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-ops-of pushing the right buttons in people’s brains to win their vote.
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.