My professor told us this story (which I am now going to promptly butcher) about his time on the campaign trail. In 2004, he was going door-to-door campaigning deep in the backwoods of rural Mississippi (or Arkansas, or Louisiana, I forget which, but you get the gist). They were in a particularly poor neighborhood one day, where most of the residents lived in trailers. He approached an especially run-down trailer, with overgrown grass and trash on the front lawn, and knocked on the door. A woman answered, wearing a moo-moo (miu-miu?). “I’ve never honestly seen anyone in a moo-moo before this,” he said. The woman was holding a toddler on her hip; there was a teen girl behind her, holding a baby on her hip; and a few assorted children crouched behind her. Everyone looked ragged, malnourished. He started talking to the lady, and came to the question, “What is the single most important issue to you in the upcoming election?” Obviously, there were a lot of issues that probably concerned this lady’s life — the economy, obviously. Maybe better access to healthcare. Maybe the war in Iraq, since those fighting and dying disporoportiately come from poor families like hers. Maybe better public schools.
She furled up her brow and sneered a bit, my professor said, and answered him with absolute conviction: gay marriage.
My professor was flabbergasted. Gay marriage? “I can guarantee you that there were no gay people even out, let alone getting married, within 200 miles of her,” he said. But there she was, standing here in this trailer home with all these babies on her hips, ready to cast her vote for whatever candidate could assure her that, on his watch, no gays anywhere were going to be threatening her by walking down the aisle.
I’m telling you this co-opted story because it segues nicely into the book I’m currently reading: The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. In fact, Drew tells a very similar story in the book, albeit with less colorful details (hell, as far as I know the hillbilly / gay marriage story is an urban legend, a useful parable for Democratic campaign strategists).
The basic premise of Westen’s book is that all the centuries of political and philosophical theory that attribute human decision-making to things like reason and dispassionate logic is wrong — or not wrong, per se, but just not telling the whole story. Backed by a few decades worth of research and a century or so of evolutionary biology/psychology (Westen is a clinical psychologist), Westen makes the case that emotions play a much stronger role in decision-making, especially political decision-making, then most people would care to realize.
He also looks at the way that, over the past 50 years, Republicans have learned to capitalize on these appeals to emotion, and Democrats (with the exception of Clinton) have largely failed. Now, the whole “Republicans appeal to hearts / Democrats appeal to minds” business is so oft-argued and written about these days as to be practically a cliche, but Westen (himself a Democrat) manages to avoid coming across as hackneyed by virtue of his massive amounts of research and his excellent and often entertaining prose. The man can turn a phrase. Examples:
With the exception of the Clinton years, what has differentiated the Republican candidates and strategists in the last 30 years from their Democratic counterparts is whether they drew their inspiration from the marketing team or the debate team.
When reason and emotion become disconnected, the result is often disaster. Sometimes this disaster may take the form of a neurology patient who … can’t use emotion to stay out of harm’s way. Sometimes it takes the form of a psychopath, a person who experiences little or no remorse, empathy, or concern for others, who may know he is breaking laws or causing others pain, but doesn’t care.
At other times, this disaster may take the form of a Democratic political campaign.
On Gore challenging Bush about Medicare plans during the 2000 debates: “It didn’t help, of course, that the media did their postmodernism routine, turning Gore’s claims about Bush’s Medicare plan and tax cuts, which both turned out to be true, into a he said/she said contest of competing claims to a truth that somehow couldn’t be adjudicated.
The weight of evidence had a small effect. Even when we handcuffed people to the data with titanium cognitive cuffs, they managed, Houdini-like, to free themselves from any constraints of reality thought he power of emotion.
The strongest part of the book, though — or at least my favorite part — is all the examples Westen provides. We all know the conventional wisdom about Democrat vs. Republican political appeals, but it’s easy to imagine the heart/mind business is a bit over-hyped, isn’t that shocking, until confronted with example after example from the past 20 years. Westen provides snippets from political debates and the text of Democrat and Republican campaign ads, and the results are pretty striking. The most egregious example so far, though, probably comes when Westen contrasts commercials put out by the Clinton campaign and the Kerry campaign. He examines the first ad each man put out after being granted the Democratic nomination. While Clinton’s is folksy and accessible … Kerry’s — well, it’s just hard to describe how bad it is without giving the whole transcript. He actually says at one point something along the lines of “I feel public service is important, because having come from privilege, having gone to Yale …” Aghhh! You read that and think, oh my god, did he really say that? In his first introduction to the public at large? In a political arena that had most recently elected a president who’s sex appeal, if you will, rested almost solely in his anti-intellectualism and his ability to paint himself as a good old boy? And Kerry’s first commercial actually uses the words privilege and Yale? What were Kerry’s campaign people possibly thinking? Was Kerry’s entire campaign staff actually secretly made up of Republican operatives?
The transcripts from the Gore/Bush debates are pretty damning as well. I’m slightly too young to remember these debates (okay, okay, I was 17/18 at the time, but … well, wait, why am I trying to defend my young self for not watching the debates? I don’t watch the debates now…). Time and time again, Bush responds with, like, nothing. I mean, what he says is almost nonsensical. Or it’s downright nonsensical. But it’s emotionally resonant nonsense. Powerful nonsense. And then Gore counters with a statistic.
The book isn’t all just he said/he said, either. Westen has done a lot of research himself over the years, and he’s got some pretty fascinating examples of how the partisan brain works. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through so far, though. I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I progress …
(Addendum: classmate Adrienne has pointed out to me that our professor was actually in South Dakota.)