Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Accentuate the negative

Robert Philpot investigates the relationship between emotions and politics

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The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation
Drew Westen
PublicAffairs Books, 426pp, £15.99

Not since they contrived to ensure that their presidential nominee – the hapless George McGovern – would deliver his acceptance speech long after most Americans had gone to bed, had the Democrats managed to stage such an extraordinary convention. Three years ago, with war hero John Kerry under fierce attack for lack of patriotism from a party led by a duo of draft-dodgers, the candidate’s strategists decided that there should be no negative attacks on the Republicans from the platform in Boston.

A focus group in Dayton, Ohio, had, apparently, suggested that voters didn’t like negative attacks. The same voters who four months later responded to one of the most unrelentingly negative campaigns in American history by re-electing its chief perpetrator, George W. Bush. Drew Westen’s conclusion: ‘A central psychological principle in shaping voters’ networks is never to let the other side create emotional associations without countering them.’ Or as Bill Clinton’s two election-winning consultants, James Carville and Paul Begala, put it: ‘It is hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth.’

If the Tories are the stupid party, the Republicans are the lucky party. Lucky to be confronted by opponents who, claims Westen, don’t simply fail to understand that ‘people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best arguments’ but who also appear to have taken a collective vow to cede both vast tracts of the country and vast swathes of the policy agenda to the Republicans.

The tragedy, as Westen documents, is that on issue after issue from which the Democrats run scared – abortion, gay rights, gun control and race – most Americans are probably more open to a carefully framed progressive appeal than the hardline dogma offered up by the Republicans. At the same time, the Democrats seem incapable of relating the policies they are willing to talk about to a wider discourse about values, despite the centrality of that dialogue to determining the way most voters make up their minds.

The Democrats’ choice of Denver for their convention next year suggests a willingness to take the fight to ‘red state’ territory. If they follow Westen’s advice, the party’s strategists may even allow some mention of the record of the most unpopular administration in living memory.

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

1 comment

  • The author of has written an excellent article. You have made your point and there is not much to argue about. It is like the following universal truth that you can not argue with: true friendship is not feeling a twinge of guilt when you see your friend’s gut hanging out Thanks for the info.

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