Drew Westen and Political Messages

The NY Times highlighed the Emory psychologist Drew Westen this week in the article “A Psychologist Helps Repackage Democrats’ Message.” Westen is the author of the 2007 book The Political Brain, which argued for the role of emotion in political decision making and advocated appealing to “the gut” (particularly for Democrats) rather than the usual wonkish rationales. The Progressive offers us a short and informative review here.

The Times highlights Westen’s Message Handbook for Progressives From Left to Center. Basically Westen is saying that in an emotional or values argument, appeals to reason do not persuade most voters. You have to hit back, not talk back. Here’s a long excerpt on what Westen advocates in the Handbook:

Its mission is to assist progressives by developing language and narratives that connect with voters on a personal, emotional level in the short-term, as well as help the progressive movement brand themselves effectively in the long-term.

The goal of the VFP is to develop and test principled stands on issues—emotionally compelling values statements and narratives about where we stand—so that progressive leaders, elected officials, and others do not need to practice the politics of avoidance (trying to change the subject instead of addressing issues head-on), resort to off-putting or euphemistic language, offer defensive hedges without clear underlying principles (particularly on wedge issues, e.g., “I believe we should register new handguns but not old ones”), or adopt “conservative-lite” positions designed to avoid offending certain constituent groups perceived to be opposed to a progressive position. Embedded in these narratives should be readily remembered phrases or sentences that evoke the broader principles underlying them.

The goal of this project is not to develop “talking points.” Progressives are by definition free thinking, and their values range from center-to-left progressive. Rather, the goal is to develop a menu of well-tested principled stands, from center to left, which progressive organizations and individuals advancing progressive causes can use if they find them helpful and consistent with their own values and goals, so that they are not constantly reinventing the wheel or speaking to the public in ways that do not resonate emotionally. The evidence is clear that the language on the left needs an “extreme makeover” so that we stop recycling the tired, poor, and huddled phrases of the left (e.g., “the environment,” “reproductive health,” “I’ll fight for people”) that lost their appeal decades ago and have little appeal in the political center.

What I find interesting is the connection of a short-term orientation (votes are made in the near future and are often about present circumstances) and emotion and values as guiding choices about leadership with an emphasis on categorization (or framing) and narrative. As one politician says in the Times, “Dr. Westen’s advice had given him the confidence to speak his mind even on conservative talk radio. ‘If we communicate it through our stories and our real-life examples, if they don’t agree with you then they can at least understand where you come from’.”

In one sense, it’s about common sense communication. “The idea,” Dr. Westen said, “is to start to rebrand progressives using language that’s as evocative as the language of the other side, and stop using phrases that just turn people off.”

Here’s one example: “Instead of using euphemisms like “pro-choice” and “reproductive health,” his handbook suggests, liberal candidates might insist that it is un-American for the government to tell men and women when to start a family or what religious beliefs to follow, arguments that test well in focus groups with conservatives and independents.”

I am not sure if you need “the brain” to justify all this. Telling stories and creating emotional appeals are as old as dirt. But there is a prominent discourse of rights and policy and reason that can also get stuck in people’s head. So maybe Westen has just invented a way of talking to politicians and reminding them of how to communicate effectively.

If you’re interested in more from Westen, he runs a blog where you can find some of his own thoughts about the presidential race.

One thought on “Drew Westen and Political Messages

  1. I agree with you – one of my takeaways when coming across this discussion was “So, how is this new?” And of course, it’s not, but like you said, Westen seems to have invented-or at least brought to the fore and effectively branded-a better way for politicians to communicate. I suppose that’s of value.

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