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Hearts before minds, he tells Democrats

A brain researcher says the party needs to tap voters' emotions to win.

July 09, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Drew Westen, a genial 48-year-old psychologist and brain researcher, was talking to a rapt liberal audience about the role of emotion in politics, how to talk back aggressively to Republicans, and why going negative is not to be feared.

It was Day 2 of the progressive "Take Back America" confab, and those who had crowded into a meeting room of the Washington Hilton were about to discover why Westen, a psychology professor at Atlanta's Emory University and former associate professor at Harvard Medical School, had quietly become the great rumpled hope of Democrats who believe their candidates should have won the last two presidential elections.

Example: When President Bush recently refused to allow Karl Rove to testify under oath about his role in the sacking of federal prosecutors, Westen said, Democrats blundered. Instead of insisting Rove testify under oath, they simply should have said (over and over), "Mr. Bush, just what is it about 'So help me God' that you find so offensive?"

Westen has spent many years training psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, and his major brush with fame before now had been the occasional commentary on National Public Radio. In the last several months, though, he has gone from a politically inclined nobody to a hot ticket, presenting his ideas to presidential campaigns, political strategists, pollsters, consultants and donors. In his work, they hope to find a grand unified theory of How Democrats Can Stop Blowing It.

In his new book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," Westen, who is not affiliated with a particular candidate, lays out his argument that Democrats must connect emotionally with the American electorate -- and that he can teach them how.

He writes that when Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts let a Swift-boat veterans group drag his reputation through the mud (2004), when Al Gore put a nation to sleep with his talk of lockboxes and Medicare actuaries (2000), and when Michael S. Dukakis said he didn't believe in the death penalty even in the event of his wife's rape and murder (1988), Democrats were exhibiting their single worst tendency: intellectual dispassion.

That style is ballot-box poison, said Westen. "The political brain is an emotional brain," he said. "It prefers conclusions that are emotionally satisfying rather than conclusions that match the data."

When Westen and his Emory colleagues conducted brain scans during the 2004 presidential campaign, they found that partisans of either side, when presented with contradictory statements by their preferred candidates, would struggle for some seconds with feelings of discomfort, then resolve the matter in their candidates' favor.

The scans showed that to do this, they used the part of their brain that controls emotion and conflict. The area that controls reasoning was inactive -- "the dead zone," Westen said.

Westen writes that it doesn't make sense to argue an issue using facts and figures and to count on voters -- particularly the swing voters who decide national elections -- to make choices based on sophisticated understandings of policy differences or procedures. He says Democratic candidates must learn to do what Republicans have understood for many years -- they must appeal to emotions. And (talking to you, Mr. Gore) stay away from numbing statistics.

"This is the best thing I have read in 30 years," said Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine, and the man most responsible for Westen's rise. "This is the book that should have been written a long time ago on why Democrats blow winnable elections. Even when public opinion is on their side, they don't know how to optimize that."

Kuttner learned of Westen last year from mutual friends while Westen was still working on his manuscript. Westen sent Kuttner a few chapters, and the magazine editor flipped. "I told him, 'Fasten your seat belt; you're going to be a rock star,' " Kuttner said.

It has been, Westen admitted, the sort of wild ride an academic like him usually only dreams about.

Kuttner organized gatherings -- in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Berkeley -- to introduce Westen to influential Democrats. The first took place in September in Washington.

Guy Molyneux, a pollster with Hart Research Associates, was there, and recalled being impressed but not bowled over. "He says a candidate should be authentic but also speak to these more emotional concerns, and I don't know if Drew fully appreciates the extent to which that advice may conflict," Molyneux said. "If your candidate is a policy wonk" -- like Al Gore -- "to some extent that's going to come through to voters."

After hearing Westen speak at Stanley Sheinbaum's Brentwood home at an American Prospect event, Democratic activists and donors Jamie McGurk (wife of former MGM honcho Chris McGurk) and Victoria Hopper (wife of actor Dennis Hopper) adopted him.

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