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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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Silver’s Streak

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November 24, 2008

One of the most interesting characters to emerge from the 2008 election cycle is a young man named Nate Silver.  Not to be upstaged by Sarah Palin, once he caught the interest of the mainstream media, Nate immediately picked up a new, snappy-looking pair of eyeglasses.

Nate is a 30-year-old math wizard who turned the world of political polling on its ear by introducing said ear to some new sounds that make nearly perfect mathematical and sonic sense.  He graduated cum laude from the University of Chicago in 1980 with a major in Economics.  He then took a job for a few years, working for a consulting firm.  During that time, he developed a statistical system to forecast the performance of professional baseball players.  In 2003, he went to work for a group producing an annual book on professional baseball player performance analysis and performance forecasts, called Baseball Prospectus.  He then sold his statistical analysis system to that company and joined their staff.

In November of 2007, Nate began using his skills and systems to make forecasts of the Presidential primaries, using the pseudonym:  “Poblano” on the Daily Kos website.  On February 11, 2008, neocon William Kristol wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, wherein he made note of “an interesting regression analysis at the Daily Kos Web site” done by Mr. Silver.  The next month, Nate started his blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, where he utilized his new system for analyzing and forecasting Presidential primary results, as well as the ultimate outcome the 2008 Presidential election.  As a consequence of this endeavor, the studios at CNN and MSNBC quickly became familiar surroundings to him.  By November 14, 2008, The New York Observer had this to say about Nate:

Mr. Silver’s statistical skills were ratified when the outcome of the presidential race aligned almost exactly with his final predictions both for the popular vote and the Electoral College breakdown  …

Later that day, Leon Neyfakh reported on The Observer website that Nate had inked a book deal with Penguin Group, USA including a $700,000 advance.  Although this advance is only ten percent of the amount allegedly offered as an advance to Sarah Palin for “her” “book”, you need to keep in mind that Nate is only 30 years old and Sarah will be a grandmother soon.

As the recount for Minnesota’s Senatorial election moves along, Nate’s November 23 posting on his FiveThirtyEight.com website has received quite a bit of attention.  The title alone says it all:  “Projection:  Franken to Win Recount by 27 Votes”.  Will Mr. Silver’s “streak” continue?  A reader, identified as “Max” posted the following comment on that blog:  “If you are right about this you should put all others out of business.”

Nate provided us with another interesting take on the 2008 election, with a particular focus on the state of California.  I was surprised at how Maureen Dowd’s article in the November 23 New York Times exhibited either an unfamiliarity with Nate’s California analysis or (less likely) a refusal to agree with it.  To my disappointment, I detected Ms. Dowd’s apparent acceptance of the “conventional wisdom” concerning California’s controversial ballot initiative:

This month, gays who supported Barack Obama had the bittersweet experience of seeing some of the black and Latino voters who surged to the polls to vote Democratic also vote for Proposition 8, which turned gay “I dos” into “You can’ts.”

She should have known better.  I would expect a pundit of her stature to be familiar with Nate’s November 11 posting on FiveThirtyEight.com:  “Prop 8 Myths”.  Here is some of what he had to say:

But the notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly.

*  *  *

At the end of the day, Prop 8’s passage was more a generational matter than a racial one.  If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two.  It appears that the generational splits may be larger within minority communities than among whites, although the data on this is sketchy.

Get with it, Maureen!  If Al Franken turns out to be Minnesota’s new junior Senator, you will no longer be justified in overlooking the observations of Nate Silver.

Who Was The “Kill Him!” Guy?

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October 9, 2008

It was Monday, October 6, 2008.  Sarah “The Gumball” Palin was speaking before a crowd in Clearwater, Florida.  She was dressed in white.  Behind her, stood a predominately female group of individuals, similarly dressed in Klan white.  Palin stood before the crowd and launched into the long-discredited attempt by the McCain campaign to assert that Barack Obama “pals around with domestic terrorists”.

As many have learned by now, Obama’s involvement in the Annenberg Foundation’s program to assist public education (The Annenberg Challenge Project) placed him in contact with a former radical activist of the 1960s, William Ayers.  Both Obama and Ayers live in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, near the University of Chicago.  In 1995, Ayers hosted an informal fundraising event for Obama’s first run for the Illinois State Senate.  During the years 2000-2002, Obama and Ayers served on the board of an anti-poverty group, The Woods Fund of Chicago.  Bill Ayers is the son of Thomas G. Ayers, the former Chairman and CEO of Chicago’s electricity monopoly, Commonwealth Edison Company.  Having such a background in the 1960s, resulted in the political radicalization of many similarly-situated young people.  Bill Ayers became part of a militant faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called The Weathermen.  They eventually changed the name of the organization to the gender-neutral Weather Underground.  In 1969 (when Obama was 8 years old) Bill Ayers felt outraged by the fact that there was a statue in Chicago (not far from where Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios are now located) commemorating the deaths of seven police officers involved in suppressing the “Haymarket Riot” of 1886.  An untold number of protesting laborers were killed during that chaos.  This event resulted from the original “May Day” celebration of the rights of laborers (May 1, 1886).  Ayers decided to participate in a successful plot to destroy the statue with a bomb.  No live humans were injured in that event.  Although the statue was rebuilt two years later, the Weathermen blew it up again within a few months.

Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post, what many of us saw on the news concerning Palin’s remarks about Obama at the October 6 rally in Clearwater:

“Now it turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers,” Palin said.

“Boooo!” said the crowd.

“And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, ‘launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,'” she continued.

“Boooo!” the crowd repeated.

“Kill him!” proposed one man in the audience.

As a result of this incident, many commentators have expressed their outrage that the current rhetoric of the McCain campaign could motivate someone to call for the assassination of Barack Obama.  Others have suggested that it cannot be discerned as to whether this man was calling for the killing of Obama or Bill Ayers.  In either event, I would expect (and as a taxpayer – demand) at this point, that Barack Obama’s Secret Service detail would be contacting Palin’s Secret Service detail to request any and all photographic and video information that might depict the man yelling “kill him!” at that rally.  I would also like to believe that the Secret Service is in the process of identifying this individual.  One would expect them to have a few things to discuss with him.  Once this maniac is identified, the Secret Service should let us know who he is (or, at least, see what he looks like) if they cannot locate him.  If he turns up in my area, I and many of my friends, would like to be able to advise the Secret Service of his current whereabouts, should we spot him.

The Gumball vocalizes indignation over “domestic terrorism”.  Shouldn’t that fury result in some sort of response to her audience member who proposed such an act to her very face?