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 offensive?”
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 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.
“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 that.”
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 voters.”
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 offices.
“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 data.”
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 polls.
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 elections.”
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 unprincipled.
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.”