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Dissecting the Political Brain of David Brooks

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If I hadn't known what to expect from the title ("Stop Making Sense"), I could guess from the well crafted first sentence, with all the resonance of the opening lines of a Dickens novel: "Between 2000 and 2006, a specter haunted the community of fundamentalist Democrats. Members of this community looked around and observed their moral and intellectual superiority."

By this point I could guess that "the worst of times" in this tale about my recently published book was not going to be preceded by "the best of times." In fact, the times only got worse: "Serious thinkers set to work, and produced a long shelf of books answering this question. Their answers tended to rely on similar themes. First, Democrats lose because they are too intelligent. Their arguments are too complicated for American voters. Second, Democrats lose because they are too tolerant. They refuse to cater to racism and hatred. Finally, Democrats lose because they are not good at the dark art of politics. Republicans, though they are knuckle-dragging simpletons when it comes to policy, are devilishly clever when it comes to electioneering."

So began conservative commentator David Brooks' review of my book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. It was well suited, I thought, for the National Review and other humor magazines, but alas, it was in a different venue, the New York Times Book Review, which, under the direction of a right-wing book editor, is increasingly publishing reviews from conservative commentators of books written from the left, essentially jamming the radar of readers who can no long tell from reviews in the prestigious newspaper whether a book is not worth reading or a reviewer is not worth reading.

As Brooks tells it, my central thesis is that the way to win elections is through "crude emotional outbursts," which makes him wonder aloud how I might explain why Howard Dean didn't win the 2004 Democratic primary election against the more emotionally subdued John Kerry. Of course, he wouldn't have had to wonder if he'd gone to the index and found the cleverly-concealed entry under "Dean, Howard." (Perhaps he was confused when he didn't see it under the Hs.)

After caricaturing my argument (which actually has very little to do with the emotions politicians display, except to the extent that their facial displays affect the emotions they elicit), he offers a rhetorical question to make his own counter-argument: "[I]s it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th century because they were right about the big issues -- the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq?

Brooks' simple counter-argument seems "fair and balanced" -- giving the left its due, giving the right its due, so now we can all play squash together. It seems that way, of course, until you think about it for a moment. His answer to a 400-plus-page empirical argument against precisely his thesis (the data for which he never mentions or refutes) is that Democrats won in the 1960s because they were right about civil rights (although that's that's not my recollection -- as I recall, their stance on civil rights cost them a few hundred electoral votes since the 1960s, with some help from a number of well-crafted Republican phrases such as "able bodied welfare loafers" and images of dashing young men like "Willie" Horton); that Democrats lost after an unrivaled period of prosperity and growth in the 2000 election because... (I'm not sure how to finish that sentence); and that they won in 2006 because suddenly the Iraq War took a turn for the worse after being such a smashing success in 2004. And just to set the record straight, under threat of being accused of "giving aid and comfort to the enemy," Democrats actually voted for the Iraq War Resolution in 2002, not against it.

But I thought it might be interesting to test my alternative theory -- that the words, imagery, and neural networks we activate in people's minds influence what they believe and feel and ultimately how they vote -- by examining Brooks' review itself. If clever rhetorical devices, particularly those that cross the line into deception, are irrelevant to people's judgments of the substance of an argument, we wouldn't expect to see them in a review designed to illuminate the substance of a book. So let's take a close look at Brooks lays out his argument and the kind of language he uses.

Consider the following passage:

Westen begins by noting that recent research has shot holes through the theory of the dispassionate rational mind that emerged from the 18th-century Enlightenment. People rely upon emotion to drive the decision-making process and reach conclusions that make them feel good.

Reason and rationality, therefore, play a limited role in political decisions. "The dispassionate mind of the 18th-century philosophers," Westen says, "allows us to predict somewhere between 0.5 and 3 percent of the most important political decisions people will make over the course of their lives."

"Westen says" here is an interesting word choice. It implies mere opinion, as if I were picking numbers out of the air. What Brooks doesn't mention is that I was summarizing the data from a series of scientific studies that actually allowed us to quantify the extent to which "objective facts" -- or "substance," as he would put it -- had influenced public opinion in some of the most politically important moments of our lifetimes, such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton and judgments about whether Al Gore or George Bush had won the 2000 election. In both of these cases, the vast majority of partisans -- both the everyday citizens we studied and members of Congress and the Supreme Court -- managed to reason to conclusions that exquisitely matched what they wanted to believe.

