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Hearts over minds, he tells Democrats
A brain researcher says the party needs to connect with voters' emotions to win.
By Robin Abcarian
Times Staff Writer (Los Angeles Times)
July 9, 2007
WASHINGTON — Drew Westen, a genial 48-year-old psychologist and brain
researcher, was talking to a rapt liberal audience about the role of
emotion in politics, how to talk back aggressively to Republicans, and
why going negative is not to be feared.
It was Day 2 of the progressive "Take Back America" confab, and those
who had crowded into a meeting room of the Washington Hilton were about
to discover why Westen, a psychology professor at Atlanta's Emory
University and former associate professor at Harvard Medical School,
had quietly become the great rumpled hope of Democrats who believe
their candidates should have won the last two presidential elections.
Example: When President Bush recently refused to allow Karl Rove to
testify under oath about his role in the sacking of federal
prosecutors, Westen said, Democrats blundered. Instead of insisting
Rove testify under oath, they simply should have said (over and over),
"Mr. Bush, just what is it about 'So help me God' that you find so
Westen has spent many years training psychologists, psychiatrists and
social workers, and his major brush with fame before now had been the
occasional commentary on National Public Radio. In the last several
months, though, he has gone from a politically inclined nobody to a hot
ticket, presenting his ideas to presidential campaigns, political
strategists, pollsters, consultants and donors. In his work, they hope
to find a grand unified theory of How Democrats Can Stop Blowing It.
In his new book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding
the Fate of the Nation," Westen, who is not affiliated with a
particular candidate, lays out his argument that Democrats must connect
emotionally with the American electorate — and that he can teach them
He writes that when Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts let a
Swift-boat veterans group drag his reputation through the mud (2004),
when Al Gore put a nation to sleep with his talk of lockboxes and
Medicare actuaries (2000), and when Michael S. Dukakis said he didn't
believe in the death penalty even in the event of his wife's rape and
murder (1988), Democrats were exhibiting their single worst tendency:
That style is ballot-box poison, said Westen. "The political brain is
an emotional brain," he said. "It prefers conclusions that are
emotionally satisfying rather than conclusions that match the data."
When Westen and his Emory colleagues conducted brain scans during the
2004 presidential campaign, they found that partisans of either side,
when presented with contradictory statements by their preferred
candidates, would struggle for some seconds with feelings of
discomfort, then resolve the matter in their candidates' favor.
The scans showed that to do this, they used the part of their brain
that controls emotion and conflict. The area that controls reasoning
was inactive — "the dead zone," Westen said.
Westen writes that it doesn't make sense to argue an issue using facts
and figures and to count on voters — particularly the swing voters who
decide national elections — to make choices based on sophisticated
understandings of policy differences or procedures. He says Democratic
candidates must learn to do what Republicans have understood for many
years — they must appeal to emotions. And (talking to you, Mr. Gore)
stay away from numbing statistics.
"This is the best thing I have read in 30 years," said Robert Kuttner,
co-editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine, and the man most
responsible for Westen's rise. "This is the book that should have been
written a long time ago on why Democrats blow winnable elections. Even
when public opinion is on their side, they don't know how to optimize
Kuttner learned of Westen last year from mutual friends while Westen
was still working on his manuscript. Westen sent Kuttner a few
chapters, and the magazine editor flipped. "I told him, 'Fasten your
seat belt; you're going to be a rock star,' " Kuttner said.
It has been, Westen admitted, the sort of wild ride an academic like him usually only dreams about.
Kuttner organized gatherings — in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and
Berkeley — to introduce Westen to influential Democrats. The first took
place in September in Washington.
Guy Molyneux, a pollster with Hart Research Associates, was there, and
recalled being impressed but not bowled over. "He says a candidate
should be authentic but also speak to these more emotional concerns,
and I don't know if Drew fully appreciates the extent to which that
advice may conflict," Molyneux said. "If your candidate is a policy
wonk" — like Al Gore — "to some extent that's going to come through to
After hearing Westen speak at Stanley Sheinbaum's Brentwood home at an
American Prospect event, Democratic activists and donors Jamie McGurk
(wife of former MGM honcho Chris McGurk) and Victoria Hopper (wife of
actor Dennis Hopper) adopted him.
