Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Political Brain

"...the vision of 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."

This comment, from Professor Drew Westen, introduces his book, "The Political Brain", a book which America's most successful Democratic politician in the last 4 decades - Bill Clinton - described as the most informative book on politics he'd read in years.  Why?  Because the book's central thesis, that the political brain uses emotion over simple reasoning, is one Clinton's empathetic politics was admirably suited to exploit, but which his Democratic successors seem often reluctant to emulate.  Even Barack Obama, inspiring as a set-piece speaker, is being criticised for being almost too cool and dispassionate under fire.  Where's the emotion that connects him to us, ask the voters.  Anyone who might doubt Westen's thesis needs only to look back over the reviews that Sarah Palin received for her appalling debate performance.  She was a success.  She hauled the campaign back.  She provided a boost for McCain.  Why?  Not for any reasoning abilities on her part - there were none.  Not for her penetrating political insights - absent again.  But because she came across as friendly, as an ordinary girl, as the sort of person you wouldn't mind having a drink with.  

Westen's success is using what may seem to many of us to be an obvious conclusion about the nature of political discourse, and applying it to the American political landscape and then determining both why she remains a right-wing country in terms of her voting record, and how a Democratic party that is more often in tune with voters than it seems can regain the initiative.  Well worth a read, and you can bet that the next Democrat incumbent of the White House won't be long in ignorance of its contents either.  After all, he'll want a second term when he's challenged in four years by the folksy Alaskan outsider who garners so much passion. 

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