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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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Fighting The Old War

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September 30, 2010

The New York Times recently ran a story about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to support the campaigns of centrist Republicans out of concern that the election of “Tea Party” –  backed candidates was pushing the Republican Party to the extreme right.  The article by Michael Barbaro began this way:

In an election year when anger and mistrust have upended races across the country, toppling moderates and elevating white-hot partisans, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to pull politics back to the middle, injecting himself into marquee contests and helping candidates fend off the Tea Party.

Although it’s nice to see Mayor Bloomberg take a stand in support of centrism, I believe he is going about it the wrong way.  There are almost as many different motives driving people to the Tea Party movement as there are attendees at any given Tea Party event.  Although the movement is usually described as a far-right-wing fringe phenomenon, reporters who have attended the rallies and talked to the people found a more diverse group.  Consider the observations made by True Slant’s David Masciotra, who attended a Tea Party rally in Valparaiso, Indiana back on April 14:

The populist anger of the Northwest Indiana tea partiers could be moved to a left-wing protest rally without much discernible difference.

As much as the NWI Patriots seemed to hate Obama and health care reform, they also hate large corporations and the favorable treatment they are given by Washington.

*   *   *

They have largely legitimate concerns and grievances about the quality of their lives and future of their children’s lives that are not being addressed in Washington by either party.  Their wages have stagnated, while the cost of raising a family has crushingly increased.

My pet theory is that the rise of the Tea Party movement is just the first signal indicating the demise of the so-called “two-party system”.  I expect this to happen as voters begin to face up to the fact that the differences between Democratic and Republican policies are subtle when compared to the parties’ united front with lobbyists and corporations in trampling the interests of individual citizens.  On July 26, I wrote a piece entitled, “The War On YOU”, discussing the battle waged by “our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party”.   On August 30, I made note of a recent essay at the Zero Hedge website, written by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

Barry Ritholtz, publisher of The Big Picture website, recently wrote a piece focused on how the old Left vs. Right paradigm has become obsolete.  He explained that the current power struggle taking place in Washington (and everywhere else) is the battle of corporations against individuals:

We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual.  These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts.  Where there are massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power.  The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

*   *   *

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture.  Consider this about the Bailouts:  It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make?   Almost none whatsoever.

*   *   *

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power:  Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users).  Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn.  I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek?  Friedman vs Krugman?  Those are the wrong intellectual debates.  It’s you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO,  You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO.   And you are losing    . . .

Barry Ritholtz concluded with the statement:

If you see the world in terms of Left & Right, you really aren’t seeing the world at all  . . .

I couldn’t agree more.  Beyond that, I believe that politicians who continue to champion the old Left vs. Right war will find themselves in the dust as those leaders representing the interests of human citizens  rather than corporate interests win the support and enthusiasm of the electorate.   Similarly, those news and commentary outlets failing to adapt to this changing milieu will no longer have a significant following.  It will be interesting to see who adjusts.