Brooks continues his account:

[Westen] then goes on to assert that Democrats have been losing because they have been appealing to the rational part of the mind. They issue laundry lists of policies and offer arguments with evidence. They don't realize how the images they are presenting set off emotional cues that undermine their own campaigns.

For example, the right side of John Edwards's mouth tends to curl up. "Humans innately dislike facial asymmetries," Westen observes, "and this should have caught the eye of his advisers." In Connecticut, Ned Lamont ran a commercial showing Joe Lieberman morphing into George Bush, but in the ad Lieberman was smiling. "Smiling faces innately activate parts of the brain (and facial mimicry on the part of the observer) that reinforce happiness, not distaste."

Well, that sounds pretty trivial, doesn't it? Curling asymmetries, smiling faces? And it probably would be trivial if it weren't part of a broader argument that included dozens of other examples of the complex ways our minds and brains are governed by networks of associations--thoughts, feelings, memories, and images that are woven together through experience -- and how evoking one network or another can change the way voters think and feel about an issue. For example, Brooks doesn't mention my dissection of the orchestrated campaign now-Senator Bob Corker and the Republic National Committee ran against black Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. in the Tennessee Senate race in 2006. In that campaign, an ad showing a scantily clad (or unclad -- you couldn't tell because of the way the image was -- accidentally? -- cropped) blonde sex kitten crowed, "I met Harold at the Playboy party!" All the while, Corker was on the stump, asking which of the two men was the "real Tennessean." The answer, by the way, was that they were both "real Tennesseans," one from Memphis and the other from Chattanooga. The goal, of course, was to get white voters to think about which of them was really "one of us." And funny how that ad just happened to activate latent networks about predatory, hypersexual black men who want our white women.

But Brooks himself offers a striking example of the activation of networks for the purpose of creating a false impression:

Westen urges Democratic candidates to go for the gut, and includes a number of speeches that he wishes Democratic candidates had given. He wishes, for example, Al Gore had hit George Bush harder for being a drunk. He wishes Gore had interrupted a presidential debate and barked at Bush, "If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn't a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father's own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings."

At another point, he imagines Gore exploding: "Why don't you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbors' kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk." If Democrats would go for people's primitive passions in this way, Westen argues, they'd win elections.

What Brooks knows as a writer is that the way you contextualize a passage has everything to do with the impression readers take away from it. Reading these quotes -- as woven together with colorful phrases such as "He wishes Gore had interrupted a presidential debate and barked at Bush [emphasis added], "he imagines Gore exploding [emphasis added], and later, "the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends" [emphasis added] -- the reader would have the distinct impression that I thought Gore should have repeatedly and viciously attacked Bush for his history of alcoholism. I happen to know that he was successful in leaving this impression in readers who hadn't read the book, because several of them emailed me to tell me why they thought attacking a recovered alcoholic would have been a terrible idea -- something no one who has read what I wrote in context -- including Bill Clinton, who found the same passages Brooks uses as negative examples particularly compelling -- came away thinking I was advocating.

So let's take a look at what I actually said. Here is the first passage, where I would, according to Brooks, have had Gore "interrupt a presidential debate" to "bark," seemingly unprovoked, about Bush's alcoholism:

In 2000, Gore faced what he and his advisors perceived to be a dilemma. The country had just gone through a year of scandals leading up to the impeachment trial of an otherwise very popular president...The question Gore and his advisors asked and answered to their own satisfaction reflected the kind of one-dimensional thinking we have seen repeatedly in Democratic campaigns. Is Clinton an asset or a liability to the Gore campaign? Is he a positive or a negative?

...The problem, though, was not the answer at which Gore and his advisors arrived but the question itself. Had they understood emotional associations, they would have asked a very different question: given that Clinton and Gore are inextricably linked in people's minds, how do we activate the positive associations people have formed to Bill Clinton over eight years and reinforce those links to Gore, and how do we inhibit the associations between Clinton's personal scandals and Gore's personal attributes?

Had they asked this question, they wouldn't have conceded all claims to the accomplishments of the Clinton-Gore years (and thus enjoyed none of the positive associations) while simultaneously tying their hands against all attacks for fear of invoking Clinton's name (accruing every negative association George W. Bush and Karl Rove threw at them).

