Sunday, July 8, 2007

Unreasonable Politics

Fred Thompson, who has been teasing Republicans with the possibility of his candidacy, wowed a crowd of Florida Young Republicans yesterday with nothing other than his declaration that The New York Times and Hillary Clinton had made him their top target and that "the United States is the greatest nation." He rebuffed a reporter's questions about him lobbying for pro-choice groups with a reference to fat flies buzzing in the summer time? What? I don't know, but my instant mental image was of big, greenish, flies, buzzing around a pile of horse manure. Ick.

Fred Thompson, he of thin resume, must've been reading Dr. Drew Westen's The Political Brain. Westen, Director of Clinical Psychology at Emory, has conducted research on the human brain that points to the dominance of emotion over reason in political decision-making. (Click here for a really cool interactive model of how the brain works.) Thompson is expertly appealing to the "emotional brain,"and despite what rational thought dictates, I think that he is the greatest threat Democrats face in 2008.

Democrats need to learn from Westen. I'm looking forward to meeting him and hearing from him on Tuesday. We need to learn from our own experiences, too. We are far too quick to rely on reason, far too cognitively oriented. That works great for governance, not so great for winning elections. I refer you to the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 2004 as one of the worst examples of our ineptness on this front. The Republicans set design was brilliant. The stage was the Presidential seal, in the center of the floor, and seemed to be at the level of the people. The Democrat's visual did not hold a candle to this, and it was at the moment I saw it that I began to question whether Kerry could really win this thing. You'll recall that he was generally ahead in the polls at that point.

It's not that Democrats have never gotten it. Bill Clinton, the "man from Hope," who changes a room just by walking into it, clearly gets it. He connects with people, makes them believe he understands, and that he cares about them. FDR got it. He reached out to the nation with his promise of a "New Deal." He wasn't perfect, but he touched people where they were suffering and gave them hope. As I watch the candidates debate, I don't think we're there yet this year, but I do think that Edwards and Obama offer the best hope of getting us there.

There is a catch to this approach, one that Republicans tripped squarely over during the mid-term elections. Voters hate hypocrisy. What could've been a powerful symbol of Republican leadership-the "Mission Accomplished" banner on board the aircraft carrier-was premature and ultimately stuck like tar paper to Republican Party and their candidates becoming a symbol of the ineptness and arrogance of the current administration. Likewise, the President's recent commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence is a very important, emotional flash point for many Americans. This arrogant, lawless administration now has a poster child, and his name is Scooter-a name that evokes images of nannies, prep school and privilege.

I wrote some about the concept of "brain-stem voting" last year. I had not at that time read Westen's research. Buy his book and read it. Unless Democrats get our hands around Westen's research, and implement communication strategies that reflect the fact that emotion trumps reason in political discourse, in November of 2008, we will find ourselves wondering why we lost the election to a B-List actor.