He then went on to admonish the American people, ‘In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.’

7. The book is much too long and could have easily been made much shorter by removing several quirky or unfunny comments, which Westen presumably thought were profound or amusing. Here is a sample, presented in the vain hope that Westen might refrain if he ever writes a sequel:

‘These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix”, giving new meaning to the term political junkie.’
Jennifer Flowers is referred to as a ‘less-than-perfumed’ daisy.
Voters respond to body language, which provides ‘a window into the soul of the person who can only be seen through a glass darkly’.
The cortex is ‘cheap neural perfume’ covering the primitive desires of the rest of the brain.
‘You can slog it out for those few millimetres of cerebral turf… Or you can take your campaign to the broader neural electorate, collecting delegates throughout the brain.’
There is ‘icing on the cerebral cake’.
Dirty tricks take place ‘under the cover of neural darkness’.
‘When emotion roared, reason buckled at the knees.’
There are ’emotional delegates at the neural convention’ and compromises are ‘arranged in the smoke-filled rooms between the ears’.
In the context of an experiment about laundry, the Democrats ‘got taken to the cleaners’.
‘Bush simply got out the remote and switched networks.’
‘Gore actually didn’t need to dance the Pollster Polka with the Two-Steppin Texan.’
Democrats took the ‘bullets out of their own rhetorical revolvers’.
Affirmative action ‘has accreted so much emotional baggage that it doesn’t fit easily into most people’s overhead compartments’.
‘Whether you’re on the road to the White House or the grocery store, you can’t go far in neutral.’
‘You can’t grow political capital by investing in low-interest bonds.’
‘As the great unsung political strategist Ella Fitzgerald put it, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”.’

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