Presidential candidates, put away your laundry lists. That’s the advice of political psychologist Drew Westen, who urges politicians to focus less on appealing to the head and more on targeting the heart.
In “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” Mr. Westen argues that candidates who succeed are not necessarily those with the best ideas, but rather those who connect with voters on a gut level. He states his agreement with Scottish philosopher David Hume’s contention that reason is the slave to emotion.
“The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision,” he writes. “We can’t change the structure of the political brain, which reflects millions of years of evolution. But we can change the way we appeal to it.”
Mr. Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a strong Democrat, addresses his argument to candidates and consultants in his party. He also expresses great admiration of how Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have used emotional appeals to win elections when polls showed that voters agreed with Democrats more on many issues. The Democrats he praises are few and far between, notably former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.
The result is one part strategy memo, one part psychology lesson and one part constructive critique of past campaigns.
This book is most effective when Mr. Westen explains the thought process of the average person and why he doesn’t respond to dry discussions of issues. Those with minimal background in science and psychology will find the narrative fairly easy to follow. He avoids the temptation of many psychologist-turned-authors, to go overboard on the psychobabble.
His central thesis is tough to quibble with.
Even if voters are interested in a particular issue area, they tend to respond most effectively to appeals that combine facts and storytelling. It is one of the reasons that Messrs. Clinton and Reagan were so popular with voters. Both presidents illustrated their points by using real-life examples that demonstrated empathy for and connectivity with voters.
Mr. Reagan’s efforts in these areas prompted some Democrats to dismiss him as a practitioner of “government by anecdote.” The Gipper laughed all the way to the White House in two landslide election victories. Mr. Clinton’s ability to feel people’s pain prompted Republicans to dismiss him as a phony, a bit of snake oil salesman. Alas, Mr. Clinton won two elections.
Mr. Westen is especially hard on recent Democratic presidential candidates, who he argues were too eager to tout the superiority of their views on the issues but did little to make emotional appeals to centrists.
Democrats have “an irrational emotional commitment to rationality,” he writes.
Mr. Westen analyzes the commercials and debate performances and points out where both Al Gore and John Kerry may have won on points (as judged by debate coaches) but failed to resonate with the swing voters who determine the outcome of elections.
The author also offers his own scripts for how Democratic candidates can improve their emotional messages. That’s the one area where book falls short.
In analyzing how Mr. Gore mishandled the question of same-sex marriage, the author suggests that the former vice president should have used biblical imagery to appeal to undecided voters.
“It’s about loving your neighbor, and recognizing that none of us — not me, and not you — is in the position to cast the first stone,” Mr. Westen writes.
That’s a great script, but Mr. Gore, a deeply religious man who was uncomfortable with God talk, would have delivered such remarks in a clumsy manner.
Mr. Westen and others who care about the Democrats should focus on what it is about the party’s nominating process that continually results in the success of non-emotional automatons. Some of have argued that the current front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, also fits that description.
“The Political Brain” contains valuable advice to help Democrats win more elections. But as any entertainment impresario will tell you, a great script and talented director can’t make up for an actor or actress who is not up to the part.
Claude R. Marx contributes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass., and is author of a chapter on media and politics in the just-published book “The Sixth Year Itch,” edited by Larry Sabato.
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