The Political Brain

THE POLITICAL BRAIN….I finished reading Drew Westen’s The Political Brain last night. I was, no pun intended, of two minds about it.

First the good news: Westen spends about the first hundred pages telling us that voters respond mostly to emotion, not to facts or policies, and Democrats need to figure this out stat. I’m not sure he really had to spend a hundred pages on this, but who knows? Maybe Democrats really are so clueless that they need to be hit over the head with this. It’s good advice in any case.

Unfortunately, Westen then falls into the same traps that George Lakoff falls into. First, he uses his position as a clinical psychologist to pretend that the advice he’s offering is based on some kind of deep understanding of how the brain works. For the most part, though, it’s really not, no matter how many times he tosses off the phrase “activating a network.” There are a few nods here and there to brain research — some of which is genuinely interesting — but the bulk of the book is just Westen offering advice the same way any political consultant offers advice. This spurious appeal to authority probably shouldn’t bug me as much as it does, but there you have it. It bugs me.

Second, Westen spends a good part of the book presenting faux speeches he wishes various Democratic politicians had given. His instinct is that any attack should be met by a quick and ferocious counterattack, an instinct that will certainly play well in the blogosphere. The problem is that his made-up speeches are practically parodies. They’re so insanely belligerent that no politician in his right mind would give them. Even the wingiest of the wingnuts doing their late-night CSPAN schticks don’t give speeches as aggressive as Westen’s.

This is all especially weird considering his poll-driven approach to hot-button social issues. Here, for example, is his proposed Democratic position on abortion:

Abortion is a difficult and often painful decision for a woman to make. It’s a decision only she can make, based on the dictates of her own conscience and faith, not on the dictates of someone else’s. But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest, or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can, so she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person.

I dunno. This doesn’t sound very different from the usual liberal spiel, and it certainly doesn’t provide much guidance once you start poking around and asking real-world questions. What about IDX abortion? Parental notification? Foreign aid restrictions? I don’t see how Westen’s carefully constructed statement really helps much here.

So: Westen has good instincts (pay attention to emotion, construct a narrative, hit your opponent first before your opponent hits you, and for God’s sake hit back if your opponent does hit first), but you’d be best off skipping lightly over the specific examples of political advice he offers up. Caveat emptor.