Hearts vs. Minds

One of the things I find very interesting is the idea that Democrats have been too afraid to take a stand on issues.  Part of this is inherent in our nature — liberals like looking at every side of an issue, and considering the relative merits of each.  It’s part of what makes us liberal. 

But while that’s a good thing to do when considering what to believe, it can be far from an asset when campaigning.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article today about a brain researcher who suggests that when it comes to campaigning, Democrats need to appeal to hearts instead of minds:

In his new book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” [Drew] 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 how.

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: intellectual dispassion.

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.

Note what Western does not say: he doesn’t say Democrats shoudn’t consider things at a deeper level — just that we needn’t lay all of the considerations out on the table on every issue.

Moreover, this is an argument against the sort of fine-grained triangulation that the DLC preaches.  Taking a strong, emotional stand is going to pay more dividends than trying to find the exact point that swing voters say they want to hear.  Because truth be told, the swing voters would rather hear a direct and emotional appeal they don’t quite agree with than a dull formulation that they do.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Hearts vs. Minds

  1. It’s very true. To be blunt, a good chunk of Americans have no clue about issues that affect them. They can’t name three members of the Supreme Court, where Iraq is on a map, if Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.

    Democrats greet these swing voters with nuance because life is nuanced and there are several sides to an issue.

    Republicans say I know the truth, let me lead, and follow me. This phenomena has especially been true during the Faux News/Rush Limbaugh era. The Republicans are often spectacularly wrong, but they don’t apologize, refuse to acknowledge their mistake, and they are often rewarded for this behavior.

    Voters eat that up. Iraq is such a disaster that it didn’t work this time. Until we get a populace that is well educated, it’s best for democrats to lead with emotion. Person dying without health insurance, tax cuts for the rich leading to a closed school program. It’s the one way Michael Moore is especially effective. You have to make an emotional argument to people, and you have to sound confident.

    Passion is important.

  2. when Michael S. Dukakis said he didn’t believe in the death penalty even in the event of his wife’s rape and murder

    It’s troubling to me that this is cited as evidence of “intellectual dispassion,” as if the only legitimate emotional response to a loved one being raped and murdered is “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

    One of the biggest differentiating features between liberals (as a group, though there are individual exceptions) and conservatives (as a group, though there are individual exceptions) at the moment is that liberals are passionate about what’s best for the everyone and conservatives are passionate about what’s best for me. And somehow putting community before self, which was once seen as a very patriotic and American thing to do, is now evidence of weakness, falsity, and intellectual dispassion.

    It strikes me that what Westen is inevitably saying, even if it was not his overt intent, is that Democrats really need to stop acting like socialist weenies and start being more selfish like real Americans.

    Blech.

  3. Here’s the thing–lots of Democrats make emotional arguments on issues and have done so for decades. In 2004, one of the many things that drew me to Howard Dean’s campaign (and got me far more involved in politics as a result) was his emotional response to issues like health care and the Iraq War. The difference is that the media, led by Fox News, takes Democrats and portrays their emotion as hysteria, while taking right-wing emotion and calling it strength, or linking it to faith.

    Hell, look at the example of Al Gore. He was too wonky, supposedly in 2000, but what was the first criticism of him when he began making those Moveon speeches a couple of years ago? He’s unhinged! He’s lost it! Democratic passion is considered insanity by these people. When it comes to media portrayals, we live very much in a heads-they-win, tails-we-lose world.

  4. Hell, look at the example of Al Gore. He was too wonky, supposedly in 2000, but what was the first criticism of him when he began making those Moveon speeches a couple of years ago? He’s unhinged! He’s lost it! Democratic passion is considered insanity by these people.

    Why do you think that is? I think it’s because they really don’t want Democrats to be dispassionate. After all, the right screamed “Unhinged!” and Gore was unhinged all the way to an Oscar.

    As for Dukakis, it was the way he answered that doomed him. He needed to make a nod toward human emotion. He could have said: “Yes, if my wife was killed I’d want revenge, I’d want to hurt the guy who did it. But there’s a reason we don’t allow revenge killing in society, because we as a society are better than our instinct for vengeance. Killing to prevent killing doesn’t work, and we shouldn’t pretend it does. If my wife was murdered and I killed the murderer, I may be justified, but I wouldn’t be right.”

    But that wouldn’t be Mike Dukakis, who…well, he wasn’t passionate about anything, really.

  5. Why do you think that is?

    I think it’s a strategy put in place by the right-wing noise machine years ago. Rove has long been an advocate of attacking your opponent’s strengths, but this predates him–many of the Dukakis attacks were put together by Atwater, as big a piece of shit human being as you’ll ever find–but the message is always the same. Cast anyone remotely liberal as part of the “loony left” and then exploit any possible bit of emotion to hammer on that point, but when it comes to “conservatives,” portray emotion as depth, as inner strength, as the ability to relate to the common man, etc. This is not accidental.

  6. As for Dukakis, it was the way he answered that doomed him.

    Presuming that’s true, then we’re back to yet another double-standard. The Dems have to be flawless communicators to get elected, but the GOP–well, look who’s president.

  7. Presuming that’s true, then we’re back to yet another double-standard.

    Same as it always was. That’s the price we pay for daring to advocate that minorities and women should, you know, be full citizens and all, and we don’t even do that particularly well.

  8. larkohio

    Democrats are passionate about a number of things, but, you are right, Melissa, we try to consider the good of all of us, while Republicans just think, “How does this make me money?”

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