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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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To win, Dems must fight
Winning elections is about influencing voters, which is easier to do emotionally than rationally.
By ROBYN BLUMNER
Published July 22, 2007
Democrats finally have a prophet who can lead them to the promised land of winning national elections, and his prescription is simple: Fight Back, Dadgummit.
Okay, it's not quite that simple, but nearly so. In one exceptionally clear 400-page volume, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, lays out everything that Democrats have been doing wrong. He explains it all in neuroscientific terms according to what regions of the brain control political decisionmaking, but it comes down to this. In election after election, Democrats have been appealing to the dispassionate, rational, fact-sensitive voter. A being, apparently, who doesn't exist.
According to The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, winning elections is all about influencing feelings and emotions. Westen says bringing more passion into politics requires the use of storytelling narratives and other emotional cues that powerfully engage those circuits of the brain that recruit and reinforce beliefs.
Democrats keep losing presidential campaigns, not because the issues they stand for are unappealing, but because they tend to structure their campaigns to engage the brain's reasoning centers. And that just doesn't cut the synaptic mustard.
The results speak for themselves. In most polls Americans are demonstrably more supportive of the Democratic agenda, yet somehow Republicans keep winning.
The most blatant example of an emotionally dead campaign was that moment during the 1988 presidential debates when moderator Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife.
"No, I don't, Bernard," Dukakis responded. "I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."
As Westen writes, Dukakis answered in the language of "rational utility," describing his concerns for the death penalty's deterrent value. But the average listener heard a different question. They heard Shaw ask Dukakis, "Are you a man?" The answer was a resounding "no."
Democrats have unilaterally disarmed like this by insisting on taking the high road and focusing on policy, fact and expertise, while Republicans willingly use unconscious emotional cues such as race baiting (Willie Horton, states' rights, etc.) to win by any means.
Westen says Democrats should not dip into such unethical waters, but they should not shy away from negative campaigning - giving voters reasons to be wary of the opponent. He says that positive and negative associations engage different parts of the brain and no campaign should cede half this neurological territory.
Another way Democrats disarm is by failing to "dignify" attacks. When an attack is greeted with silence, the punch will leave a lingering impression that the candidate may not be able to overcome.
During the presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush whether there were character differences between himself and Gore. Bush responded by raising the specter of fundraising improprieties by Gore at a Buddhist temple and suggesting that the Lincoln bedroom was offered as a prize to big dollar donors while Gore was vice president. (Westen says the use of "Lincoln bedroom" also allowed Bush to draw unconscious associations with sexual improprieties in the White House.)
Gore's response was: "I think we ought to attack our country's problems, not attack each other. I want to spend my time making this country even better than it is, not trying to make you out to be a bad person."
By not parrying the attack, Westen says that Gore demonstrated a weakness that resonated particularly with Southern men, who more aggressively respond to any slight of honor. (Physiological tests prove it.) Maybe that is why Gore didn't carry a single state of the former Confederacy, not even his own.
Here is Westen's proposed rejoinder for Gore:
"Governor ... You have attacked my honor and integrity in front of my family, the people of my home state of Tennessee, and millions of my fellow Americans. So I think it's time to teach you a few old-fashioned lessons about character.
"When I enlisted to fight in the Vietnam War, you were talkin' real tough about Vietnam. But when you got the call, you called your daddy and begged him to pull some strings so you wouldn't have to go to war. So instead of defending your country with honor, you put some poor Texas mill worker's kid on the front line in your place to get shot at.
"Where I come from, we call that a coward."
I'm guessing that Southern men might have perked up after this.
Voters don't want to be inundated with facts, they want to be awash in feelings. Voting is emotional, not cognitive, Westen says.
Yes, this is distressing to hear. But it is a fact that Democrats need to fully appreciate and start acting on, if they want a fighting chance for the presidency.