Sunday, August 05, 2007

Where have all the prairie populists gone?

I am picking up and setting down the popular political books of our day. My wife read “An Assault on Reason” and “The Audacity of Hope”, because she likes Gore and Obama, and I had taken the books out of the library. I might try to start the “An Assault on Reason” later today, and I have the Obama book out again, so we’ll see. The other book I have out is “The Political Brain”, by Drew Westen. I read the first chapter and after describing it to my wife, she suggested I put it down and read something else.

Which is to say I talked about this guy’s thesis, and as a psychologist (which he is), he is a crappy political scientist (that seems like a paraphrase of a Marx Brothers or Woody Allen or someone else’s line). See, Westen believes that the Republican’s have been more successful at appealing to voter’s emotions than Democrats have, in the last twenty seven years or so. He’s right, except he wants to tell us it was part of a strategy. This is what I am not buying. He says (and I can’t copy and paste here, so here goes a bunch of typing):
“Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago, that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around.” On the other hand, he says democrats have an “irrational emotional commitment to rationality - one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail”. (his italics)

Bullshit. Westen actually points up the value of strategic versus tactical thinking, and I must say he is spot on in tactical thinking. As I said, I read the first chapter and he gives several examples of political messages, and why they are successful or not. Mostly I agree with his reasoning about the success of a certain message, and it is likely most of the messages were at least partially planned to have the impact he describes. But I remember back to various political campaigns, and I have to say that neither the republicans or democrats are monolithic parties, marching in lock step. In fact, my memory of Reagan is that many republicans did not want him early on. He was defeated for the nomination in 1976 (against what was, admittedly an incumbent) and I don’t think many of the party leadership wanted him to be the candidate in 1980. Carter had come out of essentially nowhere, as had Clinton. The current Bush was considered suspect until he started winning some primaries (though I believe he was always a great fund-raiser). My point being that despite there being recognizable Congressional leaders and also whatever sitting President at the time, the successful pseudo-populist candidates in the last thirty years we have had have either come from below the radar (Carter, Clinton) or been considered lightweights by their own party (Reagan, the current Bush). I certainly think it says something about campaigning in the TV age that so many “Aw, shucks” presidential candidates have done so well. If I had to hazard a guess, Barack Obama might that candidate this time. He may not quite be an Aw, shucks kind of guy, but I have heard it said that his speeches can be mesmerizing. On the republican side, Fred Thompson might be this race's republican populist. That would be an interesting matchup.

Maybe I will read some more of Westen. His analysis of individual events is interesting. And there’s no saying the democrats couldn’t learn something, and start acting like a monolith. They’re just not doing it now.

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