Political Brain Surgery and Fair Trade
Psychologist Drew Westen’s The Political Brain was one of the most influential books of 2007, and released right after the fair-trade sweep of Congress in 2006. Like the work of linguist George Lakoff, Westen’s work does not advise candidates what positions they should take, but rather how they should communicate about their positions, whatever these might be. Drawing on knowledge from the field of cognitive science, Westen finds that voters are more responsive to candidates and platforms that carry emotional resonance for them. Among the major communication tactics that Westen considers:
- Emotionally evocative language: “Progressives have to stop using the kind of language that has left the left so right but so wrong, such as ‘Poverty is a serious social problem,’ ‘We have to do more to protect the environment,’ and ‘Income disparities in the country have increased at an alarming rate.’ If you didn’t feel anything as you read those phrases, you’re not alone. This doesn’t mean those on the left have to give up their values and principles to win elections. It means they have to describe them with emotional clarity.” (258)
- Framing: “The most prominent contemporary examples of framing, beginning with the Contract with America, have been the handiwork of Frank Luntz, who has recently disclosed some memos written to provide Republicans with ‘translations’ for common phrases that didn’t serve them well. For foreign trade, he substituted international trade… Luntz recommended using words that evoked the right [neural] networks, rather than those that elicited little emotions or unintended negative associations to Republican policies (e.g., the word foreign). A perennial problem for the Democrats has been the failure to recognize Trojan horses that smuggle in frames from the other side.” (265)
- Principled stands: “the level [of cognitive categorization] that appears to have the most emotional impact in politics is … a principled stand. A principled stand is neither an abstraction (too superordinate) nor a detailed policy proposal (too subordinate). Unfortunately, these seem to be the two levels toward which Democratic minds naturally gravitate. A principled stand has clear implications for policy, but it does not lay out the specifics of programs. Rather, it is an emotionally compelling application of a value or ideological principle to a particular issue or problem.” (270)
- Using the whole brain: “Successful campaigns present both positive and negative messages. The reason is less political than neurological: it is inherent in the structure of the human brain. Positive and negative emotions are not the opposite of each other. They are psychologically distinct, mediated by different neural circuits, and affect voting in different ways. Focusing primarily on the positive and leaving the negative to chance is simply ceding half the brain to the opposition.” (250)
Westen explains how Gov. Mike Huckabee might have gone further in the Republican primaries if, ironically, he had been an even angrier “populist” than he was. Instead, he spoke in the emotional tones of a pastor trying to lead his flock to their “better angels.” Similarly, Westen says Democrats are missing many voters by not evoking both angry and compassionate emotional cues. (427)
One some level, these insights are not brain surgery (pun intended). Any good labor or community organizer, for instance, knows that she must move the people she hopes to organize through a cycle of “anger-hope-action.” In other words, people must be shaken out of apathy by anger at their problems, convinced that something can be done about their problems before the anger turns to depression, and then moved swiftly into taking action that will build power and help them solve their problems.