"Victoria and I took it upon ourselves to make him our mission," said
McGurk, who with Hopper hosted Westen at a small gathering of
influential Hollywood political activists last month at her husband's
"He is dead-on — just what the community needs to hear," McGurk said.
"I was so frustrated with the way our party has conducted its
messaging. He connects all the dots and backs it up with empirical
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean blurbed the book.
Billionaire George Soros opened his home for a book party last month.
To some, Westen's ascent feels like a replay of what happened in the
2004 election with another Dean favorite, UC Berkeley linguist George
Lakoff, who burst onto the scene with theories about "framing" as a way
to control political debate.
Lakoff's ideas were important in helping Democrats think about language
and metaphor, said political professionals and activists, but his work
is deeply theoretical, and some felt his theories didn't test out in
Lakoff, who has read Westen's book, thinks there is overlap in their
messages. He rejects the idea that he has somehow fallen out of favor
among progressives. "I have had an incredible effect which you see
every day. I made people aware of framing and that you shouldn't use
the other guy's frame," he said.
So far, Republicans aren't quaking in their boots. Pollster Frank
Luntz, the GOP wordsmith who coined the term "death tax," said he was
looking forward to Westen's book "because it's based on science." But,
Luntz said, appealing to emotions can backfire.
In April, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of
Iraq "This war is lost," he was trying to trigger "not an intellectual
debate, but an emotional outcry," said Luntz, and "it was misguided."
And the reason Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is the
Democratic front-runner, he added (unable to resist a dig), is that she
"demonstrates mastery of policy … even though Democrats know she is the
least electable of her colleagues."
What quickens the pulses of Democrats is Westen's take on how voters
think and his ability to articulate why, in his view, taking the high
road in the face of full frontal assaults such as the Swift-boat
campaign is foolish.
"Positive and negative emotions are not the flip side of each other,"
Westen told his Washington audience. "They are neurologically distinct,
and that means you've got to control four things: positive feelings
toward your candidate, negative feelings toward your candidate,
positive feelings toward your opponent and negative feelings toward
your opponent. So if you just go negative — or positive, as the Kerry
team decided to do — you are ceding half the brain to the opposition.
"Similarly, when you refuse to dignify an attack, it gives the other
side exclusive rights to the network of associations that constitute
public opinion and particular feelings — which is what decides
Robert Shrum, Kerry's chief political strategist, who comes in for a
drubbing in Westen's book, has admitted he erred in not responding fast
enough to the Swift-boat campaign. However, he takes issue with
Westen's thesis that Democrats don't know how to appeal to voters'
emotions, calling Westen's research "pseudoscience."
"I tend to be skeptical of people who think the future of the Democratic Party resides in retooling its language," Shrum said.
Some who have heard Westen speak are waiting to see whether his advice
can make a difference when it matters — during a campaign.
"Beyond diagnosing past failure," Molyneux said, "if he can get out
ahead of things and start talking about the economy and healthcare and
Iraq … or if he says, 'This is how John Edwards could move out of the
second tier that he seems to be stuck in at the moment,' and if that
advice works, that's what catapults you to a higher level."
(Recently, on the Huffington Post, Westen suggested that Barack Obama's
dip in the polls after two lackluster debate performances resulted from
a "turn to the cerebral," and that the Illinois senator risked drowning
in "the dispassionate river" when "what Americans want most from their
presidents is strength and warmth." Obama has the right kind of
electricity, Westen wrote, "but he isn't using it.")
At the conference, Westen said Democrats had been so flummoxed by
so-called wedge issues — abortion, gun control, gay marriage and
immigration — that they finesse them to the point of seeming
Take abortion, Westen said — an issue on which about two-thirds of Americans say they believe there should be a middle ground.
"You would never know that," said Westen during an interview, "because
most Democrats run from abortion like the plague. Their strategists
tell them to speak quickly and move on."
That void, he said, allows the GOP — thanks to many years of
well-funded think tank research and experts like Luntz — to evoke and
capitalize on the emotions that drive voters' decisions.
"You can't take things off the table, which is a standard
Democratic practice," said Westen. "I mean, if your opponent is running
on the relentless war on terror, scaring people, and you want to run on
prescription drugs, those drugs better be Valium, because otherwise you
are going to lose."
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