Drew Westen: The Political Brain

Westen, Drew. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007)

Drew Westen's The Political Brain looks at, as the subtitle states, the role of emotion in politics:

The central thesis of this book is that the vision of the mind that has captured the imagination of philosophers, cognitive scientists, economists, and political scientists since the eighteenth century--a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions--bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. (p. ix, Introduction)

Westen also provides a warning of sorts for political junkies such as myself, writing that "Perhaps nowhere are emotion-driven cognitive distortions more obvious--and more potentially dangerous--than in political affairs." (p. 100) We should be wary of both exaggerating our own rationality and of denigrating "low-information voters" for their poor grasp of the facts. Westen notes that--in some respects--they are making a rational choice:

Political scientist (and sometimes-consultant) Samuel Popkin has argued that this tendency to play "follow the leader" is a sensible strategy for most voters, who have their own lives to lead and don't have the time or interest to study all the affairs of state. Accepting uncontested elite opinions represents a form of what Popkin calls "low-information rationality." If no one on either side of the aisle is contesting an issue at the top of the information chain, why would most voters, who have far less direct knowledge, contest it at the bottom? (p. 190)

Although Westen admits to being quite partisan ("I'm about as 'pro-Democratic' as they come," p. 186), he nonetheless reserves his toughest criticisms for his own party:

...the left has no brand, no counterbrand, no master narrative, no counternarrative. It has no shared terms or "talking points" for its leaders to repeat until they are part of our political lexicon. Instead, every Democrat who runs for office, every Democrat who offers commentary on television or radio, every Democrat who even talks with friends at the water cooler, has to reinvent what it means to be a Democrat, using his or her own words and concepts, as if the party had no history.

If this is how Coke marketed itself, we would all be drinking Pepsi. (p. 169)

Westen's observations are particularly strong in suggesting what Carter should have said to Reagan's appeal to "states' rights" racism in 1980 (pp. 162-3), what Gore should have said to Bush's no-gun-control argument in 2000 (pp. 200-1), a "Flag-Hiding Amendment" demand to stop sweeping the bodies of our military casualties under the media carpet (p. 262), Gore's response to the "integrity" slurs (pp. 313-5), Kerry's response to torture at Abu Ghraib (pp. 327-9), Kerry on "flip-flopping" (p. 342), and a response to AUMF (pp. 354-5) that gave cover to Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Westen's "networks" and "associations" are a strong complement to Lakoff's "frames" and "metaphors," and The Political Brain is a very worthwhile book. All praise aside, though, I do have two quibbles with Westen's book. The first is this passage:

"...what Karl Marx called 'false consciousness'..." (p. 122)

Marx does not appear to have used that phrase, which is correctly attributed to Friedrich Engels in his 14 July 1893 letter to Franz Mehring)

The second is this assertion:

"The presidential oath of office ends with the words, 'so help me God.'" (p. 388)

No, it doesn't; the oath from Article II, Section I of the Constitution contains no reference to a deity.

Westen has posted the book's endnotes online (PDF), a move which would have made more sense if they had taken up more than 54 pages; in a book that already exceeds 450 pages, would that extra paper really make much difference? (Don't get me wrong, though: I love having notes online, as they can be kept up-to-date--and utilized by researchers--much more easily.)


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