Claremont Insider: Hearts and Minds

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hearts and Minds

Well, that explains it. Yesterday's LA Times ran an article about Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, who has written a book called The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

Westen says his research during the 2004 Presidential election showed that the parts of the brain that control reason were inactive when Democratic or Republican partisans were presented with campaign arguments. According to the article:

"The political brain is an emotional brain," [Westen] said. "It prefers conclusions that are emotionally satisfying rather than conclusions that match the data."

When Westen and his Emory colleagues conducted brain scans during the 2004 presidential campaign, they found that partisans of either side, when presented with contradictory statements by their preferred candidates, would struggle for some seconds with feelings of discomfort, then resolve the matter in their candidates' favor.

In other words, no amount of factual information and critical argument would sway partisans of either side because they had already made up their minds. Westen says that Democratic candidates regularly fail to connect with the hearts of voters because they waste time appealing to their minds. As we've noted in the past, politics is mainly a social science.

Anyone who has watched the local political scene could have told Dr. Westen the same thing. The Claremont 400, through it's social network running through Pilgrim Place, Claremont Manor, the United Church of Christ, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, the Claremont Community Foundation, and the Claremont Colleges has effectively wrapped up a sizable voting bloc that is connected emotionally and socially. No amount of reason can penetrate that.

All they have to do is tell people, "I'm voting for this person. You should too." And they do. This is why the city council election ads and mailers are filled with supporter lists. The 400 wants you to see their names backing certain candidates. The issues hardly matter. What does matter is who your friends are voting for. It's high school politics pure and simple. (See the movie "Election" for a flavor of how the 400 works.)

But they don't stop there. In every election the 400 leverages its social network to spread false rumors about its opponents, as they did during the 2005 election when they first attacked sitting Councilmember Jackie McHenry with a campaign to censor her by accusing her of creating a hostile work environment (she wanted the city manager to submit expense receipts if he wanted reimbursement). They then ran a series of full-page ads in the Claremont Courier attacking candidate Corey Calaycay. Some of the ads contained information that was shown to be false.

The 400 also seeks to suppress voter turnout. Why? Because as long as turnout in city elections remains low (below 30%), the 400 will prevail. (See our March election analysis for more on this.) When turnout is high, as in 2003 and 2005, there is usually some issue driving voters who normally don't vote for city council to come out, and the 400's support is diluted. And, in fact, in those two elections, non-400 candidates, McHenry, Calaycay, and Peter Yao (since co-opted by the 400), were elected and several incumbents either lost or chose not to run.

That's why they want to keep the city election in March of off years. They claim they want to keep the city election separate because that makes it unique and allows people to focus on the local issues. In reality, they're terrified of voting for city council in a November or June general election because turnout would be much higher and their voting bloc would be swamped.

This is where the Claremont League of Women Voters is particularly hypocritical. If they really want to increase voter participation, they should be lobbying to move the city election to a general election vote. But they don't really want to increase local participation. They want to keep it to themselves.

To anyone watching from the outside, the absurdity is obvious. But, as the French mathematician Blaise Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons that reason knows not."