The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Book Review)

Author:  Western, Drew 
Publisher:  Public Affairs 
Reviewed By:  Richard M. Waugaman, Volume XXVIII, No 1, pp. 25-28

Not that long ago, it was considered unprofessional for psychoanalytically oriented therapists to make any public statements on political matters. The rationale was that doing so would deal a mortal blow to their capacity to act as a blank slate for the projection of their patients’ unconscious conflicts. Times have changed! Now, the eminent psychoanalytically oriented psychologist Drew Westen has brought his formidable expertise to bear on politics. Westen’s book is a sustained attack on the devaluation of emotional communication by the Democratic Party. He eloquently and persuasively shows the wrong-headedness of this approach.

I would predict that Westen has a bright future as a key political consultant to Democratic candidates. If they are wise enough to listen to his advice, he will help one of them win the White House, where she would do well to put him on her staff. Westen is “a scientist who studies emotion and personality; the lead investigator in a team of neuroscientists who have been studying how the brain processes political and legal information; and a periodic contributor to public discourse on psychology and politics in [the media]” (p. x). He has also been a leader in demonstrating that cognitive psychology research has validated most of Freud’s central theories about the unconscious mind. Westen establishes the neuroscience basis of his bona fides as a political consultant by describing the intriguing and widely publicized research he did on the brains of political partisans. (No, he did not dissect the brains of his political enemies.)

Using functional MRI’s, he studied regional brain activation after research subjects were presented with information that was unfavorable to the candidate they strongly supported. He did this in the highly contentious presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. Westen describes his findings,

The brain registers the conflict between data and desire and begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotions. I know that the brain largely succeeded in this effort, as partisans mostly denied that they had perceived any conflict between their candidate’s words and deeds... The neural circuits [in the limbic system] charged with regulation of emotional states seemed to recruit beliefs that eliminated the distress and conflict partisans had experienced when they confronted unpleasant realities. And this all seemed to happen [quickly and] with little involvement of the [neocortical] neural circuits normally involved in reasoning (pp. xiii-xiv).

Westen would surely concur with Damasio that the brain’s central biological function is to process emotions. Westen extends his fMRI research to many other salient observations about “the political brain,” for example, how voters process the barrage of information about candidates and issues during a campaign. A central message of his book is that successful campaigns activate favorable associative networks in voters’ minds. Important aspects of these networks are often “unconscious, and hence all the more powerful because their effects [are] largely sub rosa” (p. 14). Unprincipled campaigns bypass voters’ higher values by using code words to appeal to their less conscious bigotry. The Republicans have refined this into an art form. Westen gives example after disturbing example.

Westen’s message is a rousing wake-up call to Democratic candidates and their strategists: “The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine... The partisans in our study were... bright, educated, and politically aware... And yet they thought with their guts” (p. xv; Westen’s emphasis in first sentence; my emphasis in last sentence). It is but one small example of Westen’s wonderful way with words that when he has something important to say, he often says it in words of one syllable. Such simple words probably activate our limbic system more readily than complex words that get entangled in the filter of our neocortex. Westen is in fact a gifted writer who practices what he preaches, that is, he uses language to convey his values by having a strong emotional impact on the reader. I will quote him, since a paraphrase would be less eloquent than his own words:

“The central thesis of this book—that successful campaigns compete in the marketplace of emotions and not primarily in the marketplace of ideas—may at first blush be disquieting to many Democrats. But the reality is that the best way to elicit enthusiasm in the marketplace of emotions is to tell the truth. There is nothing more compelling in politics than a candidate who is genuine. And the issues that most tempt politicians to spin and parse are precisely the ones on which they should tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth (pp. 305-6)... [A]lthough ideas provide the roadmap for everything we hope to accomplish... ultimately it is our emotions that provide the fuel—and the hope—for those achievements” (p. 417).

Many of us have felt progressively discouraged by the serious deterioration in our national leadership, and the incalculable damage this has done to our national unity, to our democratic traditions, to our constitutional checks and balances, and to our reputation in the global community. The many horrendous problems that have resulted include the fiscal irresponsibility that will oppress future generations of Americans with backbreaking federal debt; and also the egregious, imperialistic abuse of the community of nations, that has dangerously frayed our alliances, and generated an enormous upsurge of anti-American sentiment, which does more to recruit new terrorists than our misguided policies have done to protect us. Experts have estimated it may take decades to repair all of this completely unnecessary damage. Westen’s book offers a light at the end of long, dark tunnel. He brings hope that we can come to our senses, look honestly at how much havoc George W. Bush’s administration has wreaked on our country, and then set about rebuilding our democratic institutions.

Westen writes, “If the Democrats were to frame what the Republicans have done in moral terms, most Americans would be shocked and repulsed” (p. 402). I certainly am. Westen’s thesis is that the Democrats have been asleep at the wheel because, unlike the Republicans, they have been led astray by a deeply flawed, intellectualized model of the mind, that overvalues rational appeals to the voter, and fails to make the emotional connection that will allow Democratic candidates to convey their values. Westen shows an enviable mastery of his subject, blending moral ideals with pragmatism, and powerful emotional appeals with clear policy outlines. He condemns Democratic strategists who have lost elections by pandering to focus groups, discouraging candidates from being themselves, and drowning voters in excessive policy minutiae. A central point Westen makes repeatedly is that research amply documents the fallacy of the overly intellectualized approach of Democratic strategists. He accuses them of having “an irrational emotional commitment to rationality” (p. 15).

