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Drew Westen Nails It Again

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Dr. Drew Westen is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University.  After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard, Westen picked up a Master’s in Social and Political Thought from the University of Sussex in England.  He earned his PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan.

In 2007, Dr. Westen wrote a book entitled, The Political BrainHere’s how the book was described by the publisher, PublicAffairs:

The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works.  When political candidates assume voters dispassionately make decisions based on “the issues,” they lose.      .   .   .

In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.     .   .   .   The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order:  their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.

The people at Fox News have been operating from this premise for years.  On Fox, the news is presented from an emotional perspective (i.e.  fear and outrage about terrorism, indignation about government spending, patriotic devotion to whomever or whatever principle is singled out for such allegiance).  Opposition political candidates (Democrats) are usually portrayed as contemptible, flawed individuals.  As a result, Fox has enjoyed tremendous success at shaping public opinion and influencing the electorate.  Dr. Westen’s book appears likely to help one understand why.

The 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama presented a unique challenge to Fox News:  A Democrat finally had a campaign based on an emotional appeal, conveyed with the single word, “Hope”.  Despite the rational campaign strategy developed by Mark Penn for Hillary Clinton, (and continued by the McCain campaign) which posed the question:  “Who is Barack Obama?” – the voters followed their emotions and voted for “Hope”.

At this point in the Obama Presidency, people from across the political spectrum (especially the Left) are still pondering Mark Penn’s 2008 question:  “Who is Barack Obama?”  As I have frequently pointed out on this website, Obama has been repeatedly criticized (by his former supporters) as a cynical, narcissistic individual, who has carefully created a Rorschach-esqe public image, shaped by whatever characteristics the individual audience members would choose to project back onto their perception of the man himself.  Obama has been able to conceal his flexible, mercenary agenda behind the Rorschach screen and until recently, few have bothered to peek behind it.

David Sirota recently wrote an insightful essay about Obama which began with these words:

Barack Obama is a lot of things – eloquent, dissembling, conniving, intelligent and above all, calm.  But one thing he is not is weak.

I was particularly impressed by an essay about our President, written by the aforementioned Dr. Drew Westen, which appeared in The New York Times on August 6.  The article was entitled, “What Happened to Obama?” and it was absolutely magnificent.  Dr. Westen began by taking us back to January of 2009, when we were still in the depths of the financial crisis, shocked by the unemployment tsunami and looking to our new President for effective leadership through a gauntlet of bank bailout schemes and economic stimulus proposals.  Unfortunately, what America heard from Barack Obama during his Inaugural Address was a big nothing.  As Dr. Westen explained, the disappointment of Obama’s Inaugural Address was emblematic of the disappointment we experienced throughout the ensuing months:

The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics – in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time – he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

*   *   *

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend.

*   *   *

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it.  He never explained that decision to the public – a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it.  Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century.  He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work.  He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it.  But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

But why did Obama turn out to be such a disappointment?  Is he simply weak – or is Obama actually the inverse Franklin Delano Roosevelt described by David Sirota as “Bizarro FDR”?  From his unique perspective as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Westen is well-qualified to provide us with a valid opinion.  After first expressing the requisite ethical disclaimer (rarely heard from TV and radio “shrinks”) that he would “resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance”, Westen put on his “strategic consultant” hat to “venture some hypotheses”:

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb – that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians.  Unfortunately, reality is more complicated.  Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems.  A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography:  that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.

*   *   *

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars – in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars.

With the passing of time, the likelihood that Barack Obama will be a single-term President increases dramatically because Americans are now scrutinizing him from a more judicious perspective.  Who will become the Independent candidate to return that forgotten emotion of hope to the disillusioned electorate?


 

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Crazy Like Fox

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Donald Trump has enjoyed a good deal of publicity during the past few weeks, since he jumped on the “birther” bandwagon, voicing skepticism as to whether Barack Obama was really born in the United States.  Many of Trump’s critics insist that The Donald is not a serious Presidential candidate and that his newfound “birther” agenda demonstrates that his Presidential campaign is nothing more than a flimflam publicity stunt.

