What You Can Get Away With » barack obama


One of the first books I read this year was Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which I’ve found absolutely fascinating. Westen is a clinical psychologist and a supporter of the Democrats in the US, who had been progressively frustrated over a period of years by the party’s inability to fight back against the Republican method of doing politics. In The Political Brain, he sets out to examine politics and political communications from a psychological perspective, and to propose ways in which Democrats can fight back.

Westen’s main hypothesis (as reflected in the book’s subtitle) is that emotion is a key component in successful political communication. One of the reasons Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections was because they didn’t connect emotionally with the American public while George W Bush did. Both men believed that they had the right answers to the questions that faced America, but they were too busy convincing the voters of that case intellectually to make the case emotionally. The Republicans, on the other hand, exploited emotional appeals – especially to fear – perfectly, and thus swung the elections their way.

However, Westen isn’t arguing for Democrats to ape the Republicans in fear-mongering and demagoguery. What he does instead is look at significant academic research into how the brain works to explain why certain types of messaging are effective and others aren’t. He doesn’t argue that Democrat policy should change, merely the way that policy is communicated. The book was originally written in 2006, so there’s very little mention of Obama in it, but the point is made effectively in looking at Bill Clinton. Because he could make a powerful emotional connection with voters either through TV or one-on-one, people felt an emotional connection to him they didn’t feel to his opponents or rivals. (One thing I’ve heard in various accounts of people meeting Clinton is that no matter how trivial the encounter, he always gives the impression that listening to that person is the most important thing in the world to him at that moment)

One of Westen’s principal arguments is that the core of any political communication has to be a narrative about the party and/or the candidate, and that while having a list of worthy policies is important, they need to fit into an overall framework. However, that doesn’t mean that just any narrative will do. Westen sets out a set of rules for effective narratives that I think often get missed by people who appear to have read the book. A narrative can’t just be ‘we’re for nice things and against nasty things’ and it shouldn’t designed to appeal to everyone. Any compelling narrative has the structure of a story, and that needs antagonists to work. For instance, Westen points out that the successful Republican narrative in the US relies on demonising a ‘liberal elite’ who want to stop the brave Republicans from making America great again. Westen argues – quite persuasively – that Democrats need to take the fight back to the Republicans, though that doesn’t mean going in the same low vein as them.

In that spirit, he provides notable examples of what defeated Democrat candidates could (and should) have said in some famous circumstances. As he points out, the responses of candidates like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry to attacks on them were factually correct but didn’t connect emotionally. This was originally written and published before the 2008 US election but one key to Obama’s victory then and last year was that he was willing to take the fight to the Republicans.

Westen explains that our brains work by making networks of associations between people, concepts, images and ideas. Political communication needs to activate certain networks to be more effective, and the most effective way to activate networks is through the use of emotion. People are mostly making emotional judgements about candidates and parties based on what they perceive as their narrative long before they make ones based on specific policy points.

What’s also important about the book is that Westen writes as an academic who’s moved into politics, not as a political operative trying to justify his viewpoints and angle for more work. Usually, when he makes a point about the effectiveness or not of certain tactics and language, it’s because there’s evidence to back it up, and his wide knowledge of psychology means he can bring in studies that weren’t explicitly political but have an important bearing on the subject.

I heartily recommend reading The Political Brain to anyone with an interest in politics and political campaigning (and buying it through the link above makes me a few pennies) but it’s also prompted some thoughts on British politics in the light of it. It’s clear that there are people in British politics who’ve read The Political Brain – and some of them have even understood it – but a lot of it hasn’t broken into regular discussion yet.

I was going to take a look at some of Westen’s points and how they relate to British politics in this post, but it’s already getting quite long, and I think they’re best put into a separate post to follow this before it turns into a book in itself.

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In the category of ‘small, but annoying, errors’ we have this from the Guardian:

Obama will make history in another way on Monday, becoming the first US president to be sworn in four separate times.

THat should be ‘the first since Franklin Roosevelt’, of course, who got his four inaugurations the old-fashioned way by being elected four times.

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There’s an interesting article on Buzzfeed about American right-wing bloggers and their determination to prove President Obama was somehow unfit or unqualified for office.

