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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/10/2010

Nothing like a Republican yarn

By David M. Ricci
Guest Blogger

About this blog: The art of storytelling has a long history on the political stage. In the modern era, nobody spun a better yarn than Ronald Reagan and it served him well. As David M. Ricci shows in “Why Conservatives Tell Stories and Liberals Don't: Rhetoric, Faith, and Vision on the American Right,” recently released by Paradigm, the Republicans have a knack for storytelling that seems to elude Democrats. Here, Ricci, a professor of political science and American studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explains that the cause may lie in the different political philosophies of the left and the right.


Democrats lost heavily in the midterm elections partly because they told no shared story. Before the debacle, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times complained: "The thing that baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can't come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics." On Election Day, Roger Cohen was similarly annoyed: "Like many at midterm," he wrote, "I'm struggling with my disappointment…. Back and forth go the voices…. There's no narrative to the presidency."

The missing story was crucial because narratives help citizens to decide what is or isn't important while Digital Age sources flood everyone with information and images. Consequently, if one party campaigns with a narrative and the other does not, it is as if the two are running a horse race in which one side has no nag.

Right-wing talk about poverty, taxes, race, ecology, feminism, families, crime, education, multiculturalism – you name it – leads to a storytelling gap between Republicans and Democrats. Right-wing grievances, which Republicans assert repeatedly, add up to a grand narrative about, say, Judeo-Christian ethics, capitalist efficiency and governmental tyranny.

Meanwhile, Democrats may tell small stories that illuminate various policy issues. But left-wing people do not all tell the same tales, and the ones they do tell neither reinforce one another nor project a shared vision of where America is and what they propose to do about it.

The result, according to psychologist Drew Westen in “The Political Brain” (2007), is that "every Democrat who even talks with friends at the water cooler, has to reinvent what it means to be a Democrat, using his or her own words and concepts."

Democrats aren’t necessarily incompetent because they fail to compose a signature narrative. Rather, liberalism is intrinsically opposed to storytelling, and there’s the rub.

Since the Enlightenment, liberals have -- in the largest sense -- evoked science, theory, and facts to release citizens from many traditional restraints, whereas conservatives have -- generally speaking -- promoted traditional truths they regard as fostering decency and stability in American life.

In this division of labor, science seeks not stories but data and experiments, whereas traditions are affirmed in familiar tales such as those retold by conservative think-tanker William Bennett in “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories” (1993).

These points are not merely academic. America's leading liberal
today is Barack Obama, a president described by historian James Kloppenberg in “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition” (2010) as inherently "pragmatic" and therefore, in Ricci's terms, so flexible that his national health law meanders over
2,300 pages and cannot be summed up intelligibly in Democratic stump speeches.

This while conservatives over the years, such as Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Sarah Palin, collaborate on a rousing narrative that exalts American life via stirring tales such as "Creationism” and “The Free Market,” neither of which can be verified decisively.

An electoral payoff can emerge when storytelling mobilizes civic enthusiasm. But some political stories have led people astray ever since Alcibiades in 415 B. C. persuaded the Athenian Assembly to launch a disastrous military expedition against Syracuse. Similarly, Republicans would like everyone to forget, about how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and their accomplices -- in pursuit of a "War on Terror" -- inspired America to invade Iraq to destroy WMDs that weren't there and bring democracy to Arabs who didn't want it.

The country is still paying dearly for that story.

By David M. Ricci  | December 10, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  republican storytelling; politicals and personal stories; political spin  
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Next: BOOK WORLD - December 12, 2010


No thanks to another forced march down faux-memory lane.

Posted by: snowyphile | December 10, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

A friend told me years ago that you can tell when a person is lying because you can not remember the lie you told last time, so you can never repeat the same lie twice. Something about it changes.

Only the truth can be remembered, so only the truth can be re-told over and over.

The democrats lie. Obama lies. They can not say the same thing twice, because they can not remember what they said last time

Sinple as that.

Posted by: annnort | December 11, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Suggestions for Democrat story lines:

-- Equal opportunity for all to learn and succeed. (((Effective helping interventions, financial and other help to progress educationally as far as possible.))

-- Opportunity for all to do well economically. (No discrimination. Availability of good jobs.)

