Use your head? Not when it comes to voting.

What do Bill Clinton and George W Bush have in common? No it’s not that they were elected president of the United States. And it’s not that their respective parties are getting to look lime each other that you cannot tell them apart. It is, if The Political Brain, a new book by Professor Drew Westen*, is to be believed,  that both men have great more appeal to the emotional side of the brain, the side of the brain which determines how voters vote. 

Extracts from Westen’s book printed in today’s Guardian roughly outline the main thrust of his argument. 

A study of my own, and a growing body of research in psychology and political science, show that the political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision. The reality is that our brains are vast networks of neurons (nerve cells) that work together to generate our experience of the world. Of particular importance are networks of associations, bundles of thoughts, feelings, images and ideas that have become connected over time. 

Just how important networks are in understanding why candidates win and lose can be seen by contrasting two political advertisements: the first from Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 1992, and the second from John Kerry’s in 2004. Both men were running against an increasingly unpopular incumbent named Bush. Both ads were, for each man, his chance to introduce himself to the general electorate following the Democratic primary campaign and to tell the story he wanted to tell about himself to the American people. And both were a microcosm of the entire campaign. The two ads seem very similar in their “surface structure”. But looks can be deceiving. A clinical dissection of these ads makes clear that they couldn’t have been more different in the networks they activated and the emotions they elicited.

What follows is a clever and very revealing analysis of the “deep structure” of the two men’s advertisements that, although not an eye-opener, brings with it a very convincing explanation of why supported Bush and not Kerry.


*The Political Brain: Thr Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation  is available from Amazon 

**Drew Westen’s wikipedia entry.


%d bloggers like this: