When I was taking my first political science course, which feels like a century ago, the professor asked the following question: Why do most people vote the way they do?
The answer, according to my professor, was the voter’s identification with a particular party. Much later in life, after my experience with countless elections, both as a campaign worker and a candidate, I understood the wisdom of this axiom.
I had always believed that my own political preferences flowed from a careful analysis of a candidate’s principles, values and character. I felt that my study of philosophers from Plato to Jean-Paul Sartre had provided me with a foundation on which I could feel confident that my political choices were both sound and intellectually defendable.
Then, in 1979, researcher Roger Sperry and his colleagues published the results of experiments in what they called the field of neuropolitics. The scientists worked with patients who had had their brain hemispheres severed and therefore had severely impaired communications between different portions of their brain. As they stimulated one part of the brain with political images, it became clear that each hemisphere desperately attempted to communicate with the other. According to the scientists, their results demonstrated that there are neurological dimensions to what had heretofore been considered as primarily political preferences.
Not many years later, the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging was put to use in the field of neuropolitics by another group of scientists. This amazing research illustrated the differences in brain activity between people who were knowledgeable in politics, who uniformly exhibited “elevated levels of activity in the default mode network of the brain, while political novices had diminished activity in the same areas.” The conclusion of this research was that particular political propensities were mirrored in clear neurological patterns within the brain.
A real breakthrough came in 2008, when a book entitled “The Political Brain” was published. This work was the brainchild of Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University. In his book, which was the culmination of 20 years of research, Dr. Westen debunks the notion that the mind of the voter was “a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence.” He goes on to suggest that, for better or for worse, emotions, not reason, play the most prominent role in who wins our political contests.
Up until 2008, most cognitive psychologists, political scientists, economists, and Democratic strategists had, according to “The Political Brain” erroneously and naively believed that political decisions on the part of the electorate were made in the realm of rationality and principle. Westen suggests that: “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.” This groundbreaking book is a fascinating trip through the evolution of the passionate brain as well as an examination of the last 50 years of successes and failures in American politics—all through the lens of his theories. According to this unprecedented book, three things and only three things determine how people vote, and they are ranked in this order: Their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.
The inevitable conclusion of “The Political Brain” is that a politician should forget about moving to the “right” or “left,” but rather focus on the only thing that matters: Moving the electorate. For me, it’s a lot like a jury trial. Evidence is, of course, important but what is paramount, as an advocate, is your ability to reach the jury and connect in a fundamental way. This point-of-view turns conventional political analysis on its head and fundamentally transforms electoral arithmetic by “showing how a different view of the mind and brain leads to a different way of talking with voters about issues that have tied the tongues of Democrats for much of 40 years—such as abortion, guns, taxes, and race. You can’t change the structure of the brain. But you can change the way you appeal to it.” This is why Donald Trump is so popular. It’s not really about particular positions on particular issues (although that may help); it’s about a powerful connection with a sizable portion of the electorate.
Eight years after “The Political Brain,” Dr Gail Saltz, psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and bestselling author, offered insights into today’s political landscape. For Saltz, it’s all about whether or not we find the candidate’s leadership style appealing or not. She, however, continues the trend toward neuropolitics by asserting that “conservatives tend to process things in a more fear-based, amygdala-based way, and liberal thinkers tend to think in more grays, and new information is more likely to change the outcome of their thoughts.”
Saltz agrees with my college professor in suggesting that identification is the key factor in voting choices. However, her “identification” is quite different than that of my old Fordham professor. Dr Saltz is talking about “the psychic defense method of identification. When they have a candidate who is primarily resonating not just anger, but blaming specific others for what they’re angry about, it is reassuring. It is always reassuring to people who are very angry and frustrated to feel there is someone at fault and therefore, we can pinpoint this person and make a change so that whatever it is that is making us angry could stop.”
Interestingly, Dr. Saltz sees similarities in the Trump and Sanders campaigns in that they both identify sources of unfairness. “The concept of unfairness forms early in life. All kids feel at some point or another that things are unfair…it’s a difficult developmental step to accept that things are unfair in life and some people never really accept that…Sanders’ leadership style and message taps into the fact that life was never a level playing field. Saltz believes that Trump is adept at taking advantage of this anger in a fear-based way, while Sanders tries to channel the frustration into “being revolutionary in the most positive sense possible.”
Neuorscience may never trump common sense in understanding voter behavior. Even so, the entrance of neurology into the sphere of politics offers an interesting new dimension in explaining why voters vote the way they do.
Whatever your inclinations, I leave you with this—don’t forget to vote this November!