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Editor, The Konformist
How Your Brain Makes Political Decisions
Ever wonder why fear-mongering seems to work so well at the polls
while appeals to reason often leave the electorate cold? A new book
applies neuroscience to politics to figure out why the Democrats
struggle to push the buttons in voters' brains.
By Sharon Begley
June 27, 2007 - Do you remember when candidate George W. Bush
berated Al Gore during the 2000 presidential debates for alleged
funny business in his fund-raising? Bush said, "You know, going to a
Buddhist temple and then claiming it wasn't a fund-raiser isn't my
view of responsibility." It was a direct attack on the honor of a
fellow Southerner, and Gore wasn't taking it. "You have attacked my
honor and integrity," the vice president shot back. "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 millworker's kid on the front line in your place to get shot
at. Where I come from, we call that a coward.
"When I was working hard, raising my family, you were busy drinking
yourself and your family into the ground. Why don't you tell us how
many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under
your belt? Where I come from, we call that a drunk.
"When I was serving in the U.S. Senate, your own father's government
had to investigate you on the charge that you'd swindled a bunch of
old people out of their life savings by using insider knowledge to
sell off stocks you knew were about to drop. Where I come from, we
call that crooked. So governor, don't you ever lecture me about
character. And don't you ever talk to me that way again in front of
my family or my fellow citizens."
Don't remember that reply? There's a reason: Gore never said
anything like it. Challenged by Bush on the temple fundraiser, he
instead sidestepped the attack with a lofty but wimpy declaration
about wanting "to spend my time making this country even better than
it is, not trying to make you out to be a bad person." The response-
that-wasn't-but-should-have-been is the work of psychology
researcher Drew Westen of Emory University, one of many "what ifs"
in his new book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in
Deciding the Fate of the Nation." After reading them 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-opsof pushing the right buttons in people's brains to win
Westen's thesis is simple. "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." That's true when it comes to choosing a significant other,
buying a car, and choosing a president. Madison Avenue has known
this for decades. Democrats haven't. 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. But by recognizing the strides that
neuroscience, psychology and, in particular, the science of decision
making have made in recent years, Westen argues, politicians can tap
into "the emotional brain" that guides most political decisions.
If you think your political decisions are coldly rational, think
again. Even when we "rationally" assess a candidate's position on,
say, tax policy or immigration, emotions shape our judgment. (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.) "Behind every reasoned
decision is a reason for deciding," Westen writes. "We do not pay
attention to arguments unless they engender our interest,
enthusiasm, fear, anger or contempt . . . We do not find policies
worth debating if they don't touch on the emotional implications for
ourselves, our families or things we hold dear." Something you "hold
dear" can be, for instance, a principled position in favour of
sending more troops to Iraq; you can tell yourself that that
position resides in an emotion-free zone, but in all likelihood it
reflects feelings of pride, fear, commitment and the likeemotions,
There is no shame in being motivated by wishes, fears and values.
Emotions actually provide a reasonable compass for guiding behavior.
Neuroscientists find, for instance, that emotions guide moral
decisions, and do so pretty well. Although the political brain is an
emotional brain, this doesn't mean that voters' basest instincts
racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, xenophobiaare the only
or even the principle emotions in play. One can feel good about,
say, a ban on capital punishment even if that position also has
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. To the
contrary: emotions can trump rationality. "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," Westen writes. "It didn't
matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions." 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'
Neuroscience research backs up the poll results. When voters are
hooked up to brain-imaging devices while watching candidates, it is
emotion circuits and not the rational frontal lobes that are most
engaged. When voters assess who won a campaign debate, they almost
always choose the candidate they liked better beforehand. The
rationality circuit "isn't typically open for business when
partisans are thinking about things that matter to them," Westen
notes. Yet "this is the part of the brain to which Democrats
typically target their appeals."
Just as in the imagined response by Gore to Bush's attack on his
character, Westen has penned powerful sound bites and mini-speeches
that Dems could use to justify their core positions on perennial
issues. Abortion, and bills outlawing it (as GOP platforms have long
called for) or requiring parental consent? "My opponent puts the
rights of rapists above the rights of their victims, guaranteeing
every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child. . . My
opponent believes that if a 16-year-old girl is molested by her
father and becomes pregnant, she should be forced by the government
to have his child, and if she doesn't want to she should be forced
by the government to go to the man who raped her and ask for his
consent." Tougher gun restrictions? How about an ad showing a parade
of Arab-looking men walking into a gun store, setting their money on
the counter and walking out with three or four semi-automatics each,
with this voice-over: "My opponent thinks you shouldn't have to show
a photo ID or get a background check to buy a handgun. He thinks
anyone who wants an AK-47 should be able to buy one, no questions
asked. What's the point of fighting terrorists abroad if we're going
to arm them over here?"