Asked this way -- as a question about how to manage voters' ambivalence toward Bill Clinton the president and Bill Clinton the womanizer -- the answer is obvious. And the answer would have set Gore free at the start of the election or the first time Bush telegraphed that he intended to make the election a referendum on "character." The character charge made heavy use of guilt by association, essentially saying, "We need to restore integrity to the Oval Office" -- the room associated in people's minds with the Lewinsky scandal. Although Bush mentioned fund-raising "scandals" (such as the use of White House phone lines for campaign phone calls), those were just the conscious overlay, which had little emotional power on their own. The real message was that Clinton's sexual escapades had tarnished the dignity of the presidency, and what Bush-Rove hoped to do was to cast a wide associative net with "character" and "integrity" that would blur the lines between Clinton's personal indiscretion and Gore's integrity.

Unfortunately, blinded by his anger and feelings of betrayal, and surrounded by advisers either deaf to the rising character crescendo or unable to imagine a way to bring the concerto to a close, Gore let the charge fester. To answer it, he would have had to utter Clinton's name. He and his advisers seemed to think that if they just didn't talk about Clinton, the association would go away.

But as has been the case every time Democrats have turned to avoidance as a campaign strategy, the strategy backfired, for two very important reasons. First, whether Gore liked it or not, he was inextricably linked associatively to Clinton. He was Clinton's vice president for eight years, and their names appeared in two election cycles on bumper stickers as "Clinton-Gore." You can't get much more associated than that. Second, the other side was talking about Clinton, referring constantly to Clinton-Gore, and doing everything they could to create a network around "character" and "integrity" that made Clinton and Gore partners in crime.

Gore simply ceded the networks, allowing Bush to tell whatever stories he wanted about Clinton-Gore's integrity because Gore didn't want to mention that he had been Clinton's vice president. The irony is that although Clinton's poll numbers were low for personal integrity, his numbers were high for overall job performance -- remarkably high for a president who had spent eight years dealing with well-financed right-wing efforts to destroy him, supplemented by the Starr inquisition, financed handsomely by fifty million in American tax dollars.

So imagine if Gore had responded the first time Bush first uttered any words vaguely insinuating character issues with something like this:

George Bush wants to make character an issue in this election. Governor, I wouldn't go there if I were you because it's not exactly your strong suit.

But let me say something about Bill Clinton, so the American people know exactly where I stand.

No one in America, not you, not me, not Bill Clinton, is proud of what happened between him and Monica Lewinsky. A day doesn't go by that he doesn't think about the pain he caused his family, knowing that every time Chelsea turned on the television set for a year all she heard about was her father's affair. We are all well aware of the pain he and an out-of-control Republican Congress, determined to destroy the president no matter who they had to take down with him or how much filth they had to expose our children tfo on the evening news, caused this nation.

Am I proud of what Bill Clinton did with his personal life? Of course not. But I'll tell you what I am proud of.

I'm proud of what Bill Clinton and I have accomplished together over the last eight years. We began with an economy in disarray, left that way by Mr. Bush's father. We were deep into a recession that was costing Americans their jobs, with a federal government out of control, spending your grandchildren's money by the bushel, running up enormous deficits.

Now look where we are today. We've created millions of jobs, we've cut unemployment to historic lows, we've put a hundred thousand new police on our streets protecting our children, we've cut the number of people on welfare by more than half, and on top of that, we balanced the budget for the first time in thirty years. We've cut the numbers of abortions for the first time in twenty-five years, and we've given every woman in the United States the right to stay home for three months with her new baby without fear of losing her job. We've taken guns out of the hands of criminals while protecting the rights of hunters, and we've dramatically cut the crime rate.

If that isn't a record to be proud of, I don't know what is.

So Mr. Bush, let me give you a little word of advice. If I were you, I don't think I'd make integrity and values your campaign theme. If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn't a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father's own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings. If you want to be president, you're going to need to convince the American people that they should abandon everything Bill Clinton and I did that has made Americans safe, secure, and prosperous again, and instead vote for a man whose biggest concern seems to be that the yacht tax is too high.

Had Gore begun his campaign that way, he would have made clear that what united him and Clinton was not Clinton's handling of Monica Lewinsky but their administration's handling of the country. As importantly, he would have warned Bush and Rove that if they took off the gloves about character, so would Gore. The way you respond to your opponent's first attacks sends a crucial signal not just to the public but to the other campaign. A weak response does nothing but embolden the opposition. And a swift response to the character issue that included a brief reference to Bush's own moral failings would have prevented Bush, and ultimately the media, from framing the campaign as a contest between a man with questionable integrity and a man with questionable experience and intellect. Americans don't care much about experience and intellect, but they do care about integrity.

Unless Brooks is reading subliminal messages in my words that I can't see, I don't hear anything about interrupting a debate or barking. Nor do I hear anything about carping repeatedly on Bush's drinking. The comment about Bush's drinking is contextualized in a much broader story that has very little to do with his history of alcoholism.