-- Good health prevention and treatment for all ((Protection against unsafe food and pharmaceuticals, toxin, including second hand smoke; hazards such as unsafe working conditions and drunk drivers; access to quality and effective health care treatment without regard to income and wealth))

-- Economic security in retirement.(A guaranteed Social Security))''

-- Americans United When There is War. (When America is at war, ALL Americans should be involved. For those not in uniform, a Progressive Patriot's Tax (based on income and wealth -- those who have done better financially have more to contribute and to thank the country for) to fully pay for the war, including subsequent costs (pensions, care) so that there is no war debt (with interest) to pass on to children and grand children. When all Americans would be engaged in support of a war, Americans will be more critical of the claimed need to go to war and also questioning of the effort, costs, toil and duration -- as they should be.))

-- Transparency and accountability

-- Advancement on merit

-- Representatives of the people, not of special interests

Posted by: jimb | December 11, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

The suggested democratic themes are exactly what is wrong with their story. Lets recast them as.... Government should set up large beauracracies to ensure effective interventions, quota setting and income distribution.

Posted by: stevevan1 | December 11, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

One might say the story of America the Superpower was written by the Republicans, while the story of America the home in which Americans live was built by the Democrats. Without the Republicans there would be no Superpower that brings about the wealth that makes it possible for Americans to live a comfortable life, and without the Democrats to make Americans more comfortable America could become unlivable. You could say, the Republicans take the role of breadwinner (I would have said paternal role, but why be sexist?) and Democrats take the role of homemaker (or maternal role, please excuse the sexism. lol.). So when President Obama's term "Dreams of My Father" is applied to America you could say those "Dreams" that inspire Americans the most are the ones that the Republicans (America's paternal figure) dream - hence the high quality narrative, nothing like a good ol' yarn from your ol'man, huh? lol.

Oh, and bringing democracy to the Arabs was my suggestion (signed in my own name by my own hand - yes, it matched the neo-cons' vision, but I brought it to George W's attention at the right time), so there's no need to beat up the Republicans about it - as for me, I've had the State Department gunning for me for seven and half years already, so its time we kissed and made up (I am a six foot two inches tall guy so there had better some above five foot ten inches tall beautiful natural blond blue eyed young chick on the receiving end of that kiss). lol.

Posted by: darkasnight1234 | December 11, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Hate to get involved in what is essentially a family matter but, c'mon Dems, do you really think that your victories in 2006 and 2008 happened because a majority of the American people embraced your ideology?

Do you think that those victories stemmed from your delusional, "scientific" approach to social governance?

Keep it up, you've got us rolling in the aisles!

Posted by: magellan1 | December 11, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

One word "Public"

Public Health

Public Education

Public Transportation

Posted by: tanksleyd | December 11, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

its not clear what "pragmatism" has to do with the health care bill being 2,300. its pretty clear what Big Government has to do with it, however. indeed, the idea that bigger government is most practical is a good definition of that type of political philosophy.

Posted by: dummypants | December 11, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

What is this blog about? Is Levingston going to review books, or is his job to give authors space for self-promotion? So far it looks like the latter.

Posted by: turningfool | December 11, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

"Democrats lost heavily in the midterm elections partly because they told no shared story. "

No, they lost entirely because they did a poor job of governing. Its the big Democratic myth that it was a messaging problem.

But go ahead, keep blaming Fox. The world is laughing at you.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | December 11, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

As you intimated, it is fair to say that storytelling if left unchallenged can bring about disaster. Your example of Cheney et al goading Americans into war with Iraq is comparable to the "war on poverty" which also resulted in disaster. Two generations of poor, mostly urban poor, are worse off than ever because the state supplanted their power, dignity and self-sufficiency with entitlements to live off of the state. Liberals can write a long list of the effects of the war that we will be living with for generations as well.

BTW, talk radio is also dominated by conservatives because they can tell a story better than liberals.

Posted by: NEWSOUTH1 | December 11, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

here's some stories:

Republican are going to help you, not just the rich and themselves.

Obamacare caused the Recession, not Bush invading Iraq and letting Wall Street pillage your wallet.

Republican want a balanced budget (instead of just shifting spending priorities to help themselves and their rich corporate buddies).

Getting rid of government workers will lower your taxes.

