900 Words on John Fetterman, Herschel Walker, & the Political Brain

One of the more revealing books I’ve read on the subject of political science is “The Political Brain,” published in 2006 by the psychologist Drew Westen. I don’t hold against Westen that his book has nearly seven times more Amazon reviews than mine, but I do resent that he had the time and resources to publish a convincing book that laid out in detail what PPFA just periodically implies: partisan voters are governed more by emotion than reason.

Early in the book, Dr. Westen uses an example from the prior presidential election, the one that pit President George W. Bush against Senator John Kerry in 2004. Westen and his team put together a study of Democratic and Republican voters in hopes of understanding what happens in their brain when they hear new political information. The scientists literally scanned the partisans’ brains as they read quotes from the candidates as well as quotes from neutral figures like actor Tom Hanks and novelist William Styron.

Each test subject first read a statement from a presidential candidate, and then they read a second statement from the candidate that contradicted the first. They were then asked whether the statements were contradictory, and finally they were asked to evaluate to what extent they agreed with what the candidates were saying. Subjects repeated this process for both candidates and the neutral figures.

The results were telling. The partisan voter rated the statements of the candidate they didn’t support as highly contradictory (on average, close to a 4 on a 4-point scale). When it came to the candidate they did support, however, they didn’t rate the statements that contradictory at all (close to 2 on the 4-point scale). In other words, a partisan voter can explain away their preferred candidate’s contradictions — and, indeed, most of their other shortcomings — while seizing on the contradictions and shortcomings of the other party’s candidate. Finally, when it came to the contradictory statements of the politically neutral figures, Democrats and Republicans rated those inconsistencies similarly.

None of that is particularly surprising, perhaps, but what really makes the study pop is what Dr. Westen found occurred in the brain during the process. When reading the slides and working through the candidates’ contradictions, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for reasoning — was not activated. Instead, lighting up were the insular gyrus and anterior cingulate cortex, which handle negative emotions and conflict resolution. Also telling was that when asked to evaluate the two political candidates, the ventromedial and orbital prefrontal cortex were more active, which suggests emotional regulation was being called upon. In contrast, that area of the brain remained quiet during the quotes from Hanks and Styron. It appears that once we inject politics into the brain, it’s emotion — not reason — that dominates our thinking.

And there was one more fascinating layer. Dr. Westen’s team finally presented information that acquitted the partisan’s preferred candidate of the contradiction. When that occurred, dopamine flooded the brain from the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens. Democrats and Republicans were essentially rewarded for supporting their team, just as they presumably had so many times before.

On Tuesday night, John Fetterman’s debate performance might one day show up in the dictionary under “cringe.” Following his stroke this summer, he should neither be in a high-pressure debate nor should he represent Pennsylvania in the United States Senate. He should be home recovering. Dr. Oz will win Pennsylvania, which means the Republicans will probably win the Senate.

Do Democrats see it that way? Probably not. Many rallied to Fetterman’s defense. They would call my prior paragraph “ableism.” They would point to Dr. Oz’s canned responses, his New Jersey background, and his delicious crudités from Wegners. They’ll point to Trump. They’ll point to January 6. They’ll point to Dobbs. And what’s controlling their hands as they point in all these directions?

Their insular gyrus. Their anterior cingulate cortex. Their ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Their brains desperately tells them that “This is fine.” A recovering stroke victim can absolutely do the job of a United States Senator. Why? Because he has a D next to his name.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because I made a similar statement a couple weeks ago. After a rant against Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, I said, “Georgia Republicans seem fine looking the other way on Walker’s lack of preparedness because his most important quality is not his intelligence, his curiosity, or anything else about his character, but that ‘R’ next to his name. . . . [H]e has an R next to his name, and Warnock has a D. For most voters, that’s all that matters.”

We’re seeing the same thing with Democrats and Fetterman now. Voters have decided it doesn’t matter who’s in the suit as long as the suit is clothing the Senator voting for their party. Voters don’t vote for people anymore. They vote for coalitions. If a Walker vote gives Republicans a Senate majority, Republican brains will do backflips to justify a vote for Walker. Their brains will believe Walker when he denies all sorts of allegations, but those same brains more quickly believe any accusations hurled at the other party.

Similarly, Democrats care more about that 50th vote in the Senate than they do about the health of the man who will cast it. And their political brains won’t even let them feel bad about it.

Back to horserace coverage next week.


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