Friday, May 14, 2010


Emory psychology professor Drew Westen's book The Political Brain holds little scientific or intellectual interest. The overview of the psychology of political thought is interesting, but brief. Westen instead devotes himself to the creation of a political handbook for Democratic political candidates, interlaced with partisan venom and hypocrisy. As a scientific work this book merits no attention. A number of basic factual errors, such as describing House Minority Leader John Boehner as a Senator, coupled with an obviously blind partisan loyalty raise doubts about the credibility of Westen's work where it does take an intellectual nature.

Rather, this book, which has positive reviews from both Bill Clinton and Howard Dean, is a worthwhile read because of the insight it offers into the (not so) hidden considerations that drive political culture. The Democrat's problem at the polls, Westen argues, is that they assume voters are rational and therefore run campaigns based on issues. Democrats have unfairly projected their own rationality onto the voters they hope to win over with disastrous results.

The book proposes following the Republicans, who are characterized as either evil or incompetent in holding office, but highly gifted at running for office, in abandoning all focus on substantive issues. Instead, Democrats should concentrate on making voters feeling good and smearing the other side. They need to adopt a compelling narrative that defines their message. Intelligent arguments, they must realize, are comprehensible only to elites. The common people must be pandered to with know nothing politics. The children's story The Little Engine That Could is the correct model for talking to voters, who are either too dumb or too emotional to grasp political issues.

Westen's skills as a propagandist and insights into the minds' of voters are debatable. The unintentional insights his book offers into the cynical and self-justifying world of the partisan ideologues who choreograph American political culture are not, and they make the book worthwhile for anyone with the patience and energy to endure an endless, partisan rant.


Don Emmerich said...

"The children's story The Little Engine That Could is the correct model for talking to voters, who are either too dumb or too emotional to grasp political issues."

As much as I hate to write this, I think that the author has a point here. Of course, I wouldn't say that voters are necessarily dumb; rather, they're too lazy, too obsessed with football, 'Dancing with the Stars,' and the like to understand any important politic issue.

Young Activist said...

Many voters certainly are apathetic, but I wonder how much of that is a product of their nature and how much of it of the apolitical media culture which this book argues is a positive development to be encouraged. Even among people who are interested in public affairs the reduction of political issues to sloganeering and personality means it is difficult to understand what is going on without extensive independent research.