Rush Limbaugh is merely a drug-addicted cheerleader for Wall Street and doesn't want financial laws that protect the small investor. He needs a short skirt and pom poms.

in dollar terms, 90% of the tax breaks in America go to the top 1% of the people, the very rich.

You think you will become rich too by boting to bring the Republicans to power.

You think the Republicans will help you get a job.

Posted by: rash67 | December 11, 2010 10:53 PM | Report abuse

America spends more on health care than any other country but ranks 20th in the quality of health care in the world. Insurance companies like Blue Cross get rich, their president makes millions, but no, we don't want more competition or to give the government more control of healthcare, that might be "socialist".

Posted by: rash67 | December 11, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

Democrats should try non-fiction for a change.

Posted by: Jack64 | December 12, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

America as superpower began with WWII and TWO Democratic presidents. American as declining power began under the last Republican president, who lied us into two multi-trillion dollar wars and drove us deeper into multi-trillion debt trying to pay for them by giving tax cuts to the billionaires that export our jobs to communist China. As I recall, the last Democratic presidency ended with a balanced budget, a good economy, peace, and America standing as the world's lone superpower.

Posted by: pscohl | December 12, 2010 1:39 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Mr. Levingston, you're telling a story, much cherished and retold with alacrity by liberals, that conservatives are people who endorse "creationism." Among conservatives, Darwin-deniers are a fringe, nothing more. Most -- surely nearly all -- political conservatives with religious faith are quite comfortable with scientific explanations of the universe. Liberals seem to want the spectacle of another Scopes Monkey trial every day, to use as a political cudgel.

You're also invoking another, by claiming "The Free Market" can't be "verified decisively." Except that it's verified by every economic transaction between people every day. "Free market" is simply the shorthand reference for the manifestation, in the economic sphere, of human nature.

Posted by: BillSmith3 | December 12, 2010 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Better stories=bigger lies. The democrats always produce a colorful charismatic figure. And they have the more intelligent females in their party.

We don't want to get into the republicans here. Except to say wait till tonight when John Boehner starts his crying again on national tv. Then the media will jump all over that and say oh what a good man but Hillary sheds a few tears and then it see see a women cannot be president, she is too emotional.

Possibly he has grief issues that he still cannot speak of his life without crying about it. When my mother died, I woke up daily with the tears pouring out of my eyes for about a month. Its the healing of grief. Now I can talk about her with fondness. Boehner had the childhood many of us had back in the day. Big families--too many children to feed. You grow up and realize how hard it was on your mother.

This does not endear me to a man who gives me the impression when he goes to meaness and hate to boo hoo that now he don't appear to care if he takes the bread out of others mouths.

Maybe its not the politician maybe its the media story telling that spins the web to deceive.

Posted by: mac7 | December 12, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I continue to be stunned by the inventiveness of the left to come with reasons why they fail.
The USSR fell because the wrong people tried to make it work.
They haven't come with the euro failure excuse but global "bad economic times" seems to be the template.
The author cheery picks his examples, Franklin D. Roosevelt not a grand story teller??? What about the republican activist liberal, Abe Lincoln?
They aren't recent but the left has a huge number of talented storytellers, many of whom mask as journalists on these very pages.
The problem isn't the telling, ITS THE STORY.
The left lost not because of the economy nor due to bad campaigning but because the voters believe in a nation an the left believes in a Utopian "world".
The left also refuses to allow honest debate, that is the true seed of their failure.
"Spin" describes the lies to advance the goal, but it prevents reality from being observed and understood.
Ultimately the left is every bit as bad and worse than what they imagine the religious zealots of the right to be.
It is the left that treated those questioning global warming as "deniers" and then attacked them personally without once discussing the facts.
"The science is settled", LOL it never is, we always learn more over time.
But that's inconvenient when you want to advance a socialist agenda to bring down the capitalist world.
Plus most of the left really aren't onboard that train anyway, they play at it.
When it comes to their electricity, food and cars well that's different.
You all are doomed to keep failing because you don't understand reality.
Good thing too.
Oh one last thing "obamacare", ain't happening folks.
The Supreme Court will not back you up.

Posted by: Saladin3 | December 12, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I do agree that Republicans are constantly making up stories, but I look forward to the day they stop with all the fabricating and deal more with reality than fantasy.

Posted by: lindalovejones | December 13, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

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