In baseball, great pitching beats great batting. In politics, great story lines beat popular policy or agenda ideas, whatever its majority endorsement. Just promoting the “right” (or moral) issues is no panacea – even a distraction when your terms don’t frame the debate. Don’t Democratic messages already command wide constituencies: bipartisanship and civility, crusade against corruption, cheaper, expanded healthcare, handcuffs on predatory capitalism, immigration reform, job training, infrastructure, and healthier work places? Did Dems triumph last week by hitting perennial boxes – or because they leveraged this relentless emergency story: Curb the incendiary, menacing Trump?
Since Reagan, the right’s racist, tribal, anti-government story line, however fatuous, has dominated national and state politics. What’s shocking is less its success than that Democratic brass (with exceptions Clinton and Obama) still resist the only way out: potent metaphors that drive moral narratives and values systems that win mass support. It’s George Lakoff 101. Did Gore in 2000 broadcast compelling metaphors, let alone a dominant narrative – or pander with a laundry list of payoffs? Did Kerry ever formulate a dramatic narrative that might have rebuffed Karl Rove’s better messaging? Hilary in ’16 not only (again) failed to articulate a commanding, visionary narrative, she defaulted to her outmoded resume – and the insufficiency of not being Trump. Why could she not dispel unhelpful, shady career episodes on which the right feasted? And how many welcomed Bill’s tawdry “story” back to the WH?
Narrative hill to die on
Thus, we progressive leftists must ask: where’s the unifying, inclusive story for today – that dramatizes a solid Democratic commitment to functional federalism, diversity as the top American virtue (and source of wide prosperity), plus feeding key partnerships to restore global leadership (vs. withdrawal and isolationism)? Is it so hard to fashion the high-energy narrative that redeems America as a visionary, global beacon of human rights, income mobility, and economic/medical/scientific enlightenment?
By focusing on climate warming (impacting everyone right now), and against white (racist) nationalism, let alone the fiction anyone can today go it alone, a striking story line would dramatize how peace and progress are wholly dependent on trusted exchanges with emerging multitudes (as well as deterring terrorism). This vision must insist that fair taxation and more equitably sharing of productivity gains not only make government worthy of trust but reinforce the level playing field serving the American dream: socio-economic mobility (in sharp decline here).
Democrats must abandon years of defensive, reactive responses to right-wing contempt for federalism – transforming taxation from a crude negative into the majority-serving good that funds retraining, education and incentives to move. When does this party question huge, obsolete military spending as wasteful and counterproductive? When do Democrats – without rejecting capitalism – confront its worst predatory outcomes, forcefully arguing income inequality is the death knell for democratic elections?
Where is the pro-active Democratic narrative that convinces flexible, non-big city centrists that successful countries live or die by favoring “patriotism” of “unified we stand, divided we fall”? When do we rededicate ourselves to a truly populist New New Deal that elevates the bottom 90% by cutting billionaire loopholes and restricting inheritance pass-throughs? If that means confronting Wall Street and international corporatism, so be it. Elections, after all, should corral voters – not those who concentrate profits. If power-depleted Democrats cannot challenge the moneyed status quo (and disown its agents, like Hilary), then this party rejects the supreme leverage that could return it to national power. FDR wasn’t perfect, but he knew how to deliver a values-driven, democratic story that unified rural and urban folks.
Torpedoing Trump tripe
In short, rightwing hegemony won’t be dislodged until Democrats formulate a breakthrough narrative that topples this Trump-massaged propaganda: “the system is rigged, selfishness is self-interest, secularism undermines religion, abortion is murder, taxation is theft, guns are power, globalism is a nefarious plot, non-white “outsiders” threaten, climate change is a hoax, and centralized controls smacks of communism.” Though hardly inventing these memes, Trump weaponized them with vitriolic, personal insults, dumbed-down, magic thinking, and a messianic celebrity cult – with the preposterous hustle this malignant narcissist could redeem American greatness.
What Trump believes, if anything, is immaterial: he took a credible, emotionally-manipulative story, made himself the lone hero, then bludgeoned both parties with coarseness, sneering violence, and race/class divisions. Isn’t the Democratic task to temper its equally militant narrative with reason, reverse the terms, and spotlight what Trumpery is: corrosive corruption, hypocrisy, and scorn for democracy? If our melting pot strengths truly make America great, diversity must be raised to its seat of honor, refuting the delusion that immigrants “steal jobs” when their work ethic produces greater, widespread prosperity.
Because of the tilted electoral challenge – re gerrymandering, Electoral College, and billionaire-funded, propaganda machine – the next Democratic president must win decisively. Democrats must learn to talk true populism to rural, low-population states — detailing how abusive, Democrat-bashing serves elitist GOP dominance, without improving ordinary lives. If Democrats cannot rationally unravel the crudest deceptions, magnified with pathological Trump lying, why should they deserve to lead America?
The politics of entertainment
Still muddy is how many top Democrats understand why former Obama voters embraced this loudmouth billionaire who “couldn’t be bought” (supreme irony alert) as disruptive outsider who would “kick ass.” With wild over-simplifications, Trump’s messaging feasted on a complex white, male backlash, while requiring only five-minute attention span to get it. No one pushed Trump to explain what replaces the international agreements he pledged to gut. Thus, behold the indefensible trade, environmental and nuclear chaos that’s the opposite of “creative.”
So, can Democrats engender charismatic, independent newcomers with high media talents, limited voting records, and battleground-state origins who know how to entertain a crowd? Impressive stories need convincing storytellers – as politics is, alas, less about morality or character than spectacles that entertain – though Trump fatigue makes civility appealing. Can the party devise a 50 state horizon voiced by straight-shooters who lie so much less and are more trustworthy than Trump, Pence, Ryan or McConnell?
Above all, can Dems talk honestly, speaking to painful realities (on climate, inequality, infrastructure, corporate/banking predation) with hard-edge optimism, starting off by turning the “Trump hustle-boomerang” into a learning bonanza? Our great opportunity means creating a national/global story line that shreds apocalyptic Trump nonsense. hat way lies a collective commitment to redirect trillions away from false “defense” spending and instead defend against the biggest world/nation threats – to planetary food, soil and water supplies, to starvation and deprivation after resource exploitation, and to state clearly we will put money where our mouth is, towards listening and co-operation.
Even if we cannot “solve” climate warming, we can together ameliorate its worst impacts for millions near low-lying cities. Even though income equality and educational privilege are well entrenched, we can show that inequality informs instability, here and abroad. The best political narrative defeats Trumpian cynicism with a plausible blueprint that reaffirms progress for the many, not the few. Because humanity is responsible for the worst pressures, what other organized, moral force can address the complex, disintegrating dynamics under way? Simpletons need not apply.