More Drama from Obama? A Reply to Drew Westen.

Via Nathan Smith
on Aug 8, 2011
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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., herehere, 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?


About Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a philosophy professor at Houston Community College – Northwest. He’s a father of two and husband to fellow elephant columnist, Joana Smith. As a philosopher, he specializes in Descartes, the philosophy of mind, and phenomenology. He’s interested in all kinds of things, but he blogs primarily about politics, spirituality, and good, green living.

Follow him on twitter @smithnd. And share your thoughts in the comments; he doesn’t bite.


8 Responses to “More Drama from Obama? A Reply to Drew Westen.”

  1. JTfromSTL says:

    OMG.. are there still people making excuses for the most inexperienced Chicago Mob Politician a fool ever voted for? Really?

  2. boulderwind says:

    I actually was a Hilary gal, but I will take Obama over the GOP anytime. All of this is on the GOP's heads. They were obstructionists and just trying to make Obama look bad by refusing any increases in revenue. I don't know why he caved, if I ran the world I would have used the 14th amendment…

  3. Denise O'Driscoll says:

    STFU until you have a better candidate in mind, we should be supporting our president this is why the republicans continue to beat us, they are more loyal to their candidate than we are STOP OVER THINKING THIS YOU ARE TOO FAR LEFT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY get real

  4. matthew says:

    Nathan — do you have any evidence that Buddhist narratives of non-conflict are politically effective in the arena of American social justice? Westen cites plentiful research to suggest that conflict stories communicate and motivate. Sounds like you are suggesting that an ideal is more important than evidence.

  5. kimberely says:

    Matthew, excellent point. Although as Einstein once said, we cannot solve a problem from the mindset in which it was created (or something to that effect). It is the very nature of consciousness to expand and evolve. Can't hurt. After all, King, Jr had a dream, didn't he?


  6. Tim Morton says:

    Great piece, my thoughts exactly. <a href = "">I posted something similar on my blog.

  7. Nathan Smith says:

    Thanks Tim. I think your characterization of Obama as a "yin" President is very much in line with what I'm thinking.

  8. matthew says:

    Great link, thank you. But Chait is refuting the importance of presidential rhetoric altogether, not yang vs. yin style.

    I'm discussing because I wonder whether the introspection-bias of yoga and buddhism is by nature evasive of external pressures, and avoiding of its ecology.

    My reading of early literature and mythology tells me that the oldest narratives are always yang. The myth is most satisfying when the demonic other is integrated into the whole, but he is always first named and called out, and the blood flies. What happens to Arjuna is a good example.

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