In his recent Senate campaign in my state, Scott Brown talked a lot about securing the border. That’s the southern border, the one with Mexico, the one that’s over 2,000 miles away from New Hampshire. He connected the border issue to both terrorism and Ebola, neither of which we have here. And it almost worked. As a carpetbagger from Massachusetts, running against a likeable woman we’ve been electing governor or senator since 1996, in a state Obama won twice, Brown nearly pulled it off, losing 51.6% to 48.3%.
This happens at a point in the economic cycle when things are looking reasonably good: Unemployment, GDP growth, and the federal budget deficit have all escaped from the scary territory they were stuck in for so long after the housing bubble popped, and all are trending in the right direction. The stock market is at an all-time high. American combat troops are almost out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the country is as close to peace as it has been since 9-11. And while Fox News has managed to create a series of faux scandals to excite its viewers, by the very real measure of indictments and convictions, the Obama administration has been the cleanest one we’ve seen in a long time, comparing very favorably with, say, the Reagan administration.
Compounding the mystery, Brown’s near-miss is a rare failure in the national Republican trend. Their victory doesn’t just bring control of the Senate, but sweeps into office some pretty radical folks, like Joni Ernst in Iowa, another state Obama won twice. Sam Brownback, whose tax-cutting mania has pretty well wrecked the fiscal health of the state of Kansas without providing any of the private-sector economic boost he promised, got re-elected governor.
Meanwhile, voters were making some liberal choices on ballot measures: Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all legalized marijuana; Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota raised the minimum wage; Washington tightened gun control; and Colorado defeated a personhood amendment to limit abortion. And the national brand of the Republican Party, as Rand Paul put it, “sucks”. A pre-election poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal showed the party’s favorable/unfavorable rating far underwater: 29%/47%, as opposed to the Democrats’ narrower 36%/43% split.
So there’s no real evidence that the public is getting more conservative, or seeing Republicans in a better light, but still they’re electing more and wackier Republicans. What’s up with that?
The City on a Hill. I was home sick on Wednesday, so I spent the day reading a short new book called Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Mayer is a professor at Duke and the book is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s more academic than popular. But it is readable and has a clear point: Political scientists like to talk about voters who rationally weigh their interests, and tug-of-war struggles between institutional powers like unions or the Chamber of Commerce or the NRA. Meanwhile, pundits and campaign consultants like to talk tactics: ad buys and gaffes and moving the conversation away from your opponent’s issues and towards yours. But they all underestimate the power of stories to evoke a public response and channel that response into actions like contributing and campaigning and voting.
Mayer begins and then later concludes with the story-telling in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King never comes out and says, “I have a story to tell”, but his speech revolves around an implicit story I might retell like this:
From the beginning, the reality of America has been trying to catch up with the dream of America. From Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal” but continued to own slaves; to Lincoln, who won a war to end slavery, but could not deliver full freedom; to the civil rights movement of King’s own day, which had its victories, but still left much to achieve; to the future that King could see in his dream, and would later see from “the mountaintop“, in which the promise of equality would be fulfilled.
The story of America was the story of progress towards an ideal. That story connected to a great past, was continuing right there in Washington where King was speaking, and would carry forward to a successful conclusion in the future. It was mythic, it was inspiring, it was motivating. And today’s Democrats have nothing like it.
Republicans do. Like King, they don’t say outright, “Once upon a time …” and start telling their story explicitly. But it’s always there in the background. It can be hard to pick up on, because most speakers just allude to the story rather than re-tell it, assuming that their supporters and potential supporters already know it. I’d tell it like this:
American is and always has been the “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan talked about.* Its Constitution gave the world a model of liberty. Its free society gave opportunity to immigrants whose path to success had been blocked by the class system of Europe. Its capitalist economy and the industrious virtue of its citizens gave the world a new model of productivity and prosperity. The heroism of its soldiers and the determination of its statesmen saved civilization from both fascism and communism.
But now, the City on the Hill is threatened by barbarians at the gates. If the City were focused and united, no horde could stand against it. But the virtue that still exists in many of its citizens is mixed with corruption. Many have lost sight of the golden vision of the Founders and have forgotten the glorious history that followed. Many have lost the virtues of industry and self-reliance, and have no ambition beyond soaking up the productivity of others. Many do not understand the uniqueness of the City and why its values must be defended.
The City needs a renewal within and a crusade without, led by those who understand the world-historic significance of the City and its ideals. Without such a renewal and such a crusade, it will fall, and the light it brought to the world will be extinguished. But with such a renewal, its virtues can be restored, its enemies can be routed, and its golden past can live again.
