Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Most Ridiculous Story Of The Year? (3)

Fast on the heels of our second nominee for Most Ridiculous Story of the Year comes This is Your Brain on Politics, by Sharon Begley, an opinion writer for Newsweek.

It definitely fits the rules for a nomination: Entries must be work that serious writers present in all seriousness that goes far, far beyond the sublime and settle heavily into the imbecilic.

The piece is actually a review of a book by Drew Westen of Emory University, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” I don't disagree with Westen's s central finding as enunciated by Begley, which is that in the mechanics of opinion-formation, emotion trumps rationality. I see it daily in my work, which basically involves the formation and changing of public opinion, where rational approaches work, but take time to work. Emotional approaches are the microwave ovens of public opinion formation.

Granted, my agreement with Westen ends at the statement of his hypothesis. I find the illustrations he uses preposterous, like this one:
“People were drawn to Reagan [in the 1980 presidential race] because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions.”
People had just seen what a liberal Democrat could destroy in just four years, so Reagan's rational connection was very strong. People liked what he said. Plain, sensible, strong, American, conservative values didn't just sound good after Carter; they rang the rational bells because it was easy to understand that Reagan made sense and Carter didn't.

Westen aside, Begley earned her nomination for the commentary she provided, since she used Westen's book as nothing more than a platform for her blind as a bat, emotionally over-amped Democratic bias.

I wasn't even on the second click when Begley stopped me in my tracks, looping me back for a re-read of this:
After reading [the book] you won’t be surprised that Westen has been approached by the campaigns of “several” Democratic hopefuls (he is too discrete to say which) for advice on how to make use of findings about how the brain operates in the political arena. Why aren’t Republicans beating a path to his door? Because the GOP has already mastered the dark art of psych-ops—of pushing the right buttons in people’s brains to win their vote.
Here I always thought the GOP was the boring party.

Isn't it the Dems who threaten seniors with impending starvation every election, cajoling them to vote Democratic because "the Republicans want to kill Social Security?" Have I ever heard a Republican say he wants to kill Social Security? No?

Isn't it the Dems who play the race card in every black precinct, saying the GOP wants to take away the black man's right to vote?

Isn't it the Dems who papered colleges across the country with scary tales about how the GOP would reinstate the draft? And wasn't it a certain Dem Congressman who actually submitted that particular bill?

Despite these convincing examples, Begley insists that the Dems just don't get the whole idea of making emotional appeals.
Instead, their strategists start from an 18th-century vision of the mind as dispassionate, making decisions by rationally weighing evidence and balancing pros and cons. That assumption is a recipe for high-minded campaigning—and, often, electoral failure.
Yeah, that sure paints a picture of the chairman of the Democratic party, Howard Dean. Dispassionate, rational, balanced. Chuck Schumer, Dennis Kucinich, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Waxman, Maxine Powers, Ted Kennedy -- yeah, they're all a bunch of wonks who are so lost in rational thought and couldn't make an emotional attack if they had to.

What's' interesting about Begley is that she's so emotion-driven herself, as is evident in this passage:
The same forces were at work in 2004, when pollsters found that voters in small-town America placed more weight on issues unlikely to directly affect their lives, such as terrorism and violent crime and gay marriage in Massachusetts, than on those that were, such as mine safety. Positions on issues matter to the extent they incite voters’ emotions.
Notice how the issues she feels are "unlikely to affect their lives" are GOP issues. The fact that Dem issues are likely to affect their lives -- higher taxes, more government, more welfare bums around town -- and the impact that has on voters seems to be lost on Begley.

She can't imagine the GOP issues affecting her life, so she emotionally concludes that everyone thinks like her. But in small town America, folks remember 9/11. They have sons and daughters in the military. They go to church and hold marriage in high esteem. And they care about Americans, even its crackpot big city intellectuals like Begley, so they don't want them to get blown up by a terrorist.

Where exactly she got "mine safety" as something people in small towns would be concerned about is pretty quaint.

Even her parentheticals are pathetic:
(In 2000 the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, famously hostile toward federal intervention in state matters, overturned the decision of the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore and put the former in the White House. Go figure.)
The Supreme Court is famously hostile toward federal intervention in state matters? Really? Could someone explain Roe v. Wade to me? Brown v. Board of Education? And it was mere emotions that drove a Supreme Court that did not yet have two Bush appointees on it to rule against Gore?

Wow. Go figure. But then, even with my understanding of how effective emotions are, I guess I'm just not getting the concept. As an experiment, let's try to keep the people out of it. Let's look at an initiative, like Arnold's package of infrastructure bonds last year in CA. Arnold's got a heck of a personality and he tried to emote like crazy all over these propositions.

But I considered them carefully and ended up voting for a couple and not voting for the rest. Begley doesn't think I could do that.
Because emotions are central to beliefs and values, if an appeal is purely rational it is unlikely to tickle the emotional brain circuits that affect what we do in the voting booth.
She's done it. She's proved what I've always held -- that liberals are driven by emotion, whereas conservatives are more practical and rational. And she's done it by trying to convince us that the GOP has emotions down pat while they're a bunch of boring nebbishes -- and everything she's said to prove her point is drenched in emotions.

Next: A bit more on Westen's draft talking points for the Dems -- ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as Begley's review.

See also:
The Most Ridiculous Story of the Year
The Most Ridiculous Story Of The Year? (2)

hat-tip: Soccer Dad

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