What ‘The Political Brain’ can teach us about running campaigns
Not long ago people assumed that society voted rationally.
The electorate, apparently, would evaluate their options, carefully balancing out the issues (where each candidate stood on immigration, education or the environment) before making a definitive and reasoned conclusion on who to vote for.
How hopeful we were.
Much of that changed when The Political Brain was published. When Drew Westen released his groundbreaking research in 2007, exploring what motivates voters to make specific electoral decisions, the political community experienced a rare moment of clarity.
Using handpicked examples from fifty years of American electoral history, Westen demonstrates that people are less motivated by reason, facts and evidence than by powerful emotional constitutions, poetry, values and grand narratives.
The book was a true game changer. As Westen makes a moving tribute to the leaders of the left, he also shines a light on the grossly ineffective practices of Democratic political campaign strategists. The book is a call to the arms for the left with innumerable lessons worth learning. Here are just a few of the key highlights.
If the left want to succeed, they’ll need a master narrative
“Success [in politics] has less to do with brains than guts… Democrats have failed at the basics: defining their message, attacking their opponents, defending their leaders, inspiring their voters…
Americans don’t like what Republicans stand for, but the don’t know what Democrats stand for.”
James Carville and Paul Begala
For too long the left have lacked a concrete narrative; an easily expressible reason to exist. Prior to Barack Obama’s election, nobody knew what Democrats stood for. There was a loose association of disparate causes that one might define as ‘liberal’, but there was no core story or emotional constitution.
The Republicans on the other hand have spent years fine tuning their party brand, composed of what defines them and what they stand wholeheartedly against. Anyone could tell you that the GOP are a party of faith, small government, personal freedoms and individual rights. To their dying days they’ll fight tooth and nail against tax and spend, abortion-loving, tree-hugging, soft on crime, weak on defence liberals and their socialist agendas.
In his book, Westen makes a point of noting how easy it is to write the Republican party’s story, and how hard it is to write the Democrats’. If any party on the left want to succeed, they’ll need to embed a powerful and compelling narrative into the collective conscience of their nation. This need not be written from scratch.
Appeal to emotions, not rationality
Winning the hearts and minds of your audience is, according to Westen, about appealing to the values that unite us with poetry and purpose, not statistics and evidence.
That means that when you’re running for public office you should do so on values and principles, not issues. For example, we on the left don’t stand against the death penalty because it’s been proven as ineffective as a deterrent to crime. We’re against it because when an individual commits a wrongful act, society must act responsibility and justly. Society needs to be better than the individual.
One of the greatest political ads of all time is Reagan’s ‘Morning Again’, a minute-long homage to the American Dream. As you watch it, make note of the subtle biases throughout, and the way the director endeavours to appeal to you emotionally with cinematic and narrative devices.
After several decades of unsuccessful appeals to the rational mind of the electorate, Democrats have aspired to create more vivid emotional appeals. As a tactic it’s proving popular, with Democrats becoming increasingly aware that talking emotively doesn’t just firm up support from your base, but also allows you to access new emotional constituencies - those of independent swing voters.
When attacked, fight back
When an opposition campaign makes an erroneous assertion about you, or attempts to frame an issue in a way you vehemently disagree with, don’t shy away - confront the issue. Democrats have historically buried their heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of abortion or gun control for fear of offending voters, or antagonising the GOP’s conservative base.
Westen suggests that this is not a smart thing to do. Conceding issues like abortion and gun control creates what he calls a low information rationality in voters, meaning that the more the left shy away from contesting issues at the top of the information chain (against the GOP), the less likely voters are to contest them at the bottom. That’s why it’s incredibly important to provide an emotionally compelling counter-narrative.
In the book, Westen points to the 2006 Senatorial campaign in Virginia - Senator George Allen (Republican) VS Jim Webb (Democrat). On the campaign, Allen endeavoured to ridicule one of Webb’s members of staff, who happened to be of Indian decent. Allen ‘welcomed’ the man to Virginia and called him ‘Macaca’, a derogatory variation of the word ‘Macaque’, a type of monkey.
The press picked up the story and played it endlessly on local news channels, resulting in a dramatic poll dive for the Republican Senator. However, the Democratic challenger, Webb, failed to make this major campaign gaff an electoral campaign issue. Such a failure was it on the part of Webb’s campaign to fight back that Allen managed to claw back voters, almost resulting in him keeping his seat. As it turned out, Webb won the seat by 0.4% of a whisker, (49.6% to Allen’s 49.2%). Interestingly, six years on somehow Allen has managed to stay in the political game. In the latest Marist poll he trails Democrat Tim Kaine by 6 percentage points.
The key thing to remember here is that people look to opinion leaders to tell them how to think and feel about issues, and unless the left are willing to make a stand on the politically sensitive issues, they’ll continue to lose not just the argument, but votes and elections, too.
Get the book. The Political Brain is both comprehensive and accessible, providing us passage through the bizarre political archipelago that is American electoral history.
Essential reading for anyone with political aspirations, this book bridges the gaps between campaign strategy, political science and cognitive psychology. It also proves relentless in its mockery of failed candidates and their campaigns, which to the delight of any reader, makes it both academic and hilarious. Enjoy.