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Politics - June 28

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This Is Your Brain On Politics

Sharon Begley, Newsweek (web only)
Ever wonder why fear-mongering seems to work so well at the polls-while appeals to reason often leave the electorate cold? A new book applies neuroscience to politics to figure out why the Democrats struggle to push the buttons in voters' brains.
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[This column examines] the work of psychology researcher Drew Westen of Emory University, one of many "what ifs" in his new book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." After reading them you won't be surprised that Westen has been approached by the campaigns of "several" Democratic hopefuls (he is too discrete to say which) for advice on how to make use of findings about how the brain operates in the political arena. Why aren't Republicans beating a path to his door? Because the GOP has already mastered the dark art of psych-ops-of pushing the right buttons in people's brains to win their vote.

Westen's thesis is simple. "A dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work." That's true when it comes to choosing a significant other, buying a car, and choosing a president. Madison Avenue has known this for decades. Democrats haven't. Instead, their strategists start from an 18th-century vision of the mind as dispassionate, making decisions by rationally weighing evidence and balancing pros and cons. That assumption is a recipe for high-minded campaigning-and, often, electoral failure. But by recognizing the strides that neuroscience, psychology and, in particular, the science of decision making have made in recent years, Westen argues, politicians can tap into "the emotional brain" that guides most political decisions.
(27 June 2007)
Findings might be useful in awareness campaigns for peak oil and climate change.


Gore faces public clamour to run for White House

Simon Tisdall, Guardian
A presidential election poll suggesting Democratic voters would prefer former vice-president Al Gore to any of the declared contenders, including frontrunner Hillary Clinton, has highlighted continuing dissatisfaction among supporters of both main parties with the choice of candidates to succeed George Bush.

The poll, conducted in New Hampshire by 7News and Suffolk University, confirmed Mrs Clinton's nationwide double-digit lead over her main rival, the Illinois senator, Barack Obama.

The former first lady and New York senator attracted 37% support, against Mr Obama's 19%. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards was on 9%.

But if Mr Gore were to seek the Democrat nomination, 29% of Mrs Clinton's backers would switch their support to him, the poll found. When defections from other candidates are factored in, the man who controversially lost to Mr Bush in the 2000 election takes command of the field, with 32% support.

Both the Democrats and Republicans will contest key primary elections in New Hampshire on January 22.

Mr Gore has repeatedly, though not entirely convincingly, denied he is planning a White House run. But the absence so far of a strong, unifying choice for the Democrat nomination, Mr Gore's enhanced reputation as an environmental campaigner, and deep Republican divisions are encouraging speculation that he may change his mind.
(28 June 2007)
A straw poll administered to myself, my wife and four friends confirmed the Guardian story. -BA


Blue in Green: Tory environmentalist Zac Goldsmith

Rachel Cooke, Observer
Can Zac Goldsmith, the famously uncompromising eco-warrior and son of a maverick billionaire, really toe the party line as Tory candidate for Richmond Park?
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The Barnes Film Club shows movies to residents, who must do without a real cinema in this extraordinarily leafy corner of west London, every other month. The venue is a former sorting office, now converted into a community theatre: hard chairs provided, but it's bring your own cushions. The June film is Al Gore's environmental polemic, An Inconvenient Truth, and the screening is supposed to begin at 7.30pm. Tonight, however, proceedings will be delayed by the appearance of a guest speaker, Zac Goldsmith, former editor of the Ecologist, environmental campaigner extraordinaire, and the man who will stand for the Tories in this constituency, Richmond Park, at the next election.

...Goldsmith appears at the front of the room with a diffident sort of a smile, and begins talking. The words come out of his bee-stung lips very, very fast and he paces the room as he talks. The gist of his speech is that, even if climate change turns out not to be a reality, better caretaking on our part will still have huge benefits both politically and economically (oil will run out irrespective of what sea levels do). So going green is a no-brainer. On and on, he goes, filling the crowded room with facts: according to Goldsmith, the fat that goes down the sinks of British restaurants each year is enough to produce 300,000 tonnes of biofuel. There is also an exciting statistic about recycled aluminium cans (the US threw away 32 billion of them last year - enough to replace its entire civilian fleet of aircraft).

I don't know if he's aware of it, but after a while, his audience grows restless. This is no five minutes! 'Who is this man?' says the retired lady with Elnett-perfect hair next to me. 'I don't know who he is or what he's saying. Can we please see the film?'

But I am gripped. Who needs Al on celluloid if you've got Zac in the room? Goldsmith is ravishing. He has a golden quality that makes me think of Evelyn Waugh of the 1930s. For all that he's a 32-year-old father of three, there's something of the gilded youth about him: beautiful, rich and clever but also oddly innocent (this, I guess, is born of his passionate idealism). Do the Conservatives fully understand what they've taken on?
(24 June 2007)

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