Westen diagnoses Democrats as suffering from crippling inhibitions against their aggression. When Republican candidates stoop to irresponsible and often bigoted smear campaigns, Democrats too often rationalize their passivity as “rising above” the attack, going on to lose the election because voters view them as cowards who run away from a fight. When national security concerns are paramount, voters want leaders who show they have the strength to protect us. Just when Westen’s assessment of the corruption and cynicism of the Republican Party makes the situation seem hopeless, he strikes a note of optimism. Although unprincipled politicians and their advisers can indeed win elections by pandering to bigotry, Westen points out that this is most effective when the appeals to the voters’ dark side comes in under their radar. Most voters reject racism and other forms of bigotry once such evil impulses are out in the open. “What both Democrats and Republicans know is that if you dig deep enough, you’ll find wellsprings of prejudice in the associative sediments of many voters. But the last thing Democrats should try to do is to keep issues related to race out of the public consciousness because on matters of race, people’s conscious values are their better angels” (pp. 220-21; Westen’s emphasis). Westen reminds us of the widespread disgust with Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant, and of George Allen’s racist taunt “macaca” that probably lost him a Senate seat from Virginia (and in turn, tipped the Senate to the Democrats). Westen wants Democrats to do more than just refrain from bigotry. He insists they need to expose the long, shameful history of bigotry in the Republican Party.

Westen is eminently practical in addressing current events. At the same time, he shows a deep understanding of the impact of intellectual history. His careful dissection of the harmful effect the Enlightenment has had on the past forty years of Democratic campaign strategy blends his skills in both areas. History is littered with false dichotomies. A recurrent one has involved reason versus emotions. Perhaps the Enlightenment treated religious faith as an emotion, in fact, as one of the most misguided and irrational emotions. Over the course of history, the Church often stood in opposition to science. More directly, the Enlightenment was a reaction to the corruption of the clergy, and the political power the Church had accumulated, allying itself with entrenched monarchies, thwarting the growth of more democratic societies. Ironically, an unintended consequence of the Enlightenment has been a sort of return of the repressed, the implicit deification of Reason, with scientists as its white-robed priests. Westen persuades me that one of the Enlightenment’s many harmful consequences has been seriously misguided strategy in the Democratic Party.

Rhetoric has acquired a bad name. “Empty rhetoric” is surely one of our first associations to the word. Yet Westen uses rhetoric with laser-like precision, constantly illustrating his point that intellectual persuasion must go along with an effective emotional appeal that connects with the highest ideals of one’s audience. He will challenge skeptical readers who insist on ranking intellect high above emotions. Westen’s wit not only entertains, but helps win over his readers. As I mentioned earlier, Westen grasps the emotional power of the humble though paradoxically named monosyllable. In arguing that swing voters will not be persuaded primarily through rational appeals, he states, “But as it turns out, they think with their guts, too” (p. xv). Count them: that last sentence consisted in 11 monosyllabic words! (Shakespeare, who knew his way around the English language, ended eight of his Sonnets with monosyllabic couplets.)

It is puzzling that so many voters elect Republican candidates who then enact laws that truly benefit only a tiny percentage of the country’s wealthiest elite, while bringing about disastrous economic problems for the vast majority of Republican voters. One answer to this enigma seems to be the emotionally determined, irrational attitudes voters have to economic issues. Studies have shown that 40% of Americans report that they are in the wealthiest 10% of the population. A minimum-wage worker who was supporting his wife and children on his meager earnings explained that he voted for George W. Bush, “Because he’s a self-made man.”

I want to register a quibble with the publisher’s choice not to include Westen’s complete notes in the book. Instead, the vast majority is on-line; at least they are now. I hope other publishers will avoid this cost-cutting measure, since Westen’s book deserves to be read many years into the future, when the web may or may not still have his notes available. And some of us do not yet have Internet access in all of our favorite readings spots.

Westen writes so persuasively that we must ask ourselves, “Is it really all so simple?” As I have pondered this question, I have decided the answer is a clear “Yes, and no.” Westen’s book might create the misleading impression that the Republican Party has a monopoly on morally outrageous actions. Unfortunately, the potential for corruption is a bipartisan blight that infects all too many politicians or political groups when they become too powerful and too entrenched in their position of power. I am optimistic that Westen’s book will play a vital role in checking the excesses of Republican corruption. However, no one wants to see those excesses simply replaced one day by Democratic corruption. Westen tends to focus almost exclusively on general elections, not primaries. As a result, he has much less to say about Democrats campaigning against fellow Democrats. So that adds to the polarization of his discussions of Democrats against Republicans, as though it is tantamount to the forces of good versus the forces of evil (which, sadly, it often is).

Who should read this book? Democrats, according to Westen (p. ix). Staunch Republicans should probably monitor their blood pressure closely if they are masochistic enough to read Westen. Mental health professionals will be intrigued and a bit envious that a respected colleague has ventured so far and so successfully into such a different field. In the end, I came away feeling Westen reminded me that we Americans have core values we can be proud of, and we should strive to see them prevail.

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