These insights shed light on:
- Why many Democrats with anti-fair trade voting records and platforms (or who completely omitted any sort of criticisms of trade policy in their campaigns) have had difficulties in the electoral arena. Such candidates take away a very convenient means of expressing anger at status-quo economic policies if they do not discuss the unfair direction of global-economic policy. (Many of these candidates are milquetoast in their emotional appeals across a wide range of issues – a topic for another study);
- Why Democrats, as they shifted to a frame of anger at our failed trade policies that they had avoided during the Clinton and early Bush years, picked up so many seats in the 2006 congressional races;
- Why the role of anger at NAFTA continued to play such a prominent role in the Democratic presidential primaries;
- Why Obama and many successful congressional candidates deemphasized specific reforms to trade agreements in their public communications in the 2008 general election. This makes profound political sense, as any of the words in the phrase “free trade agreement” could be just as likely to activate positive as negative emotional cues. Indeed, the phrase is a work of corporate branding, rather than an accurate description of the pacts, which often raise barriers to “free trade” in patented essential medicines, go far beyond the reach of narrow “trade” policy, and are never the outcome of an open and deliberative international process where everyone shares their views and comes to agreement. It is telling that, in spite of the possible positive associations with “freedom” and “agreement,” increasing numbers of Americans respond negatively to pollsters when asked about “free trade agreements,” as we showed above. It is likely, however, that public anger towards the phrase is near the maxing-out point, which is why it is propitious that many candidates are shifting their phraseology. Out of 137 paid trade TV ads in the current election cycle, only eleven mentioned the phrase “free trade” or “trade agreement.” Over four times as many (45) mentioned instead “NAFTA,” “CAFTA,” “trade pact,” “trade deal,” or “unfair trade” – phrases that carry a negative or neutral connotation, and have the advantages of being more accurate and containing fewer syllables. The remainder emphasized the unfairness of the offshore tax evasion issue. While this represented over half of the total ads, it is worth noting that the number of ads mentioning some form of trade deal were still nearly double the total number of trade ads on any topic in the 2006 cycle;
- Why successful candidates crafted messaging that juxtaposed anger at “tax breaks for companies that shift our jobs overseas,” with hope around the issue of “green jobs in the future,” and action around voting for the Democratic candidate. This issue matrix has the benefit of being very easy to understand at a gut level, which unfortunately we cannot say about, for instance, NAFTA’s investor-state mechanisms which incentivize offshoring. In the primaries, “NAFTA” was the proxy for failed trade policy. But then, after seeing the initial emotional success of the NAFTA proxy, media pundits forced the candidates deep into the policy weeds of U.S.-Canada bilateral relations (such as Canada’s commitment under NAFTA to send oil to the United States, irrespective of domestic economic conditions). In contrast, the offshore tax loophole frame that was added during the general election is hard to atomize into wonky minutiae, thus making it a powerful proxy for the complicated array of policies connected to the public’s negative emotive reaction to how the current trade and globalization regime has undermined their wellbeing. While McCain and many pundits might be pro-NAFTA, who could be for something so patently unfair as cutting taxes for corporations that offshore jobs? Indeed, to our knowledge, no Republican candidates that were accused of favoring these loopholes stood up in ads or debates to publicly defend the unfair practice, although presumably many would have if the issue was NAFTA, for which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bush administration have long prepared many (if inaccurate and misleading) projections of jobs gained from exports to Canada and Mexico);
- Why some Republicans with fair-trade voting records and platforms were not as successful as their Democratic fair-trade challengers. They could evoke the anger frames of the fair-trade movement, but not deliver much in the way of hope with their other anti-middle class initiatives; and finally
- Why the DSCC and DCCC actually invested resources in 2008 in fair-trade messaging and candidates.
For the first time in modern history, the individuals at the top of the Democratic Party establishment – Barack Obama, his campaign advisor David Axelrod, and Rahm Emanuel, along with a growing number of consultants – got their start in political life through community organizing and public-interest organizations. Discussions of how to frame issues and enemies, of how to utilize tactics and messages that build power, are part and parcel of the organizing experience that these individuals are now employing in their campaigns.
Politicians are starting to realize that – not only do anti-NAFTA messages resonate with the public, as polls and electoral outcomes show – but that the emotional anger evoked by unfair trade deals are a natural complement to the emotional hope brought on by green jobs and middle-class tax cuts. This shift is, unfortunately, probably not an indication of the ideological transformation of Emanuel, who helped Bill Clinton pass NAFTA. While Emanuel did pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed praising candidates for running against NAFTA, he failed to grapple with the fair-trade movement’s longstanding contention that the deregulatory policy model that the pact represented must be rolled back. The shift is also not likely to generate a windfall in corporate campaign contributions (although it is likely to help with grassroots fundraising prospects). But it does show that the pairing of the messages make strong sense from a political messaging perspective, and the contribution that fair trade can make towards reestablishing the pro-“working-class” brand of the party.
[NOTE: This is largely excerpted from our November report, "Fair Trade Gets an Upgrade".]