[* I’ve described before how Reagan altered the city-on-a-hill image that goes back to the Mayflower.]
It’s easy to poke holes in this story, but before we do, let’s take a moment to appreciate its sheer diabolical beauty. For example, the story itself contains no prejudice other than nationalism, but it easily adapts to whatever bigotry a listener brings. Those lazy citizens who expect someone else to support them, do they have a certain complexion? The threatening barbarians, is that Arabic they’re speaking? Spanish? The corrupt citizens, might they be gay? Or atheists? Or Jews?
Maybe. Maybe not. Bigotry is harnessed, but deniable.
Similarly, the story can unite people who disagree, because the renewal it calls for can be anything. Does the lost vision the Founders include a fundamentalist style of Christianity? Or a robber-baron style of capitalism? Or what the League of the South calls “Anglo-Celtic culture“? Maybe some of that lost virtue is sexual: Men are having sex with other men, and women don’t know their place any more. They want to be free to have sex with whomever — barbarians, even — and escape the consequences of their sin through birth control or abortion.
No wonder the City is in danger.
What it explains. It’s only in the context of the City/Barbarians story that you can really understand the intensity rank-and-file conservatives feel about issues that (at first glance) have nothing to do with their lives. Why should straight people care so much about whether gay people get married? Or New Englanders fear Guatemalan children? Why do so many people have an opinion about academic theories like American exceptionalism? Why should well-fed families begrudge a poor family its Food Stamps? Why do people without young children feel such strong hostility towards public schools and their teachers? Why are those ISIS beheadings so much more horrifying than the beheadings that are normal Saudi executions? Why did the Ebola panic get so out of hand?
These things are not issues in the usual political sense. They are signs of the corruption of the City, omens of the barbarians’ arrival, and warnings of the havoc they’ll unleash if they get here.
The story also explains the bizarre animus people feel towards President Obama, and their willingness to believe absolutely anything about him: He’s Kenyan, he’s Muslim, he’s gay, he pals around with terrorists, he’s Marxist, he wants to kill your grandmother, and on and on. Obama’s fundamental sin is that he’s not one of us. He wants to open the gates and invite the barbarians in. Fox News’ “psychologist” Keith Ablow laid it out:
[Obama's] affinities, his affiliations are with them. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. … We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.
Sure, you can go all academic-historian and explain why the story isn’t true. You can explain that the City was always corrupt, that its prosperity depended as much on slavery and genocide as on virtue and Godliness. You can point to the virtues of the people the City wants to exclude, or the ways they have been exploited, and the debts to them that a just city would want to honor. And it won’t matter. Because a story like this doesn’t have to be true, it just has to feel true.
And if you come from a certain segment of American society — the one I came from, for example — it does.
The lost age of upward mobility. I grew up in that segment of the white working class that expected to move up. Our expectation rested on a bunch of things that don’t exist any more.
To start with, there was my father’s job. He worked in a locally owned factory that wasn’t unionized, but had to compete for workers with factories that were. So a man who worked there (they were nearly all men in those days) could support a family and have a little money left over. Education wasn’t required; Dad had a high-school diploma, but others didn’t. And yet his job was secure in a way that is hard to imagine now. The factory itself was stable from one decade to the next — no thought of robots or China, or a junk-bond deal to liquidate its assets. So if you were reliable and worked hard you could do what Dad did: keep that job until you were ready to retire.
At every stage in my young life, I knew that if I was successful, the next stage would open up. If I did well in high school, I could go to college. It didn’t require luck or massive family savings or big loans. Community college was practically free, and the state university system was barely more expensive. You could just about work your way through college with a part-time job during the academic year and a full-time job in the summer. At worst, you might have to take a year off to work and save (at a working-class job that paid enough to let you save). So if college was part of your plan, money wasn’t going to stop you.
Once you got to college, if you chose a reasonable major and did well, you’d get a job when you graduated. Not delivering pizzas or telemarketing, but a real white-collar job with a career path. Or maybe you’d go on to graduate school and train for a higher profession. In a lot of fields, you could again work your way through. (I got a math Ph.D. by teaching calculus and getting a fellowship from the NSF. I came out debt free.) Or maybe you’d take on some debt to become a doctor or get an MBA, but that was an investment; it would pay off in no time. Once again, if you did well, there were jobs. The economy moved slowly enough that the job you’d pictured when you started grad school would still exist when you finished. And you could imagine (falsely, as it turned out) that it would still be there when you retired.
