Nothing like a Republican yarn
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.
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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