For Some, Talking Politics Can Be Emotional Guest host Jennifer Ludden interviews Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen about how the human mind can sometimes play tricks with us when it comes to politics. Professor Westen is the author of "The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the fate of the nation."

For Some, Talking Politics Can Be Emotional

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Two topics we've just heard about today, illegal immigration and health care, are among the hottest of hot-button political issues. Attempts at a level-headed, fact-based discussion can easily be taken over by passionate emotions on either side. So why is that?

Drew Westen is an Emory University professor of psychology and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." He joins us from Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome.

Professor DREW WESTEN (Psychology, Emory University; Author, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation"): Thanks for having me on, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So Professor Westen, how does our brain process political messages?

Prof. WESTEN: Well, you know, it's interesting to listen to the discussion we've just heard because what you tend to hear from the right are powerful, emotional phrases, and what you tend to hear from the left are rational discussions, and our brains really evolved to first hear the emotional side and second to think about it and really in many ways for good reasons because, you know, when you are - when humans were evolving, if you see a snake, if you stop and say well, let me see, what genus and species is that, you're probably dead. And if you respond first to the, you know, to the emotion, oh, it's a snake, you jump away from it.

LUDDEN: So does that mean the right always has an advantage or whoever is using the most emotion in its debate? I mean, on illegal immigration, for example?

Prof. WESTEN: You know, our brains evolved to integrate reason and emotion, but the right does have an advantage because they understand that these issues are emotional issues, and Democrats and the left keep returning to them as rational issues.

I mean, a great example being the safety issue with immigration. You can't get to that - you don't want to even talk about that safety issue if you're a proponent of rights for illegal immigrants if you start from the point of view of let's talk about this as a safety issue.

You first have to allay people's concerns about the illegal immigrants we have in this country first. And you'll notice, it was not an accident that the - your guests who are coming from the right, Ira Mehlman did a great example, it was a great example of this. He never failed to use terms like illegal aliens, which turns, I mean, it turns people into, you know, some mutant variant of E.T.

LUDDEN: Right, versus the undocumented immigrant worker that the left would favor.

Prof. WESTEN: Absolutely. And in fact, actually, that's a great one. Here's one where you can probably get away with undocumented workers on NPR. But in general, I've actually polled this is that it turns out that undocumented workers is actually a worse phrase to use if you want to advance the cause of doing something progressive or reasonable for the 12 million illegal immigrants we have in this country now because people hear that as - they hear that as a euphemism, or they hear - when they hear undocumented, where their mind goes to is, well, a bunch of them do have documents. What kind of documents are they? They're forged documents.

And people are a lot more bothered by the idea of forgery than they are about people coming over the border to try to feed their kids.

LUDDEN: Isn't that interesting? Let's move to health care now. We should note you have consulted with Georgia State Democratic Party, but a lot of the opposition to health care, to health care overhaul has been from Republicans. We've had raucous town hall meetings and tea party demonstrations. How do you analyze the Republican strategy on health care?

Prof. WESTEN: Well, the Republican strategy was clear. I actually did the - I led up the messaging efforts for some nonpartisan groups back during and immediately before the presidential election. And the messaging strategy for the Republican was clear back then what it was going to be, which is - and you heard it actually from the Republican congresswoman who I think he heard on before, who talked about rationing and a bureaucrat becoming - coming between you and your physician.

It's basically to tell a very, very simple story, which is that what Democrats really want is to step in between you and your doctor because they fundamentally don't believe in a free market, and they fundamentally believe that some bureaucrat in Washington knows better than you do how to spend your health care dollars and what kind of decisions you should make. It's a really, really simple, but frankly, emotionally very compelling, argument.

LUDDEN: Now, what about just briefly the argument that President Obama, over on the Democratic side, somehow just can't get emotional enough about selling health care?

Prof. WESTEN: It's absolutely right. I mean, the only way that you can get people - I mean, this is inherently an emotional issue because it touches, you know, it touches all of us. But part of the problem is that when you're trying to talk about an issue like this, you really have to tell a story the way the Republicans do, which is a story that has antagonists, that has protagonists. It's the kind of story that our brains really evolved to hear, and yet the president does not like to have antagonists in his stories.

LUDDEN: Professor Drew Westen, you're going to stick with us a few minutes more, but we're going to take a short break right now. Professor Westen is author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the latest wave of immigration, not from Latin America but to it, that story in a few moments.

First, though, we continue our discussion of emotion as a political force. Our guest is Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen. He's the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," and professor, thanks for staying with us.

Prof. WESTEN: Happy to be here.

LUDDEN: Now on Friday, President Obama's approval rating for the first time dropped below 50 percent as measured by Gallup. In her Sunday New York Times column, Maureen Dowd suggested that President Obama could learn a thing or two from Sarah Palin on how to be more visceral and connect with voters on a gut level. It sounds like you might agree.

Prof. WESTEN: Well, actually, I'd go back a little further than Sarah Palin, probably back to FDR, who had the most similar circumstances to President Obama.

I mean, what FDR did in a case like this, when he was facing one industry after another that was really fleecing the American public, he said to them, and he said quite famously, you know, at no time in the history of this country have so many powerful special interests focused their hatred on one man, and I welcome their hatred.

And what he did then was to go on to say - systematically, he went through, and he went after every one of those industries that were endangering the financial security of Americans. He built a WPA, a work program so that people could go back to work who were out of work, and he minced no words about this being Hoover's depression. It was the Republicans' depression. It was the depression that came from unregulated greed.

And President Obama just will not do that. He will not blame the recession or this great recession on anyone.

LUDDEN: Though his critics claim that he keeps doing that and is doing it for too long, and people are starting to now associate the recession with him.

Prof. WESTEN: Well, they're associating the recession with him because he never mentioned it. He never mentioned from the start that this was a recession he inherited. You know, you can - he has actually never once uttered the name George Bush since he's been president, and only on three or four occasions has he said I inherited this, guys.

And this was something that I actually wrote about in the first week of his presidency, arguing that he was going to have a failed presidency if he didn't start branding this recession as the recession caused by Bush and the Republicans, as caused by a philosophy of unregulated greed and that if he didn't start talking about why we needed deficit spending right now, because otherwise he was going to get stuck with a $1.2 trillion deficit that he was left with. It was going to get blamed on him.

And you know, just in terms of strategies for that, FDR played offense on that. So he went right after the bankers. He ran four times in a row against Hoover.

LUDDEN: And yet, we have President Obama, who really ran on the fact that he could rise above this conflict. So you're saying instead of rising above, he needs to kind of wallow in it and play it up?

Prof. WESTEN: I think what he'd like to do is to not have the conflict at all and just stay out of it. And the problem is that if you're going to run on reform, if you're going to say we need big changes, you have to do two things from an emotional standpoint.

The first is you have to make people concerned about what the current situation is, which they sure were back in January, and you have to make them angry towards the people who caused it. If you don't do those two things and then follow it with your message of hope, what's going to happen to you is what has happened to President Obama, which is people are now, you know, blaming the recession on him. They're basically saying, hey, you broke this up, you broke this, you own it.

LUDDEN: All right. Drew Westen is Emory University professor of psychology. He is also the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" and joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thanks so much.

Prof. WESTEN: Thanks for having me on.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.