Given the tumult over the weekend following S&P’s downgrade of US debt and the recent debt ceiling debate, Drew Westen’s extended op-ed in the NYTimes this Sunday has received a lot of attention (e.g., here, here, and here).
Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University and author of The Political Brain. If you haven’t read that book, this op-ed is basically a condensed and applied version of it. I enjoyed the book and find a lot of his experimental research compelling.
The thesis of the book (and the article ) is that appeals to emotion and grand narratives in political rhetoric win the day. Though the book (published in 2007) focuses on episodes from 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns rather than Obama, there are mentions of the then senator and obvious future candidate. It is basically written for liberals as an indictment of the overly cerebral, wonkish approach that typified candidates like Al Gore and John Kerry. These were guys who exuded weakness, pencil-pushing, number crunching nerdiness. They were not leaders in the vein of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or dare I say, Rick Perry.
Westen is big on the idea that at the end of the day voters pick the sexy candidate and eschew the one they might have taken home to their mothers.
The core of Westen’s criticism of Obama can be summarized in the following two passages. The first is a study in contrast with other transformational figures, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr.:
… 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.
And the second, near the end of the piece, sums up Westen’s own analysis of Obama’s lack of effectiveness:
When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.
The strength of Westen’s thesis is to claim that human beings have an evolutionary and psychological need for strong story lines to make sense of the world around them. We respond much more readily, deeply, and surely to emotional appeals than facts and figures. Yet, Westen insists that every story has a winner and a loser, a protagonist and an antagonist. For this reason, he (like many progressives) is continually disappointed by Obama’s conciliations to Republicans, his attempts to be “post-partisan.”
I am wondering aloud — to all you Buddhists out there — whether this needs be the case.
Don’t we have an entire arsenal of ancient stories reminding us that we (our egos or selves) are the antagonists? Isn’t there room for stories of a different kind: where the devil isn’t the other guy, our enemy, the stranger? Why isn’t it possible to create a narrative that eschews the old lines of conflict? And if it were possible, wouldn’t that be the truly progressive position?
I went back and re-read Obama’s inaugural address and I think Westen is wrong. There is a narrative arc to the speech. It goes like this: we are in uncertain and troubling times; we’ve been here before; and we have always found a way through, a better way; we will find it again. This doesn’t make the other guy the devil, but is it any worse for that fact?
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