Life had what the stock-market analysts call visibility (“the extent to which future projections are probable”). You could make a plan and carry it out.
Undoubtedly, things were less certain if you weren’t white or spoke with a foreign accent. And women were just entering a lot of professions in those days, so they had no idea what to expect. But for a native-born white man, the good life was there for the taking. Nobody was exactly giving it to us — at each stage we had to work and succeed, and some of us fell by the wayside. But if you did succeed, the prize would be there. You could count on it.
None of that is true any more.
Today. As I write this I’m in my late 50s, watching my friends limp towards the end of their careers. A lot of them are one re-organization or one leveraged buyout away from unemployment, with no guarantee anyone would hire them at this age.
And their kids … I have no idea what to tell them. Even the most brilliant and energetic can’t predict where they’ll be in a few years. States have gotten out of the business of providing inexpensive high-quality higher education. There are no “safe” majors any more, no degrees that will guarantee a good first job, or even just one that will cover student loan payments. And the jobs themselves … even if you get one and everything seems fine, it can vanish like smoke. Maybe the office will move to Bangalore, or your whole profession will be replaced by an iPhone app. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard-working or well qualified you are. You could be scrambling for survival by this time next week.
Exactly whose fault this is … that’s a complicated question. Maybe the 1%, or the politicians, or technology, or globalization, or just the faceless forces of History. When the average person tries to figure it out, he just throws up his hands. Why? He doesn’t know why. But he knows this: It just feels wrong. And it didn’t used to be this way.
We used to be safe in a City on a Hill, but now there are barbarians at the gates. …
It feels true. That deep anxiety that never quite goes away. The sense that everything you’ve relied on could go “pop!” at any moment. That’s just how you’d feel in a city that was about to fall.
Nothing in the Democratic message addresses that.
What Democrats lack. Everything the Democrats support is on the wrong scale: We want to raise the minimum wage, and subsidize your health insurance, and pay women the same as men, and cut back the war on minor drugs, and create jobs building infrastructure, and put a little less carbon in the air. All good stuff. If you can get it isolated in a ballot question, it will probably pass. But none of it says, “Those are the people I want running things. I’m going to go out and take action to see that they do.”
George Lakoff summarizes the current Democratic strategy like this:
Use demographic categories to segment the electorate, categories from the census (race, gender, ethnicity, age, marital status, income, zip code), as well as publicly available party registration. … Poll on which issues are “most important,” e.g., for women (or single women), for each minority group, for young people, and so on. This separates the issues from one another and creates “issue silos.” … Assume that people vote on the basis of material self-interest and design different messages to appeal to different demographic groups.
What that misses is precisely the caring-about-things-that-don’t-directly-affect-you that the Republican story inspires. If you make minimum wage, then vote Democrat, because we’ll give you a raise. If you’re a poor woman who might get pregnant, we’ll defend your access to abortion. If you’re gay, we’ll support your right to fair treatment. If you’re Hispanic, we might not deport your nephew. If you’re young, we’ll help you deal with your student loans. But if you’re none of those things — or if you are, but not identifying strongly with your categories today — why should you care? What binds all those people together with all the other Democrats and offers them a role in the drama of history?
That’s the kernel of truth behind the charge that Democrats want to “divide America“, or that they try to win by offering “free stuff“. In one sense, those charges are laughable; it’s Republicans who have the big Us-against-Them story, and they are no less willing to offer free stuff to their constituencies. But Democratic strategy and messaging atomizes America. We may have a message for you as a unique combination of demographic categories. But we don’t have an identity to offer you as an American.
Even Lakoff’s proposal doesn’t really fix that problem. He offers a more unified set of principles and ways to advocate them, but the narrative element and the connection to our underlying anxiety is still missing. You can’t fight a story with principles, any more than you can fight it with facts or debunking or appeals to demographic interests.
You fight a story by telling a better story, one that does a better job of ringing true both factually and emotionally, one that draws people in and makes them want to tell that story to others. At the moment, we don’t have a better story. We’ve just got facts.
After you lose, you ought to spend some time in the wilderness, rethinking how you got here. During my time in the wilderness, these are the questions I’m going to be thinking about:
- What is the real story of America? the one that’s based on actual history rather than fantasy?
- How is that story playing out here and now, in the lives of everybody?
- How do we want that story to come out?
- What would it mean to be on the right side of that story, playing a role you’ll be proud to remember in your old age?
- How can we offer Americans that kind of role?