Some Wise Words For Democratic Candidates? genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation


Given my own love of words, I found an article discussing the need for Democratic candidates to change the language by which they deliver their messages to be a fascinating explanation of recent GOP successes and seeming underperformance on the part of Democrats.

The quick explanation suggests that Democrats lack the words which voters prefer...words from the heart that appeal to the political brain...a brain which responds better to "conclusions that are emotionally satisfying rather than conclusions that match the data."

WASHINGTON — Drew Westen, a genial 48-year-old psychologist and brain researcher, was talking to a rapt liberal audience about the role of emotion in politics, how to talk back aggressively to Republicans, and why going negative is not to be feared.

In his new book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," Westen, who is not affiliated with a particular candidate, lays out his argument that Democrats must connect emotionally with the American electorate — and that he can teach them how.

When Westen and his Emory colleagues conducted brain scans during the 2004 presidential campaign, they found that partisans of either side, when presented with contradictory statements by their preferred candidates, would struggle for some seconds with feelings of discomfort, then resolve the matter in their candidates' favor.

The scans showed that to do this, they used the part of their brain that controls emotion and conflict. The area that controls reasoning was inactive — "the dead zone," Westen said.

Westen writes that it doesn't make sense to argue an issue using facts and figures and to count on voters — particularly the swing voters who decide national elections — to make choices based on sophisticated understandings of policy differences or procedures. He says Democratic candidates must learn to do what Republicans have understood for many years — they must appeal to emotions. And (talking to you, Mr. Gore) stay away from numbing statistics.

"Positive and negative emotions are not the flip side of each other," Westen told his Washington audience. "They are neurologically distinct, and that means you've got to control four things: positive feelings toward your candidate, negative feelings toward your candidate, positive feelings toward your opponent and negative feelings toward your opponent. So if you just go negative — or positive, as the Kerry team decided to do — you are ceding half the brain to the opposition.

I think Westen makes some important points, though I would suggest that there is more at play. What the Democrats have lacked is the passionate words necessary to communicate the data...a balance if you will. To presume that voters ignore the data is a mistake...they simply want more than that...they're looking for conviction and authenticity and both are intuited through words and how they are presented.

No doubt the intellectual mind tends to minimize the value of emotion...facts exceed feelings...but anyone who recalls their years in school will instantly be able to recount the teachers that inspired...they were intellectual but more importantly, they knew how to deliver the message (the data). In fact, I think the school model provides the most fundamental and recognizable example of Westen's argument.

In my own experience, the best teachers weren't always the ones with the best brains. Those with adequate intellect that could couple it with a passion for the subject matter and then deliver it with conviction always got the attention of the class. In other words, they were perceived as authentic...they not only knew the subject matter, they were inspired by it...and that inspiration was infectious.

In the end, the key is to unlock the area of the brain that Westen describes as "the dead zone" by demonstrating a passion for the topic (the ability to deliver the words such that the recipient feels the emotion and therefore connects with the data). By and large, voters have a grasp of the issues early on...they believe they know the data.

What they are then seeking is someone who can do more than deliver the data...someone who has a vision attached to the data and can deliver it such that the voter is moved emotionally. That is the process by which kinship and connection is's what makes someone loyal and willing to stand up and support a is a determination of authenticity.

I'm convinced voters believe any candidate can master the data...and that most candidates can also manipulate the data. The one thing that disarms the doubt which has been automatically attached to politicians is an ability to present oneself as engaged, passionate, and authentic.

Lastly, voters have an ability to discern consistency...perhaps the best measure of authenticity. All too often, the handlers, the pollsters, and the focus group mentality seeks to nuance or shift a candidates message...leading voters to identify inconsistency...the flip flop factor if you will...and once that process is triggered, there is little hope of salvaging a candidacy.

In the end, voters have a better grasp of words than many assume...and that grasp allows them to formulate a comprehensive evaluation of each candidate. While it may be possible to manufacture a candidate (think Karl Rove), history suggests that voters will eventually see through the facade (think George Bush). Unless the Democratic Party wants another "packaged" GOP president in the White House in 2008, they would be wise to rethink their formula.

Daniel DiRito | July 9, 2007 | 8:59 AM
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1 On July 10, 2007 at 10:19 AM, iamcoyote wrote —

Daniel, I love this post! I wish the Dems could study and learn this - as the the GOP have internalized it since Newt's infamous list of words. They don't spend massive amounts of money on PR and marketing for nothing, IMO. But where the GOP would prefer that "dead zone" remain dead (the more thinking about the facts, the less sway they have over their subjects), the Dems need to learn how to integrate the "dead zone" into their emotional hooks, as you suggest; make thinking about the facts a positive, painless experience. One mistake that a lot of Dems (and lefties, I've discovered) make when trying to tell someone "the truth" or "the facts" is they inadvertantly make the listener feel dumb, which instantly closes their mind and heart to anything you have to say. It'll be pretty hard to counteract the way this admin has mastered making ignorance a thing to be proud, rather than ashamed, of.

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