Democrats have a right-brain problem. Or sort of. Neuroscience has moved beyond the pop-psychology model that locates all emotions in the right hemisphere of the brain and cool, analytical reason in the left hemisphere. But to the extent that the old model survives as a metaphor, its application to the Democratic Party pretty much sums up one of the big points of Drew Westen's new book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.
Professor Westen stopped by U.S. News last week while on a busy spin through Washington to promote that book. An intense, affable man who teaches clinical and political psychology at Emory University, he also finds time to run his own corporate and political consulting firm, dispensing advice and wisdom mainly to Democratic politicians-or at least to those who will listen. More should.
Why? Because Democrats have a communication problem that has metastasized into something like a partywide pathology, and Westen knows why. Even if their hearts are in the right place, even if they have good ideas and sterling records, most Democrats pitch their programs—and themselves—in such bland, colorless, and dryly analytical terms that they drive a good part of the electorate into the arms of the other party. It's not hard for Westen to come up with examples of this affliction, but he particularly likes the case of Al Gore. Running for the presidency, Gore seemed to recite facts, programs, and policies with all the warmth of HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. Even when he spoke about his pet subject, the environment and global warming, he made it sound like a homework assignment.
Contrast that, Westen says, with how well Gore champions the same cause in his prize-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore's simple declarative sentence, "This is our only home," uses direct, personal, and emotive language to make the point that is reinforced with compelling images and data. Where, Westen wonders, was that art and artfulness when Gore was running for office? And the Gore problem, Westen says, could be generalized to many others.
Indeed, once even very talented and charismatic politicians get into the grips of the usual Democratic Party advisers and consultants, they start to turn lifeless. When I ask Westen for an example, he points to Barack Obama, who increasingly has moved away from his compelling narrative to deal with a laundry list of policy points in order, presumably, to convince Americans of his gravitas. "He is being told to lie low," Westen says, "and to spell out issue plans in response to polls."
Westen rues the influence of Democratic consultants like Bob Schrum, who view campaigns primarily as debates on the issues. They are about issues, Westen insists, but Democrats ignore what recent neuroscientific research has revealed about the way people think about issues or, for that matter, almost anything. It's not just that the emotions are crucial in our decision-making process, this research shows, but thinking itself is inextricably bound up with the emotions. The divide between thinking and feeling is part of the old Cartesian mind-body division that scientists like Antonio Damassio have been steadily demolishing. When we think, we think through networks in which concepts or ideas come with associated emotional resonances and colorings. In short, thinking is feeling--and vice versa.
So why do Democrats have a hard time grasping this fact? Part of it has to do with the progressive tradition and its commitment to dispassionate social analysis. The predilection toward objective, fact-based thinking is not in itself a flaw, but it can lead progressives to forget that people are driven by factors that often elude social scientific analysis and that all problems cannot by solved by social programs. Democrats tend to forget that people are also driven by values, ideals, beliefs.
And that, Westen insists, is why the Democratic problem is not just a style problem.
During the past 30 years, he says, Democrats have increasingly ceded the language of values, particularly religion-based values, to the other side. More precisely, they have allowed the other side to frame the religion-and-values debate in such a way that they, the Democrats, seem not only indifferent to such values but hostile toward them.
This wasn't always the case, Westen says. Up through John F. Kennedy, Democrats liberally employed the nonsectarian biblical language that is considered a crucial part of American political rhetoric—and they did so precisely to rededicate the nation to those ideals and values that most Americans share. Some more recent Democratic presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, knew how to draw on this language. But most of the party seemed to grow uneasy with open expressions of religious conviction, as though voicing such views was tantamount to challenging constitutionally established separations of church and state.
Unconsciously, Westen says, such Democrats bought into the definition of religion that had been advanced by the Moral Majority and strongly embraced by many in the Republican Party. "What liberals were objecting to," Westen writes in his book, "was not the invocation of God to bless America but the invocation of a particular God, and the hegemony of the fundamentalists' interpretation of Scripture that came with it. What Reagan so skillfully accomplished was a blurring of the distinction between the generic God of the founding fathers and the intrusion of specific sectarian beliefs into public policy—precisely the intrusion the founders inveighed against."
To be sure, as Westen acknowledges, Democrats in recent years have been trying to play catch-up. Having recognized the importance of values, they are now more open about their beliefs. But Westen thinks they still have a long way to go in reframing heated social debates with their own interpretations of biblical language and teaching.
"A progressive moral critique of the right is past due," Westen writes. "But this critique should focus not only on the intemperate words of the moral leaders of the Republican Party but on the deeds of Republican officeholders. It should be framed as a moral critique, not as a matter of policy differences or a 'debate on the issues'."
Put in terms of one prominent Democratic candidate, Westen's point comes down to this: "Let Obama be Obama."