Tuesday, July 17, 2007

It's the Emotion, Stupid!?

Will Drew Westen succeed George Lakoff as the new "guru" of the Democratic Party or is it just another unfortunate case of confusing tactics with strategy? Now that Lakoff supposedly has taught all Democrats how to properly "frame" issues, is it time now for them to learn how to talk more emotionally and passionately about issues as a new strategy and not just as a different way of talking about issues, as USA Today put it rather bluntly (see below)?

Drew Westen's new book, published in late June, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, is getting a lot of attention these days; some even hail it as some sort of panacea for Democrats. However, there are also some important criticisms.

Iterestingly, the original subtitle apparently was meant to be "How People Vote, and How to Change Their Minds," which of course sounds much less grandiose, if not to say dramatic, than the subtitle that was eventually chosen. Perhaps this illustrates the very message of the book, to use more emotionally appealing language. But perhaps the original subtitle more precisely expresses its purpose.

Westen is a psychologist at Emory, a guest blogger at HuffPost, and the founder of Westen Strategies, a consulting firm with the motto "Persuasion is about Networks and Narratives."

This motto is also the main thesis of his book. Essentially, Westen claims, Democrats have operated for too long with the wrong theory of mind. According to Westen, the mind is not disapassionate but passionate. Voters are primarily driven by emotions, and Democrats need to adjust their rhetoric accordingly in order to win elections. The brain is a highly complex network of associations, and Democrats have to articulate the kinds of narratives that most effectively activate those networks that get them elected. Democrats need to learn how to use a new language, one that is less laden with arguments, stats and facts, and instead filled with more emotion and passion. In short, Democrats have to become less intellectual and more passionate in their public rhetoric, especially on the campaign trail.

There are some rave reviews of Westen's book out there, with no shortage of superlatives. Some even suggest that all Democrats have to do is to read and act on this book, and the country will be theirs. See, this is how easy (electoral) strategy has become. So what's all the debate about? Just read the book and you are all set:
This is the most interesting, informative book on politics I've read in many years. - Bill Clinton
In 2008 we will win the presidency if our candidate reads and acts on this book. - Howard Dean
The Political Brain is the most illuminating book on contemporary American politics I've ever (my emphases) read. By explaining how voters actually process information, Drew Westen lays bare the connection between political technique, political conviction, and the Democrats' habit of bungling winnable elections. If every leading Democratic politician reads this book, we could have a decent America back. - Robert Kuttner
Praising the journal he writes for, Ezra Klein of the The American Propect says that Westen was "largely discovered" by Kuttner, who according to USA Today, also introduced him to key Democrats. Moreover, as Klein points out, it was the Prospect that first popularized Westen's work.

According to an article in USA Today, whose title summarizes Westen's book rather nicely, "Democrats get advice on how to talk about issues," Westen is also working with the progressive think tank, Third Way (see previous post), on a "strategy memo" (my emphasis), to get candidates to focus less on what they are saying and more on how voters understand what they are saying.

This is very similar to the main recommendation in Frank Luntz's new book, "
Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear." Luntz, a communications "strategist," has been a longtime advisor of Newt Gingrich and other Republicans.

I highlight how the term "strategy" is used because I find it problematic. In very widespread usage, certainly in mainstream media and political discourse, it is consistently confused with tactics. This is not only a matter of semantics. The fact that not even this most basic distinction is made reflects the rather mediocre state of strategic political reflection, especially when compared with much more advanced strategic thinking in military or business affairs. This fundamental problem is compounded when one takes the interdependence, divergence and variation of means and ends into consideration.

In any case, so if Westen's insights and recommendations are of such crucial importance for Demcrats, how come no less a commentator than Kevin Drum, in one of the earliest reviews of the book, formulates what seems to be a rather devastating critique of Westen's book that - if correct - would severely limit its applicability:
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. (my emphasis) Even the wingiest of the wingnuts doing their late-night CSPAN schticks don't give speeches as aggressive as Westen's.

So, is that the case? Is Westen going too far? Is the rhetoric he recommends excessively emotional, to the point of making it impractical? If so, would that really be a problem? Isn't there much more that Democrats need to do in order to not only win elections, but make policies genuinely and lastingly - and I would be tempted to say: progressively - more progressive? After all, according to many progressives, the realization of the Clinton/Gore slogan, "It's the Economy, Stupid!," did not go far enough. How far will and can the new slogan go, "It's the Emotion, Stupid!"?

For the answer to that question depends on where you want to go, not only on how to get there. Strategy asks, are we doing the right things? Tactics only asks, are we doing things right? Again, as we find so often in these pages, how you get there depends on where you want to go. In other words, strategies vary according to ultimate objectives, and these continue to diverge between and among progressives and Democrats. How far can "we" go, with or without Westen?

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