Storytelling & Politics
Drew Westen’s piece on the failure of the president to tell the right stories has met with much ire across the blogosphere. I find this odd. After all, the same people who often say that the president has little role in shaping policy – that’s the legislature’s job! – claim that Westen is wrong about the president’s role as storyteller. So then, what is the president’s role?
I think Westen is much closer to the truth than his critics allow. The role of the president is nothing if not symbolic. Presidents tell us stories to help shape the agenda of their presidency and give people a clear vision of the oftentimes far more complex, boring, humdrum politics that go on in congress. A president’s job is to drum up popular support for a broad vision, to weave together a narrative about America and our time in America.
During his campaign, Obama did craft a narrative. But it was quickly captured by the Tea Party and by Obama’s political opponents in congress once he took office. Along with the lost narrative, Obama and the Democrats time and again came to the bargaining table with policies so far to the right they were often leftovers from past Republican congresses – Obamacare, for instance, was just an old GOP policy that the Democrats thought, foolishly, that the Republicans would sign on to. This sort of concession-prior-to-bargaining told its own story, and it had its own intended audience – decidedly not the audience that Obama appealed to prior to the election.
Here’s the thing – Republicans understand that they need to stick to a narrative if they ever hope to win. They need it to be fixed, inflexible, and it has to resonate with their base. The story they tell now, on Fox and talk radio and wherever else someone will hear it, consists of the bizarre notion that Obama is basically a socialist who is running the country into the ground by taxing and spending at unprecedented levels and that only by shrinking government and voting for Republicans can we avoid transforming America into Kenya.
Or something like that.
Republicans will not stray from this narrative no matter the circumstances, no matter whether it is hypocritical or absurd not, no matter the hills and valleys of public opinion. They have a story and they’re sticking to it. And so long as the economy remains in the dumps, it can only strengthen and embolden them.
The story of the Tea Party is a fiction, of course, but it’s a powerful story nonetheless.
Obama has no similar narrative. The left has no story to call their own, to tell to the American people. What story they once had is as dead and gone as the ghost of John Maynard Keynes.
Democrats may seem reasonable, Obama may seem mature and willing to compromise, but they also seem weak, eager to capitulate. They have no story to tie their actions and policies to, and this creates a certain dissonance that’s hard to shake, that demoralizes the progressive base while ceding the national conversation to the right.
After all, the story we are all telling now is that we have a deficit problem. We aren’t talking about stimulus or unemployment. We’re talking about inflation and debt.
And what we talk about, the stories we hear over and over again, the tales we tell – these things matter, a lot. This is why Westen’s piece is so important, and why people are wrong to so quickly dismiss it as so much pining for a Great Orator, or so much liberal disenchantment. A narrative is more than just a series of fireside chats. For a president, it is an imagining of what America could be. For the life of me, I have no idea what Obama’s vision of America is at all.
There’s more to a story, after all, than mere words.