I have a different theory.  I believe that Trump is running a “decoy” campaign.  Keep in mind that Trump is currently the #2 contender for the Republican nomination.  Remember also that the Republican Presidential primaries for 11 states (and the District of Columbia) are conducted on a “winner-take-all” basis – meaning that when a candidate wins a state primary, that candidate wins all of the delegates who will represent that state at the Republican National Convention.  If Trump can win a few of those states, he could amass an impressive amount of “pledged” delegates.  I suspect that Trump’s goal is to win the support from the extreme right wing of the Republican Party and “hijack” those delegates who would have been otherwise pledged to candidates acceptable to the Tea Party.  Bill O’Reilly’s intervention to defuse the “birther” controversy (at which point he insisted that Trump has not been seriously seeking the nomination) was apparently motivated by the fact that the candidates most likely to be eliminated from contention because of Trump’s presence – Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin – are both darlings of Fox News.  In fact, Palin is a Fox News contributor.

At the 2012 Republican Convention in Tampa, Trump could step aside and support Willard Romney, who is despised my many Tea Party activists for having created what is now known as “Obamacare”.  Trump’s elimination of the Tea Party favorites before the convention would solve Romney’s problem with that voting bloc.  Romney can be expected to have an equally difficult time winning the support of dog lovers, as a result of his decision to strap the family dog, Seamus, to the car roof for a 12-hour family vacation drive to Ontario.  Despite his “Presidential” appearance, this Homer Simpson-esque episode from Romney’s life has already impaired efforts to portray him as a potentially effective Commander-In-Chief.

Meanwhile, President Obama is busy trumpeting his newly-minted, false campaign promises.  Gallup reported that on April 15, Obama’s approval rating had tied its all-time low of 41%.  More interestingly, his approval rating among African-American and Hispanic voters is beginning to slip from its enormously-high levels:

Though majorities of blacks (85%) and Hispanics (54%) continue to approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, his ratings among these groups slipped in March and have set or tied new lows.

*   *   *

Obama, elected to office with strong support from minority voters, has averaged better than 90% approval among blacks, and 65% among Hispanics, during his term.  Prior to March, Obama’s lowest monthly average among blacks was 88% in July 2010 and December 2010.  The president’s 54% March job approval rating among Hispanics ties the low from July and August 2010.

Despite the efforts of Republican commentators, such as Peggy Noonan, to create a narrative to the effect that Obama’s waning popularity – as well as the losses sustained by the Democrats in the 2010 elections – resulted from voter concern about government spending and the deficit, I suspect that Americans have simply become alienated by the failure of Obama and his party to deliver on their 2008 promises.  Worse yet, the capitulation to the interests of Wall Street by Democrats who promised “reform” has reinforced voter apathy – the real factor in the 2010 Democratic setbacks.

Cord Jefferson of Good provided this graphic of what Congress would look like if it truly represented America.  The failure of Democrats to win the support of Independent and centrist voters is readily apparent.  You can blame gerrymandering all you want, but as long as the Democrats fail to provide alternatives to Republican policies, they will continue to lose.  I believe it was William Black who said:

Under America’s two-party system, we have one party that is owned by big business and another party that sells out to big business.

I was pleased to see my own sentiments shared and articulated quite well by Mike Kimel of the Presimetrics Blog, in his recent posting entitled, “Why I Will Not be Voting for Obama in 2012”.  Although Mr. Kimel doesn’t have an alternative candidate in mind, the very reason for his disillusionment with Obama is that – with respect to the nation’s most significant problems – our current President has proposed no alternative policies to those of his predecessor:

And yes, there are a handful of things Obama did that GW might not do, but let’s be realistic – this has looked from the very beginning like GW’s third term.

Which leaves just one question – if the policies of the Republicans are even worse than Obama’s – and they tend to support anti-growth tax policies (calling them pro-growth doesn’t change the data), what should a rational person do?  I don’t know.  But I think if I’m going to see Republican policies enacted, I’d prefer to see them run under a Republican label.  See, Democratic policies may not be very good, but historically they have tended to produce better results than Republican policies.  (BTW – Michael Kanell and I have an entire book called Presimetrics looking at how Presidents performed on a wide range of topics.)  Another four years spent bringing the feeble Democratic brand down to the levels of the even more feeble Republican brand will cause lasting damage.

Obama will never re-ignite the enthusiasm of 2008 by presenting himself to the voters as “the devil you know” or “the lesser of two evils”.  What America’s middle class really needs is an honest, Independent candidate to make a run for The White House in 2012.


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