Summer reading: The Political Brain

by Jake Quinn

My summer reading list, last week purchased for a crisp US $10 a piece and whispernetted onto my Amazon Kindle includes The Political Brain by Drew Western. It’s an interesting read for centre lefters struggling to understand why the right, particularly in the US, seem to have an easier time of it, in terms of winning the argument (and elections) in much of the last 40 odd years.

I’m about a third of the way through it. I’m also reading Infidel the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and planning on getting stuck into Island by Aldous Huxley and Portfolios of the Poor (which examines how the poorest people in parts of South Africa, Bangladesh and India draw on extensive small-scale financial instruments to manage their finances, it’s essentially a book about the possibilities of microfinance) by Daryl Collins et al.

Oh how I love three-week holidays in the Coromandel with nothing much to do but sleep, fish, swim, walk, drink and read.

Drew Western, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, argues, amongst other things, that Republicans have an easily told story, a set of clear values that define them, and that they do not shy away from more divisive arguments. He says the latter allows them to show strength and display the courage of their convictions.

Democrats, he argues, more often wish not to offend and have thus avoided engaging in some of the more divisive and emotional arguments (such as on abortion and gun control, despite a majority of the population aligning more with their views than with Republicans). He also says Democrats have failed to create themselves easily told stories about what defines them and their values. I imagine that later in the book he goes on to try to rectify this. (Note: he excludes the ‘great communicator’ President Clinton, who he thinks fully understood the nature of the political brain, from his critique of US Democrats.)

The central thesis is that Republicans and their consultants understand that elections are won because of people’s emotional responses to parties, candidates and their stories, rather than the issues they campaign on. He says issues should be quite some way down the priority list in terms of campaign strategy. He goes to some length to try and prove his points using clinical examples. Reading this stuff raises two main points for me:

1) It would be easy for left-wing strategists to over-react to Western’s lessons, to have an “ahuh!” moment and throw out years of sensible politics and adopt some really stupid touchy feely crap, perhaps centered around social media and twenty something’s feelings and thus be reduced to blubbering idiots.

2) The Labour Party in 2011 campaigned pretty well, it tried the values stuff and it didn’t shy from traditionally sticky debates (retirement age and CGT). But, it campaigned heavily on issues, on policies. Many of its policies were 2-1 more popular than National’s. Polls showed people prefered a CGT as a means of debt reduction to asset sales by 2-1. Had you polled, you would have probably found 2-1 in support of introducing a top income tax rate on people earning over $120,000.

I feel like Labour had its policies fairly down pat. But on election day, those Kiwis that did vote voted for National by almost 2 votes to 1, compared to Labour. National didn’t need policies to win the election. It won for a range of reasons such as voters’ emotional responses to Key’s perceived strength as a Prime Minister compared to Goff, their emotional response to the government’s handling of a series of severe crises and to a successful Rugby World Cup, and more (such as the desire for Kiwi’s to give people a go – we tend to reelect governments at least once).

Importantly, also,  National won because tens of thousands of Labour votes didn’t turn out to vote. Labour were not quite credible as an alternative government, their leadership represented the past rather than the future. Voters obviously weren’t given sufficient emotional motivation to vote for them. (Point is – obvious to me atleast – that they didn’t “not turn out” because of Labour’s policies, it was something higher level than that).

Issues didn’t dominate the 2011 campaign. Policy barely rated a mention when push came to shove. The lesson Labour should take from this is that David Shearer will be PM in 2014 if he can articulate in simple terms why Labour shares New Zealanders values and beliefs, why David Shearer is a strong leader – and better than Key or whoever National puts up – that Shearer is a good husband, neighbour and man, and that National isn’t actually the party of the Kiwi every-man, but that Labour is.