Pandering? Maybe. Shades of the first President Bush's infamous race-
baiting Willie Horton ad? Probably. Effective? Let's just say that
if John Kerry had used Westen's words to attack the Swift Boaters
who impugned his war record during the 2004 presidential campaign,
Bush might be clearing a lot of brush in Crawford these days.
There's moreon how Dems can frame affirmative action, flag burning,
domestic wiretaps, tax cuts for millionaires, embryonic stem-cell
research and gay marriage to engage the voters' political brain.
Read "The Political Brain" and you'll understand why Westen is
suddenly a very, very popular guy in Democratic campaign circles.
Time for an Ann Coulter Ban
Ethan Morris, Jun 28, 2007
Okay, enough is enough. Will someone please get Ann Coulter off my
Seriously. The FCC needs to implement an Ann Ban as soon as humanly
Aside from the fact that many believe her to be a raving lunatic,
now she's all but threatened the life of a presidential candidate.
In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America, Coulter said she
wished Democratic candidate John Edwards "had been killed in a
terrorist assassination plot."
The ultra-super-duper-uber-over-the-top conservative columnist and
frequent talk show guest says she was merely making a point, after
notoriously liberal talk show host Bill Maher made a similar comment
about Vice President Dick Cheney.
In fact, what Maher said was that if Dick Cheney had been killed in
a real (but failed) attempted assassination in Afghanistan, fewer
people would be dying in Iraq right now. "If he did die," Maher said
at the time, "other people, more people would live." But he didn't
actually "wish" Cheney dead.
Technically, Coulter didn't either. Here's her exact quote: "If I'm
going to say anything about John Edwards, I'll just wish he had been
killed in a terrorist assassination plot." By couching her words
with conditionals like "if" and "I'll" and by using the past tense,
Coulter will no doubt avoid any trouble from the law. (Presidential
candidates get protection from the Secret Service and threatening
their lives is a serious no no.)
But she couldn't stave off a response from Edwards' wife, who called
Coulter when she later appeared on MSNBC's Hardball. Elizabeth
Edwards asked Coulter to stop attacking her husband with such hate
language. Coulter smirkingly refused, and it quickly degenerated
into a shouting match.
Now listen: I'm not some liberal who hates Ann Coulter for her
politics. I hate Ann Coulter because I, and a lot of others, think
she's a venomous nut case.
This is the woman who wishes Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New
York Times building.
This is the woman who wants to invade other countries, kill their
leaders, and convert the entire world to Christianity. (Does that
include Israel, Ann?)
This is the woman who quotes God as saying man should "rape" the
earth so we don't end up "living like the Indians."
Now she's implying a death wish against a presidential candidate.
I'm sorry, but this goes way beyond political debate. It's nothing
more than venal pandering for profit. Coulter's outrageous
statements are obviously designed for the sole purpose of selling
her books and getting people to read her columns. (And getting
sucker-bloggers like me to waste time writing my opinion about her!)
And her hateful spewing crosses the line. As a writer and
journalist, I'm as big a supporter of free speech there is. But
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes helped us draw an
important line when he pointed out that free speech doesn't mean you
can yell "fire" in a crowded theater.
You can bet Don Imus must be wondering why he doesn't have a job
Seriously, it's time for Ann to go. Shame on network executives and
talk show hosts who agree to have Ann as a guest ever again. Shame
on viewers for watching her, or for reading her columns. Shame on me
if I ever write another word about her.
C'mon FCC. You can spare us all if you'll just implement an Ann Ban,
punishable by a fine of one beeeeeelion dollars.
Poll of Democrats reveals Gore could still steal the show
· Clinton would be big loser if ex-vice president ran
· Republicans also unhappy with current candidates
Simon Tisdall in Washington
Friday June 29, 2007
A presidential election poll suggesting Democratic voters would
prefer former vice-president Al Gore to any of the declared
contenders, including frontrunner Hillary Clinton, has highlighted
continuing dissatisfaction among supporters of both main parties
with the choice of candidates to succeed George Bush.
The poll, conducted in New Hampshire by 7News and Suffolk
University, confirmed Ms Clinton's nationwide double-digit lead over
her main rival, Illinois senator Barack Obama. The former first lady
and New York senator attracted 37% support, against Mr Obama's 19%.
John Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, was on 9%.
But if Mr Gore were to seek the Democratic nomination, 29% of Ms
Clinton's backers would switch their support to him, the poll found.