(Spoiler: they failed)

It’s interesting because it’s an examination because even though it doesn’t use the word, it’s an examination of political groupthink. We have a group – however informally constituted – who have decided on a plan of action and then continue to press on with that course of action despite evidence that it isn’t working. The article goes through a lot of the ideas that this group were pushing, having committed themselves to the belief that Obama was a dangerous radical and that all they needed was the single piece of proof that would bring him down. (In that light, the belief in, and desperate searching for, the seemingly mythical video in which Michelle Obama used the word ‘whitey’ becomes something like a grail quest)

The consensus that soon emerged on the right was that if Americans were fully aware of Obama’s relationship with extremists like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, they never would have elected him. And since tank-dwelling mainstream reporters couldn’t be trusted to expose The Real Obama, it would be left to the crusading online right to get the job done.

The reality – that Obama is a moderate Democrat, whose political views would likely place him on the centre-right of European politics – just doesn’t get a look in. It’s very easy for us to point and laugh at the Tea Party types because their errors are so extreme. Outside of the bubble. the idea that he’s a radical socialist, a secret Muslim or Kenyan-born is obviously nonsense, but does that help us to forget that we’re sitting in our own bubbles?

It’s easy enough to point to groupthink on the extremes where it’s obvious – the belief that if the Tories swung hard to the right and embraced the UKIP agenda, they’d get a majority, for instance, or the old Left belief that Labour’s mistake was not being revolutionary socialist enough in 1983 – but I think that there are many examples within the mainstream of politics too.

In the closest parallel to Obama, consider the attempts to depict Ed Miliband as some kind of socialist firebrand dominated by the unions. As with Obama, the idea that ‘Red Ed’ wants to take the country back to some cartoon version on the 1970s is barely plausible in the real world but is an article of faith on the right. (The same applies to an extent on the left, though, where the caricature David Cameron drinks the tears of starving children with his nightly caviar)

The problem is that the web has made it much easier to slip into groupthink mode. It’s very easy now to launch an attack on a political opponent, get lots of support and back-slapping from an army of Twitter warriors and congratulate yourself on a job well done, despite the fact that your attack has never registered with the public at all. However, you can point at the blog hits you’ve got, the retweets you’ve received, the likes and +1s you’ve achieved while not drawing attention to the fact that all these are coming from the same pool. It’s a classic reward for groupthink – do something that appeases the group and reaffirms their central idea and get praise, criticise it and get ostracised. (Or at least, not linked to.) Compare that to the work the old political operatives had to do to create their networks.

Of course, you could argue that in order to exist and thrive, political parties have to practice some form of groupthink, otherwise they’ll splinter too easily over internal divisions.

And no, I’m not excluding myself and my fellow Liberal Democrats from falling victim to political groupthink. Indeed, I think much of the party is falling into groupthink mode over staying in the coalition where lots of evidence is being ignored or twisted in order to proclaim that it’s a good thing and that we must stick it out for the long term. Slivers of good news get praised to the skies, while bad news is ignored or rationalised away. Don’t worry about a lost deposit in Corby, praise some local by-election victories instead!

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Quite a few from the US this time, but it’s been a busy week there.

Doing politics in plain sight – Written from a Labour perspective, but I think relevant to everyone. “We all talk about wanting politicians with some experience of life outside Westminster. That shouldn’t be simply the first act of your life before giving oneself over to politics completely. All politicians should have the option of having a normal life outside of politics, and we need to look at how we change the way we do business to make that happen. If we don’t we will only be represented by – and representative of – the obsessed. Making politics a more attracticve option will also help to reduce the barrier between those who involved and those they represent. At the moment, few people can see why anyone would want to put themselves through it, other than for financial gain.”
When quants tell stories – A look at how the Obama campaign got its message out, and how much it tailored the different messages different groups received.
Why Americans actually voted for a Democratic House – Another triumph for First Past The Post in the US. Democrats get more votes; Republicans keep control of the House of Representatives by a large majority. (via)
Inside Team Romney’s whale of an IT meltdown – Another look behind the scenes of the US election, this time on how Romney’s much vaunted wonderful IT system for getting out the vote failed.
Attention henchmen! Voting machines and other flawed conspiracies – From before the election, but an interesting look at the problems of voting machines by David Brin

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