Hearts and Minds

Hi. I thought I’d start off with a nice light bit of politics.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams went to the polls for the position of President of the United States. Adams was the sixth man to occupy that office; Jackson would soon be elected the seventh. It was a brutal campaign: Adams’s supporters dismissed Jackson as an adulterer, a gambler, a drunk and a murderer. In return, the Jackson campaign depicted Adams as an unconscionable snob, a corrupt bargainer, and a monarchist. The separation between the candidates’ responses was crucial: Jackson talked up his war record and man-of-the-people roots; Adams fulminated pompously about his opponents lack of learning. Jackson inevitably won, because electorates are wont to believe the most compellingly consistent story. Jackson could not be a philandering thug and a decorated war hero; Adams could all too easily be characterised as out of touch and arrogant.

This is a long-winded way of saying that Drew Westen is right. I recently read his book, The Political Brain, the central thesis of which is that voters do not respond to political campaigns with their heads, but with their hearts. According to Westen’s model, if a politician chooses to use ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ to win, he will lose. Successful politicians instead define their policies and positions using emotion and narrative, explaining why they think as they do, rather than what it is they think. Westen is a Democrat, and the second half of his book is given over to schooling his party how to respond to his theories.

What struck me, though, is how obvious Westen’s ideas seem once you’ve read them. In Britain, David Cameron has brought his Conservative Party back from the political brink by using precisely the tactics Westen advocates. Cameron has been accused (as Jackson was in 1828, funnily enough) of being fuzzy on the issues, all hugging hoodies and driving huskies. But his secret lies not in his policy papers but in his ability to redefine the Conservative message for the 21st century: the core principles of his party remain unchanged, but the emotional arc is at last palatable. No Conservative leader since Thatcher has so cannily aligned policy with principle.

What Cameron has also done is focus relentlessly on the contrast between his own party and the Labour government. Much has been made of his claim to be the ‘heir to Blair’, of his inner circle’s awe of Labour’s most electorally successful leader, and how in thrall they seem to the New Labour project’s success in redefining and reenergising a party which had seemed to be a spent force. But, in truth, Cameron has put just as much time into telling voters what Labour are doing wrong and – crucially – why it is wrong. This ‘why’ is always and without fail attached to a core Conservative principle, as it is today expressed: self-help, ‘fairness’, free markets and free choices. He has taken too terms from the left – broken society, poverty, environmentalism – and made them his own. In short, he has successfully imposed a new dominant – compelling and consistent – narrative.

In his book, Westen rails against the failure of the US Democratic Party to do the same. His quintessential example is the failure of the 2004 Kerry campaign to respond to the ‘swiftboating’ of its candidate, in which his war record – and integrity – was bought into fatal question. But the problem is wider. Dedicated to a rationalism that expects voters to respond to debating rhetoric, they have ceded term after term to the Republicans, allowing their opponents to define the rules of the game. Republican lexicography – death tax, war on terror, values voting – is swallowed by a Democratic party happy to regurgitate each and every one whilst debating strongly against the policies attached to them, thus achieving a mere re-emphasis of the emotional narrative of the other team. Their rationalism does not so much blind them to the dangers of this sort of emotive appeal as it leads them to condemn it as dishonest. Gordon Brown, PhD, sneering at his smooth opponent from across the Dispatch Box, makes the same mistakes: he has lost the power to define his terms, and his disastrous poll ratings show the results.

At first, this crisis of left-wing confidence seemed about to be broken by Barack Obama, last night confirmed as the Democratic nominee for the 2008 presidential race. His powerful rhetoric focused on emotion and narrative arc, featuring sweeping themes like hope, change and unity. But now he is neck-and-neck with John McCain, a Republican candidate many had written off, but who speaks of ‘straight talk’ and ‘American values’, explaining his political positions clearly and consistently. Obama’s nuance, his thoughtful ‘professorial’ style, is increasingly seen as a weakness. His pick of the combative, down to earth Senator Joe Biden as his Vice Presidential nominee underlines the extent to which Obama is increasingly seeking to minimise this perception of him as an odd, ivory-towered other.

It would seem a startling turnaround from those heady days of January and February, were it not for the timidity with which Obama has responded to John McCain’s attacks on his experience, judgement and even intellect. McCain is defining Obama, whilst Obama has yet to find a viable means of fighting back and redefining his opponent. This week’s Democratic convention has given him that chance. If he fails to capitalise, if he fails to graft onto his ‘change’ arc a further narrative – one more fitting to a presidential rather than a primary race (as the latest Frank Luntz focus group suggests he must) – he risks following another learned but distant candidate into the wilds, chased out of town by a folksy war hero. History could repeat itself, as Westen might well have predicted.


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