Democrats and The Big Issues

David Brooks has moved over to the book section of The New York Times today and I read with some interest as he is reviewing one of the books I was contemplating taking on vacation next week. Brooks reviews The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation and his unfavorable review has leaves me undecided between leaving the book at home versus assuming that this is yet another case where Brooks is wrong.

Brooks engages in his usual share of Democrat-bashing. He dismissed many of the ideas of the book, and I cannot determine if his criticism is valid until I actually read the book. He writes:

Westen begins by noting that recent research has shot holes through the theory of the dispassionate rational mind that emerged from the 18th-century Enlightenment. People rely upon emotion to drive the decision-making process and reach conclusions that make them feel good.

Reason and rationality, therefore, play a limited role in political decisions. “The dispassionate mind of the 18th-century philosophers,” Westen says, “allows us to predict somewhere between 0.5 and 3 percent of the most important political decisions people will make over the course of their lives.”

He then goes on to assert that Democrats have been losing because they have been appealing to the rational part of the mind. They issue laundry lists of policies and offer arguments with evidence. They don’t realize how the images they are presenting set off emotional cues that undermine their own campaigns.

Brooks discusses more of the ideas promoted by the book and has some objections which sound reaonsble (again keeping in mind that I haven’t actually read the arguments he is disputing yet). As is often the case with Brooks, once you get past his Democrat-bashing he actually has some reasonable thoughts. Brooks presents the following counter-arguments:

This thesis raises some interesting questions. First, why did someone with so little faith in rational inquiry go into academia, and what does he do to those who disagree with him at Emory faculty meetings, especially recovering alcoholics?

Second, the states of upper New England and the Pacific Coast regularly used to vote Republican in presidential elections but now they generally vote Democratic. Did people in those states become less emotional, and therefore more amenable to the Democrats’ rational appeals over the past few decades? If so, has this led to a drop in Valentine’s Day purchases, at least compared with people in passionate states like Nebraska?

Third, how did John Kerry beat Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries? Was it because of his Oprah-esque displays of emotional intensity?

Fourth, is it possible that substance has something to do with the political fortunes of parties? Could it be that Democrats won in the middle part of the 20th century because they were right about the big issues — the New Deal and the civil rights movement? Is it possible Republicans won in the latter part of the century because they were right about economic growth and the cold war? Is it possible Democrats are winning now because they were right about whether to go to war in Iraq? And if substantive policies correlate with political fortunes, what does that say about the human mind?

Finally, if voter decisions are driven by the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends, and if, as he writes, “a substantial minority of Americans hold authoritarian, intolerant ideologies driven by fear, hate and prejudice that are fundamentally incompatible with Democratic (and democratic) principles,” then shouldn’t we abandon this whole democracy thing? Shouldn’t we have a coup, led perhaps by the Emory psychology department, which could prevent the brutish and hate-filled from ever gaining control?

It is number four which I found most significant. I often feel like I’m in the minority in stressing issues over other factors which might influence election results, but ultimately ideas do matter. Taking this further raises a concern I have expressed in many other posts. Democrats won in 2006 largely because the Republicans were wrong about Iraq, as well as many other issues which Brooks does not mention. This does not mean that voters will continue to vote Democratic if they fail to take the right side on the big issues after Iraq is not longer the major issue.

If Republicans won in the latter part of the twentieth century because they were perceived as being right on economic growth, Democrats are presented with an opportunity to win on that issue if they make the right decisions with regards to the direction the party moves. If the Democrats nominate a candidate such as Richardson or Obama who understands the concerns of all of America, businessmen and workers alike, Democrats have a chance to become the majority party. On the other hand, if they embrace the populist pablum of John Edwards they will allow the Republicans to again be seen as being on the right side of economic growth and begin yet another era of Republican dominance.