Monday, 1 September 2008

If you read only one thing about Barack Obama or John McCain or Sarah Palin this week, make it . . .

. . . this piece by Drew Westen, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

Westen makes some pertinent points about the Democrats' need to create a brand for the McCain and Palin, before the Republicans put their own brand into voters' minds. And he provides some useful expalanations about how narratives and counter-stories change voters' perceptions.

Westen describes the 2008 Democratic Convention as “simply stunning, with multiple-base hits by many of the players and triples or homeruns by all its superstars.”

At the end of a highly excited summary of what happened in Denver, he says:

"In my book, The Political Brain, I argued that if you do exactly what the Democrats did last week--both inspire voters with your vision of what could be and raise legitimate anger or concern about what your opponent and his party have done or likely will do--you win elections. . .

"The convention reversed the momentum of a dreadful July and August campaign that made every standard Democratic error outlined in the book, starting with the campaign's stubborn refusal to brand McCain before he could brand himself or to respond to his successful efforts to brand Obama--as other, different, empty celebrity, uppity, narcissistic, and elitist."

But then Westen worries that Obama and the Democrats may fail to be tough enough with McCain and co. They need to fight fire with fire.

"We are supposed to be the party of science, yet we constantly practice political creationism.

(Ouch! Does that remind you of anyone you know?)

"A case in point is the way the Obama campaign appears poised to respond (or, more accurately, not to respond) to McCain's choice of a running mate, which they need to do immediately, before the start of the GOP Convention. Paul Begala has described how the narratives that sway the electorate are like constellations of stars in the sky. If your opponent picks and chooses just the right stars to place in the sky (and which ones to leave out, because they get in the way of the story he is trying to tell), he can create a constellation that shines like stars on a crystal clear night, whether that constellation is one designed to make his own stars twinkle or your candidate's stars flame out or obscured by cloud cover.

"It's a campaign's job to put the right stars up in the sky to create the constellations that tell the story it wants to tell about both its own candidate and its opponent. In the language of neuroscience, a campaign needs to connect the dots for voters to create networks of associations--an interconnected set of thoughts, images, ideas, metaphors, and feelings--toward each candidate that tell a compelling story about each, and to repeat that those stories enough times and in enough ways to make them "stick."

Westen explains:

"It is much harder to change an accepted narrative, particularly an emotionally compelling one, than to undercut it before it can take hold in the popular imagination. You don't want to let the other side blaze a neural trail in the wilderness (in this case, defining a political newcomer) that becomes the trail voters' minds naturally follow and then resist deviating from because it is the first and only story being told, without offering a counter-narrative that creates very different associations and activates very different feelings toward the candidates (in this case, toward both McCain and Palin).

"The constellation McCain would like to project this week is that this was a bold move of a maverick reformer, an effort to break the glass ceiling for women, an effort to bring executive experience to his team, and the elevation to prominence of a young, socially conservative reformer with a moving story of her commitment to the crusade against all abortions."

Westen offers three, hard-edged counter-stories to break McCain's constellation. And then comes the hard stuff.

"Palin may be a woman, but she does not share the agenda of any woman who voted for Hillary Clinton (and Democrats should speak out against the implication that she is picking up where Hillary Clinton, a woman of tremendous stature who could have assumed the role of commander-in-chief in a heartbeat, left off). Rather, the position she and others on the right have articulated [on abortion] gives every rapist the right to pick the mother of his child. That position is tantamount to a Rapist's Bill of Rights, which privileges the rights of rapists and child molesters over the rights of their victims. Those are McCain-Palin's "family values," and they are not mainstream American values. "

Later, he concludes:

"Palin's nomination is one that should put the nails in the coffin of McCain's candidacy in the wake of the extraordinary success of the Democratic Convention. It exposes both a poverty of judgment and a surfeit of hypocrisy and pandering to both the religious right and to the female center. But if the Democrats do not act before the GOP Convention, McCain's reckless move could become transformed by the media and then the public into the bold move of a straight-talking maverick with the foresight to catch a rising star.

"That's a story that should never be allowed to reach the moment of conception.”

No comments: