The Political Brain and 2008 Election

I mentioned Drew Westen in the previous post. Here he is on CSpan BookTV talking about his book Political Brain.

The argument–very much in the Lakoff tradition–is to bring in the new cognitive neurosciences into the political sphere.  Now I have seen some serious problems with this view taken en toto (because it tends towards emotivism and relativism in my view) but as a partial piece of the puzzle it can not be discounted.  The results speak for themselves in the recent history of presidential elections.

As a disclaimer, Westen is quite up front about being a Democrat, but that doesn’t affect his research.  It’s just that he’s using his researching to try to help the Democratic party.  It’s quite easy to separate out his findings from his political standpoint.

At around minute 25 he discusses the political scientific findings on order of importance in an election (I mentioned part of this in the last post).  They are in decreasing order of importance:

1. How voters feel about party and its principles
2. How voters feel about the candidate
3. How voters feel about the candidate’s personal attributes
4. How they feel towards candidates policies
5. How they feel towards facts about candidates policies.

Something should leap out immediately with Westen discusses.  Democrats post-McGovern mold (other than Carter and Clinton–hint hint) always started from the bottom and try to work up whereas Republicans start from the top (the most important) and then work down.

That is how Republicans can run on a policy that the majority opposes and cow the Democrats into fear of announcing their view is supported by the majority (see his analysis of this relative to abortion at minute 17).  Because the Democrats can’t connect the wonkish policy facts with a narrative-emotional thread.

This is why Hillary lost the primary.  She started in the traditional establishmentarian reverse order Democratic mold.  She lost.  Only when she (in her words) “found her voice” and got a narrative (shooting back some shots in Penn., working class gal) AND when she hit Obama not on policy proposals (#5) but on his associations and whether he is qualified to be president, [i.e. Can you Trust Him????” (#2,#3)] aka The Kitchen Sink Strategy did she begin to win.  By then however it was too late but it did slow Obama’s momentum.

What this means in the general election is quite clear.  McCain can not run on #1 because the Republican brand is tranished with Bush, corruption, incomptence, economic disaster, failed wars, Katrina, torture, on and on and on and on.  McCain tried to run in the early summer a biography tour–that is pumping up a positive version of #2 and #3.  McCain as war hero, reformer, maverick, etc. etc.  It didn’t help McCain that he couldn’t find a single frame however (Country First? Reform, Prosperity, Peace?).  That didn’t work and Obama was clearly ahead in the polls all summer.

The only way McCain made a move was by (in the short term) picking Palin to reve up his base and play we are the real Americans card.  And more importantly by his own kitchen sink strategy against Obama (Celebrity, Obama as potential Child Molester and Wolf Who Will Devour Helpless Sarah Palin, etc. etc.).  Attack Obama at #2/#3–that he is a secret radical closet liberal who hates America and is running as some kind of moderate fellow who cares more about winning than serving.

Doesn’t matter that such a frame is not true.  Here’s the NyTimes piece on Ayers:

“I saw no evidence of a radical streak, either overt or covert, when we were together at Harvard Law School,” said Bradford A. Berenson, who worked on the Harvard Law Review with Mr. Obama and who served as associate White House counsel under President Bush. Mr. Berenson, who is backing Mr. McCain, described his fellow student as “a pragmatic liberal” whose moderation frustrated others at the law review whose views were much farther to the left.

Pragmatic liberal.  University of Chicago Democrat.  Whatever you want to call it, that’s the correct version of events.  He is a liberal, no doubt about it.  But he’s pragmatic and more wonkish/technocrat than ideologue.

But that isn’t point right.  My analysis right there is a Westen’s system #4 & #5 point.  The attack is aimed at #2/#3.  Even Krauthammer, in the piece in which he gives Obama the election can’t help but ask whether he can pass the test of not being “too exotic” and whether “we really know what he believes”.  They just can’t help themselves it seems.

So here is where we are.  The Economic Issue came into play and upset the McCain media blitz and forced them to deal with an issue.  But the bill is now passed.  The Economy won’t be gone to be sure, but it’s going to recede just slightly.

Obama has apparently chosen his next line of attack as health care.  Interestingly (given the coming Ayers/Wright onslaught from McCain) Obama drops the “r” word on McCain–as in radical.  This is a definite step up from “McBush”, “out of touch”.  I”m guessing Obama is going to be bringing back up his GUT of conservatism as “on your own society” and tying McCain via his call for eliminating the traditional US worker-based model of health care and marketizing health care.  For this to work he’ll need to connect the notion of further de-regulation of health care as in the same line as deregulation in the housing sector.

It’s going to come down to Obama’s unbelievable advantage in ground game, partisan voter ID advantage, anger towards Republicans, his coolness under pressure, and his ability to hit back at least somewhat better than the Gore/Kerrys of recent memory VS.  the McCain Kitchen Sink Strategy.

The media after the last round of ugliness, turned against McCain.  But that could easily be turned around.  Or rather, a la Westen, all they have to do is keep playing the ads and talking about how awful McCain is but suboncsiously it works against Obama.

I’m not as nervous as John Ridley, but I do think there will be some choppy waters to come.  I think we could see a deja vu all over again of the Dem primary where McCain comes to the only winning strategy he has too late.  It could however break another way.  If Obama stands up to the onslaught and has a leveling with the American people moment (now that he has passed the so-called Reagan threshold in the first debate), then he could demolish McCain and Finish Him.  But that doesn’t strike me as Obama’s style (there I agree with Ridley).

Whatever hits Obama took post-convention, we are back to the summer if not in a stronger position for Obama.  It took McCain so long to get to that point back in August and lost it in weeks.  And as Yglesias suggests, it’s probably just the fundamentals coming back into play.  My sense is the only thing that can override the fundamentals is the dirty politics stuff (just ask President Dukakkis).

Update I: Also worth pointing out (as Westen does at minute 28) that while this vision could seem dark, it has a logic.  Namely that we can’t know every policy detail/prescription and the candidates will face black swans of various colors and shades during their tenure.  So the emotional-based (paleo-mammalian brain stem) system has a wisdom of intuiting based on these other factors.  Towards the end, in a comment I wish he could have unpacked more, Westen says that the way to overcome the murky, sinister emotional asssociative side, is to bring it up into consciousness/light of day.  That acts as a disinfectant.  Which again is a cognitivist (i.e. traditional liberal Enlightenment understanding of rationality) that comes into play.  That is, rationality still has a role, but without connection through the emotions, it is insufficient.

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Published in: on October 4, 2008 at 12:43 pm  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. excellent riff on this topic. i personally find Westen’s argument to be accurate. that’s my premise when i posted this:

    http://www.c4chaos.com/2008/08/we-pick-the-presidential-candidate-who-shares-our-worldview/

    the McCain campaign gambled on the stupidity of the American voters. but i think they’ve gravely underestimated the American public. you can see this in the polls. with less than a month before election day, McCain is showing his desperation: investing on negative campaigns, and sprouting meaningless rhetrics like “taking the gloves off.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/03/AR2008100303738.html

    but i have faith in American voters. that’s why i believe (and have always believed) that this election will be a landslide for Obama.

    and then we can start addressing the real issues from there – http://bit.ly/3EPlfi

    ~C

  2. C4,

    Thanks for the link on the debt versus deficit/budget. Very good piece.

  3. […] Chris Dierkes discusses the book “The Political Brain”, an attempt to ascertain the most important emotional factors involved in a voter’s choice (conclusion: it’s the PARTY, stupid). […]

  4. […] go back to Drew Westen’s work, the issue is reviving the emotional associations around a concept.  Clearly this has been a huge […]

  5. […] views politics in a fundamentally different way than they do. As Chris at Indistinct Union has pointed to vigorously more than a couple of times, how voters feel about a party/politician/ideology plays a much more […]

  6. […] links to a post of mine which outlines the work of poli scientist Drew Westen. Quick review of the five most important […]


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