Drew Westen

Drew Westen is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University and the author of the forthcoming book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

Recent Articles

A Message for Progressives

It's time we started growing the economy and stopped shrinking the middle class.

(Flickr/tourismecruise)
Progressives are not fond of "talking points": We like to think in sentences, paragraphs, and even articles and books if it takes that long to fully flesh out an idea. Our ideas, so the story goes, are more "nuanced" than our opponents', and to some extent, that is true. Our Neanderthal cousins (I mean in evolution, not in the Senate, although they are there, too) might have expressed many of their basic thoughts with grunts and single-word utterances: Food? Good. Snake? Bad. The same is true of contemporary conservative intellectual cave dwellers, or at least of their leaders in Congress: Taxes? Bad. Guns? Good. Government? Bad! Gitmo? Good. In fact, it is difficult to think of a conservative issue in which any qualifier is even necessary. On the other hand, the idea that progressive messaging problems reflect primarily the nuance of our thoughts is a mistaken conceit, and a very costly one. The subtitle of this article is one of the most powerful statements we can make to the...

Guns on the Brain

When it comes to guns, Democrats fall silent, unable to figure out how to reach people's emotions. What does this mean for the success of gun control?

Adapted from the forthcoming book, The Political Brain On April 16, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, carried two semiautomatic pistols onto campus and killed 32 people. It was the deadliest shooting in modern American history. The following week, a nation listened in horror as witnesses recounted stories of how they had barricaded desks against their classroom doors to keep the psychotic young man from entering, only to hear him spend a round of ammo, drop the spent clip, and reload in seconds. Democratic leaders offered the requisite condolences. But that's all they offered. They didn't mention that the Republican Congress had let the Brady Act, which banned the sale of semiautomatic weapons, sunset in 2004. They didn't mention that in the decade or so after the passage of that act, 100,000 felons lost their right to bear arms, but not a single hunter lost that right. Instead, the Democrats ran for political cover, waiting for the smoke to...

Branding the Democrats

From the May print issue: Staring down the president on the firing of U.S. attorneys sends a message of Democratic toughness.

Revenge can be sweet. Neuroscientists have discovered circuits in the brain that become active with the feelings of "sweet revenge," and it would take a saint or a stroke victim not to experience some pleasure watching Democrats regain the power of the subpoena after five long years. But with 18 months until the 2008 election, and with millions of voters swinging away from the GOP but unsure whom, exactly, they're swinging toward, the mantra of the left should be, in the inelegant language of advertising, branding . Americans don't like what it means to be a Republican, but they don't know what it means to be a Democrat. To build a coherent brand in politics -- a compelling perception of what your party stands for and why a voter would want to stand with you -- you have to do four things. The first is to use compelling language and imagery. If you want the average American to care about whether Karl Rove testifies under oath or just has a "chat" off the record, you can talk about the...

Gut Instincts

In politics, we tend to think in terms of issues and policies. And as the dust begins to settle on the midterm elections, pollsters and pundits have begun to settle on the meaning of the elections: "Voters were angry about Iraq," or "Voters were disgusted by corruption in Washington," or the economy finally mattered. Just six months ago, the electorate was split on Iraq, corruption had little traction, and even pocketbook issues were off the radar screen. What changed? My own research as a psychologist -- and a close political observer -- as well as a close reading of 40 years of electoral history, suggests that, in the final analysis, what matters most in elections is what voters are feeling -- whether they're excited, proud, angry, or afraid. Iraq didn't suddenly become a quagmire. Jack Abramoff didn't suddenly start passing around a little cash. A stagnant minimum wage didn't suddenly start pinching working families. Feelings matter because they push voters' buttons -- and in turn...