Political Brains, Red-Hot and Bluish

Why aren’t the Democrats winning hands down? A brilliant young psychologist thinks it's all in the brain–ours.

Some of my Democratic friends reading my blogs or listening to my occasional rants are starting to wonder which side I’m on. The fact is I have always voted Democratic and will do so in this election, but I am increasingly frustrated with my party.

The first presidential election I was able to vote in was in 1968, and in these 40 years, we won three out of ten, with two white men from the South each of whom had a seriously conservative streak in religious and/or economic terms.

My colleague and friend Drew Westen added another, more daunting statistic recently on C-SPAN, when he was talking about his fascinating book The Political Brain. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the number of Democrats who have been elected president twice is: One, Bill Clinton.

On the Republican side? Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 2. Now, suppress the impulse to explain what you thought of those gentlemen and what they did, and ask the question that matters: Why do the Republicans win? Why do they win, when Democrats have the right ideas? When Democrats better represent the interests of most Americans? When Democrats have had more officially registered voters for many years?

Drew Westen thinks he has the answer, and I think he is right. It’s not just the social issues that rally the base against abortion and gays, although that is part of it. So is the fear-mongering, the subtle or not-so-subtle racism, and the ”tax-and-spend-liberals” shibboleth.

But what ties all this together is: Republicans talk to the heart, Democrats talk to the brain. And talking to the heart almost always wins. Witness the man who won two of the three presidential elections won by Democrats, and the only Democrat elected president twice: Bill Clinton talked to the heart.

Jimmy Carter talked to the brain; he won once because he was a Southern Baptist and people were disgusted with the Nixon-Watergate debacle. He was smarter than Reagan, and so was Walter Mondale; they both lost. Michael Dukakis was smarter than George Bush senior. And to say that Gore and Kerry were both smarter than Shrub is the understatement of a generation.

What good did all those IQ points do us? They hurt more than they helped. Wonkiness almost always loses. Drew cites numerous studies that show what determines how people vote. Eighty percent of what motivates them is the feelings they have about the party the candidate belongs to. And most of the rest? The feelings they have about the candidate.

Way, way down the list of influences (statistically speaking) are the policies advocated by the candidates. So what do the Dems do? They come up with six-point plans for this and eight-point plans for that. Drew calls it “trickle-up politics”—they think that if they convince folks about their policies, the value of this bottom-of-the-list influence will somehow change what is most important to people: their feelings.

My astute psychologist-wife pointed out that the first eighty percent are already Republicans and Democrats, and in a sense they don’t matter—-only the independents do, and at that only in the swing states. But that is where the next fifteen or twenty percent come in, and they vote on their feelings for the candidates.

Now, Drew and I both understand that “the heart” is a metaphor; to us it means the emotional circuits of the brain—the limbic system, the orbital frontal cortex, and the right hemisphere. These are the highways of emotion in our fancy human brains, and without understanding them, we now know, we do not grasp or really command reason itself.

Republicans appeal directly to those parts of the brain. Sometimes it means fear-mongering. Sometimes it means going negative. But always, it means simple, direct words that arouse feelings.

In this election year we should be miles ahead. Two-thirds of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake and want to end it now. The economy’s gone from bad to worse, and now it’s a complete, certifiable shambles. Shrub has the worst approval rating in anybody’s memory; he's in a deepening hole and can’t stop digging.

Any expert will tell you a situation like this predicts a landslide for the party out of power. And what do we have? A dead heat. Obama’s gotten a bounce because Wall Street and Palin crashed at the same time. But with things as they are he should have an indelible lead, and he should have had it all along.

Part of it is racism. But there are other ways that people feel Obama is not like them. They hear about Harvard Law School and they listen to his elegant talk. They picture him sipping lattés in a Volvo while picking his kids up at private school, and it doesn’t matter whether he does or not. They follow to his long, well-crafted, intelligent sentences full of points and arguments, and their eyes glaze over.

Obama is still a likely victor, fortunately for the country and the world. But he needs to widen his margin. He will almost certainly suffer from the Bradley effect—the tendency for people to tell pollsters they will vote for the black candidate and do the opposite in the voting booth. He is also going to suffer a very severe wave of swift-boat and Willie-Horton-style attacks.

Will he respond in ways that Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry could not do? I hope so. But he needs to learn to speak to the hearts of ordinary Americans. He could do worse than give Drew Westen a call.


  1. Jack Davis says:

    “Obama is still a likely victor, fortunately for the country and the world.” I’m wondering how we know this statement to be true? I remained unconvinced. As a supporter of Israel, aren’t you worried about his biased statements such as: “No one has suffered more than the Palestinians.”

    I would also quarrel with this statement: “But what ties all this together is: Republicans talk to the heart, Democrats talk to the brain.” It seems Obama is talking to the heart more than the brain with his meaningless, repetitive calls for “change.” There is nothing intellectual about that. (I am not voting for either candidate).

    Jack D.

  2. Jack, I think you are right about Obama talking to the heart, and that is one of the reasons he won. As you may know, I’ve expressed my reservations about him in several blogs on my other website, http://www.jewsandothers.com,
    where I try to write from a Jewish perspective. Truth be told, I also have reservations about him from an American perspective–I don’t yet know that he will be good for our country in a dangerous world. But I voted for him because on balance I believe he will be good for the world, and because the very fact that he could be elected says much about the meaning of democracy, which finally–as this election proves–is taken more seriously in the United States than in any other place on earth.

Leave a Reply