THE POLITICAL BRAIN: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation

The passionate vision of mind and brain laid out in this part of the book, and the data described in this chapter, have many implications for how candidates should run their campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, they suggest a hierarchy of goals that should guide every campaign, reflecting the hierarchy of influences on electoral success.

The first goal transcends any given candidate: to define the party and its principles in a way that is emotionally compelling and tells a coherent story of what its members believe in—and to define the other party and its values in ways that undermine its capacity to resonate emotionally with voters. This is the first goal of any campaign because the way voters experience the party is the first influence on the way they will experience the candidate.

The second goal of an effective campaign is to maximize positive and minimize negative feelings toward its own candidate, and to encourage the opposite set of feelings toward his or her opponent. The most important feelings are gut-level feelings, from global emotional reactions (e.g., “I like this person”) to more specific feelings (e.g., “She makes me proud to be an American”).

Ronald Reagan successfully associated Jimmy Carter with humiliation for his inability to get the Iranian hostages home, just as Bill Clinton associated George H. Bush with anxiety about the economy (as well as a range of other negative feelings toward Bush’s apparent inability to “get” what the average American was experiencing). Both men, as challengers, associated themselves with hope.

It may seem obvious that these are the feelings a candidate wants to elicit and avoid. But my point is much more specific: managing positive and negative feelings should be the primary goals of a political campaign. It’s fine to engage on the issues and offer specific policies. There is plenty of time for that in a campaign. But candidates should use policy positions to illustrate their principles, not the other way around.

When Bill Clinton was running for reelection in 1996, he didn’t hide values in the fine print of his policies. His policies and actions illustrated his values, as can be seen in the opening paragraphs of his party’s platform that year:


Today’s Democratic Party is determined to renew America’s most basic bargain: Opportunity to every American, and responsibility from every American. And today’s Democratic Party is determined to reawaken the great sense of American community. Opportunity. Responsibility. Community. These are the values that made America strong. These are the values of the Democratic Party. These are the values that must guide us into the future.Today, America is moving forward with the strong presidential leadership it deserves. The economy is stronger, the deficit is lower, and government is smaller. Education is better, our environment is cleaner, families are healthier, and our streets are safer. There is more opportunity in America, more responsibility in our homes, and more peace in the world.

The first paragraph promises to address Americans’ interests (opportunity) and their values, including values more often associated with the right (responsibility). The second paragraph draws its emotional power from its literary style.

Presenting the words opportunity, responsibility, and community as sentences in their own right literally forces the reader to “speak” these words as they would be delivered in oratory—punctuating each one with significance.

The next paragraph describes the basis for the claim that the Democrats can deliver on these promises. As was so characteristic of Clinton’s appeals, the sequence of the paragraphs is not incidental. It begins with an appeal to emotion, wedding voters’ interests with quintessentially American values, and then follows with an authoritative presentation of what he had accomplished.

This document was just the opening act of a campaign that would stay on message from start to finish, with the same principles and sequencing, to the very end.

Consider Clinton’s opening statement from his second and final debate with Republican Senator Bob Dole in late October 1996, which used statistics to illustrate his values, to show concretely what he cared about:


I have a simple philosophy that I tried to follow for the last four years: Do what creates opportunity for all, what reinforces responsibility from all of us, and what will help us build a community where everybody’s got a role to play and a place at the table. Compared to four years ago, we’re clearly better off. We’ve got ten and a half million more jobs, the deficit’s been reduced. . . Incomes are rising for the first time in a decade, the crime rates, the welfare rolls are falling. We’re putting 100,000 more police on the street. Sixty thousand felons, fugitives, and stalkers have been denied handguns.The third goal of a campaign is to manage feelings toward the candidates’ personal characteristics. This goal is related to the previous one, although emotional associations tend to hold more sway with voters than judgments about a candidate’s particular traits (as Clinton’s global approval ratings even after his impeachment demonstrate). In general, the goal is to convince voters that your candidate is trustworthy, competent, empathic, and capable of strong leadership, and to raise doubts about the opposition along one or more of these dimensions.


The fourth goal of a campaign is to manage positive and negative feelings toward the candidates’ policies and positions. This goal is not only fourth but a distantfourth. And it is higher still than the more “rational” goal of presenting voters with cogent arguments for a set of policy prescriptions. These arguments tend to influence behavior at the polling booth, if at all, to the extent that they engender positive or negative feelings toward the candidates.

This hierarchy may seem obvious, but it has been remarkably opaque to many Democratic strategists for the better part of three decades.

Democrats have instead insisted on starting at the bottom of the hierarchy, practicing what might be called trickle-up politics. Trickle-up politics is the theory of electoral success associated with the dispassionate vision of the mind.

It assumes that voting decisions trickle up from voters’ rational assessments of specific policies, and that these specific assessments additively create an overall judgment of the expected utility of electing one candidate or the other.

Trickle-up politics is as valid as trickle-down economics. The assumption of trickle-up theorists is that voters not only do but should make their electoral decisions this way.

But in a republic, such as our own, where we vote for candidates from president on down to county commissioner or sheriff, ordinary citizens—including even well-informed citizens—can’t possibly keep up with all the data required to know which aspects of which bills are likely to yield results conducive to their values and interests and which candidates hold which positions in more than a handful of races.

Although the media tend to be disinclined to play much of an educative role in elections (other than to inform voters of who’s winning or losing at any particular point in time), even an information-seeking, educated voter might know the details on three or four issues in a high-profile race, but knowing much more than that would be a full-time job.

That’s the job of a legislator, not a citizen.

What a voter needs to know most in deciding whether to vote for one candidate or the other are four things, roughly in this order:

First, do they share the values that matter most to me, and do they care about people like me?

Second, can I trust them to represent me faithfully?

Third, do they have the personal qualities that lead me to believe they’ll do right by my values and interests, such as integrity, leadership, and competence?

And fourth, if there’s an issue that really matters to me (e.g., the Iraq War), what’s their stand on it, and can I trust them to think about it and make decisions which I would probably make if I had all the information they’ll have as my elected representative?

And those turn out to be just the questions voters do ask when casting their ballots, and in just that order.


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