It is difficult to see in Brooks' depiction of what I wrote anything other than the kind of deliberate deception we have seen repeatedly from the current administration, and precisely the kind of emotionally charged use of language (e.g., "interrupt," "bark") that, Brooks argues, has no sway on people's minds. If such language has no utility, it's odd that he chose to use it -- and to use it in precisely the deceptive ways I describe in the book as having no place in American political discourse.

I will not walk readers through the other example in which Brooks has me advising Gore to "explode" at Bush about his drunkenness, but will instead refer readers to the relevant passages (pp.125-131). I leave it to readers to judge whether they hear barking and carping about drunkenness as a central theme -- central enough that Brooks returns to it later in the review:

This thesis raises some interesting questions. First, why did someone with so little faith in rational inquiry go into academia, and what does he do to those who disagree with him at Emory faculty meetings, especially recovering alcoholics?

This is a beautifully constructed ad hominem attack (he comes back one more time to the Emory Psychology Department before the piece is over), because it uses humor to cover its ad hominem nature. Interestingly, this is just the kind of negative appeal I describe in the book that Brooks believes is inert. Yet clearly here the aim is to lead the reader, once again, to believe that my central argument is that Democrats should use crude, below-the-belt, unprovoked attacks to win elections, and that I lack both the scientific and the moral authority to be taken seriously. In this passage, he subtly suggests that I would advocate attacking people who are vulnerable (because now the alcoholics are recovering, not, like Bush, recovered -- activating a network suggesting a heartless person who would pick on someone trying to set himself on the right path -- not really the right analogy for Bush in either 2000 or 2004, who relentlessly attacked the character of both of his opponents) and would have no qualms about destroying anyone in my way in an academic argument.

Brooks' rhetorical question about why someone with so little faith in rational inquiry would go into academia is similarly designed to persuade readers that they know all they need to know about this book and have heard all they need to hear from this author, who is clearly some kind of crude Neanderthal who somehow missed not only the Enlightenment but the dawn of Homo sapiens. (Why he is asking a rhetorical question when the substance, not the rhetoric, is what matters is unclear.) Readers wouldn't know, from this description, that the book opens with a description of my research team's study of how the brain actually operates when partisans are presented with emotionally threatening information about their candidate, or that its pages are filled with descriptions of scientific studies -- among them, studies showing that the most important influences on voting behavior are emotional, studies Brooks neither mentions nor attempts to refute.

Let's take one final example:

The core problem with Westen's book is that he doesn't really make use of what we know about emotion. He builds on the work of Antonio Damasio, without applying Damasio's conception of how emotion emerges from and contributes to reason.

In this more sophisticated view, emotions are produced by learning. As we go through life, we learn what cause leads to what effect. When, later on, we face similar situations, the emotions highlight possible outcomes, drawing us toward some actions and steering us away from others.

I have to admit that I wasn't sure what to make of this criticism. As someone who has contributed to the scientific literature on emotion and its relation to cognition for over 20 years (which happened to be a central focus of my first book, Self and Society, published in 1985), I don't remember the last time a journalist told me that I should make use of what "we" know about emotion and that if I, too, just read an occasional book by Damasio, I could share Brooks' "more sophisticated view." But Brooks' admonition was perplexing in another sense, as it made me wonder again whether he'd even read the book or had instead just relied on the salon chatter of his conservative colleagues. It's difficult to imagine that he did, in fact, read the book in light of the following passage, which followed a chapter describing the co-evolution of reason and emotion in the brain and another describing how reason and emotion interact in the political brain:

The vision of mind, brain, and emotion I have presented in this chapter and the last is very different from the vision that has dominated much of Western thinking about judgment, decision making, and political behavior over the last three centuries. Emotions provide a "compass" that leads us toward and away from things, people, or actions associated with positive or negative states. Organisms survived for millions of years without consciousness and without the faculty philosophers have extolled for 2,500 years as "reason." They learned to avoid aversive stimuli and seek rewarding ones, and it is the ancestors of those primitive organisms--including ourselves--who survived, reproduced, and exist today. With the evolution of our most refined neural circuitry came not only our capacity for reason but also our capacity to be guided by rich, complex, emotional-laden networks...

If Brooks wants to write a snide, dismissive review of a book in the New York Times, I suggest next time he read it first, so that he can tailor his snideness to the substance. And next time he wants to undermine a book, I recommend that he not illustrate its central thesis through his own words.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

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