When defections from other candidates are factored in, the man who
controversially lost to Mr Bush in the 2000 election takes command
of the field, with 32% support.
Both the Democrats and Republicans will contest primary elections in
New Hampshire on January 22.
Mr Gore has repeatedly denied he is planning a White House run. But
the absence so far of a strong, unifying choice for the Democratic
nomination, Mr Gore's enhanced reputation as an environmental
campaigner, and deep Republican divisions are encouraging
speculation that he may change his mind.
"I have not ruled out the possibility of getting into politics some
time in the future but I don't expect to because I don't expect
things to change," Mr Gore says in an interview in the July edition
of Fast Company magazine. "If they did change, then I would feel
David Terr, a political analyst at USAelectionpolls.com, said the
7News poll was based on a small voter sample and had a large margin
of error. But it reinforced a pattern in the polls that showed Mr
Gore gaining support nationally.
"His gaining six points in six months is ... just what he needs to
justify running for the presidency," Mr Terr said. "He can say that
the American people wanted him to run. So the image about him being
a sore loser or desperate to become president or someone that is not
a man of the people can be thrown into the trash."
"If Al Gore runs, Republicans should be very afraid," said one
blogger on Politico.com yesterday. "As much as they like to make fun
of him, no one can deny that he is the candidate that has the most
appeal and ability to energise his base."
Mr Gore's rehabilitation is accelerating as America's political
agenda steadily moves towards issues such as climate change that he
has long championed.
"In what may be the greatest brand makeover in history, Gore is
being hailed as a visionary who was right about everything from
global warming to Iraq," writes Fast Company's Ellen McGirt. "At 59,
he's an Academy award winner, a bestselling author, a frontrunner
for the Nobel prize, and a concert promoter."
Mr Gore is likely to make headlines again with the Live Earth
concerts on July 7. He has helped to organise the eight shows, to be
held simultaneously around the world, to raise awareness and funds
to combat global warming.
As Democrats struggle to measure the potential impact of undeclared
candidates, similar imponderables are dogging the Republicans.
Analysts say the national lead held by Rudy Giuliani, the former New
York mayor, could quickly disappear if, as expected, Fred Thompson,
an actor and former Tennessee senator, steps in next week.
Another wild card is the undeclared but widely expected independent
candidacy of the current New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg. If he
runs, polls suggest Mr Giuliani would be the biggest loser. To
complicate matters, Ralph Nader, the consumer activist whose third-
party challenge dished Mr Gore in 2000, says he may also run as an
More than half of Americans won't vote for Clinton, poll shows
Survey provides a snapshot of the senator's challenges as she seeks
the Democratic nomination for president
By William Douglas
MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU
Contra Costa Times
WASHINGTON -- More than half of Americans say they wouldn't consider
voting for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for president if she becomes
the Democratic nominee, according to a new national poll made
available to McClatchy Newspapers and NBC News.
The poll by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research found that 52 percent
of Americans wouldn't consider voting for Clinton, D-N.Y. Former
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, was second in the
can't-stand-'em category, with 46 percent saying they wouldn't
consider voting for him.
Clinton has long been considered a politically polarizing figure who
would be a tough sell to some voters, especially many men, but also
Clinton-haters of both genders.
Thursday's survey provides a snapshot of the challenges she faces,
according to Larry Harris, a Mason-Dixon principal.
"Hillary's carrying a lot of baggage," he said. "She's the only one
that has a majority who say they can't vote for her."
Clinton rang up high negatives across the board, with 60 percent of
independents, 56 percent of men, 47 percent of women and 88 percent
of Republicans saying they wouldn't consider voting for her.
Romney struggled most with women: 50.9 percent said they wouldn't
consider voting for him.
"It's the flip-flop of Hillary," Harris said of Romney. "One could
suppose it's the Mormon issue -- we didn't ask follow-up questions --
but his religion is an issue."
On name recognition, Clinton also led the 2008 presidential pack in
voter disapproval, with 42 percent saying they recognized her name
and were unfavorable toward her, versus 39 percent favorable.
That gave her a double-digit lead in that bad-news category over
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former North Carolina
Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat. They each had 28 percent unfavorable
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had the highest favorable
recognition at 43 percent, with Clinton close behind at 39 percent.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was third at 36 percent, followed by
McCain at 33 percent and Edwards at 32 percent.
McCain rang up the highest favorable rating among independent voters
with 39.4 percent, followed by Giuliani with 37.3 percent. Edwards
scored well with independents, too, with 31.1 percent favorable;
Obama had 28 percent favorable.
The Mason-Dixon survey was conducted June 23-25 with 625 likely
general-election voters. It has an error margin of plus or minus 4