If only they were more emotional, like we fear-mongering man-monkeys, they might control all three branches now. I think all of us who’ve sailed the placid seas of Nutrootsistan can sympathize with that sentiment.
This is probably the third or fourth permutation of “conservatives bad, liberals good” science we’ve blogged since HA started, but this one’s special since it shares with George Lakoff’s stupid “branding” thesis the precious quality of being, in its own way, as insulting to Democrats as to Republicans. Does the left really need to have it explained to them by a scientist that emotional appeals tend to be politically effective? Don’t they have a few examples in their own scrapbook that prove the point? It’s like not being able to figure out sex without a doctor’s help.
Westen’s thesis is simple. “A dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work.” That’s true when it comes to choosing a significant other, buying a car, and choosing a president. Madison Avenue has known this for decades. Democrats haven’t. Instead, their strategists start from an 18th-century vision of the mind as dispassionate, making decisions by rationally weighing evidence and balancing pros and cons. That assumption is a recipe for high-minded campaigning—and, often, electoral failure. But by recognizing the strides that neuroscience, psychology and, in particular, the science of decision making have made in recent years, Westen argues, politicians can tap into “the emotional brain” that guides most political decisions…
Because emotions are central to beliefs and values, if an appeal is purely rational it is unlikely to tickle the emotional brain circuits that affect what we do in the voting booth. To the contrary: emotions can trump rationality. “People were drawn to Reagan [in the 1980 presidential race] because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs,” Westen writes. “It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions.” The same forces were at work in 2004, when pollsters found that voters in small-town America placed more weight on issues unlikely to directly affect their lives, such as terrorism and violent crime and gay marriage in Massachusetts, than on those that were, such as mine safety. Positions on issues matter to the extent they incite voters’ emotions…
Neuroscience research backs up the poll results. When voters are hooked up to brain-imaging devices while watching candidates, it is emotion circuits and not the rational frontal lobes that are most engaged. When voters assess who won a campaign debate, they almost always choose the candidate they liked better beforehand. The rationality circuit “isn’t typically open for business when partisans are thinking about things that matter to them,” Westen notes. Yet “this is the part of the brain to which Democrats typically target their appeals.”
Tougher gun restrictions? How about an ad showing a parade of Arab-looking men walking into a gun store, setting their money on the counter and walking out with three or four semi-automatics each, with this voice-over: “My opponent thinks you shouldn’t have to show a photo ID or get a background check to buy a handgun. He thinks anyone who wants an AK-47 should be able to buy one, no questions asked. What’s the point of fighting terrorists abroad if we’re going to arm them over here?”
Wouldn’t that be a rather striking example of racial profiling, heretofore a cardinal sin on the left? Sure, but hey: “Effective? Let’s just say that if John Kerry had used Westen’s words to attack the Swift Boaters who impugned his war record during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush might be clearing a lot of brush in Crawford these days.” Ends and means, baby. Imagine what the abortion ads will look like.
Read the whole thing and ponder your exit question: In what meaningful sense is that piece different from a press release?
Update: See-Dub comments, “Meanwhile…as the picture of the pathetic polar bears on an ice floe drifts across our screen for the eight thousandth time as a newscaster reads a thinly disguised press release about global warming…”