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Tell Better Stories to Win Public Opinion (and Elections)
There’s a common complaint in politics: Democrats are really bad at messaging. President Biden’s polling is near an all-time low, despite a number of successes on the policy front and today’s record-low unemployment numbers and record-high job gains. Sure, he’s not getting everything he’s promised passed. The intraparty response seems to be “fight harder.”
That’s a pretty obvious conclusion, and maybe it will work, if by “work” we mean “barely squeeze out a victory that should be a cakewalk.” But it sidesteps the issue of why the party is flailing on the message front.
Quite simply, Democrats have forgotten how to tell a good story.
There’s something to the power of a well-told story that grabs the attention—most of us can point to a book, movie, podcast, or other narrative that “changed our life.”
I put those words in quotes because they’re so commonly used as to be cliché, but they point to what is really happening inside our brains: We take new information and adjust our knowledge and opinions to incorporate it. Classics of any genre tend to do this to large numbers of people: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm changed the way millions of people thought about totalitarianism, for example.
Stories always have a stronger grip on people than rote facts.
Often, political conflicts are not just bids for power, but also competing narratives. This was painfully apparent during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, when she was subjected to a constant stream of invective from Republican senators focused on (to be charitable) an extremely bad-faith interpretation of her judicial record. We heard her slandered about pushing critical race theory, her positions on transgender athletes, being weak on crime and child pornography.
The charges are completely bogus, and the Democrats responded by largely ignoring them, as if refusing to address a fabricated charge would make it vanish in its own puff of absurdity. (The notable exception was Sen. Cory Booker.) Instead, they again touted Jackson’s multitudinous qualifications for the job.
The truth may be on Jackson’s side, but most Americans tuning in to the hearings without having paid attention beforehand would conclude that, even allowing for political grandstanding, there must be at least something sketchy about her that maybe should be looked into…
Simply put: Republicans were telling a story, Democrats were making a list. And stories always have a stronger grip on people than rote facts.
Stories, myths, and legends can serve as a binding societal glue that gives people a sense of purpose and belonging. They explained the unexplainable in pre-scientific societies—thunder and lightning can be explained as Thor fighting the great serpent Jormungand, for example, or the nurturing rains in the dry summers of Mesoamerica as a response to sacrifices made to Tlaloc. After the Enlightenment, these stories still can convey a society’s desired virtues: strength, bravery, fertility, loyalty, hard work, and so forth. Even if a myth contains a grain of truth—John Henry probably was a real steel-driving freedman working the railroads—it’s the larger legendary narrative that persists, because it speaks to how we make sense of the world.
Not all myths are benign, however, and some are inimical. Canny operators throughout history have worked to create myths to support their political, moral, or religious positions.
We need look no further back than the myth of the Lost Cause: the belief that the Confederacy’s rebellion against the Union was noble, its loss of the war a tragic defeat, and slavery was certainly not the barbaric practice those Northern carpetbaggers made it out to be. This was a gross rewriting of history by the South, often facilitated by the U.S. as a whole in the interest of post-Civil War “reconciliation”—among White Americans, that is; very few people asked the formerly enslaved Black Americans what they would need in order to reconcile with their former enslavers.
The Lost Cause myth became a cancer on U.S. society that quickly metastasized. Reconstruction was brought to an ignoble end (over a disputed presidential election, no less), freeing the Southern states to reimpose a racial hierarchy. Social-political groups, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, seized on the myth of the Lost Cause and erected statues and monuments to Confederate “heroes” across the entire nation, not just the South. The Confederacy lives on in highways, military bases, state flags, schools, and hundreds of memorials across the country. Its echoes can be heard when former President Donald Trump said, after a White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned to deadly violence, that there were “fine people on both sides,” or whenever a right-wing politician responds to a Black Lives Matter protest with “all lives matter.”
We’re seeing a lot of mythmaking taking place in front of our eyes in the U.S. today. It’s not just the “Make America Great Again” basket of baloney Trump was selling. Modern conservative nostalgia in general is often rooted in the fiction that there was a period when things were “better,” explicitly overlooking inconvenient facts like slavery, genocide, segregation, state violence against labor, and so on.
There has been a lot of criticism about the non-factual basis of the talking points on the Right, from the “Big Lie” of a stolen election to “Liberals are putting litter boxes in schools for students who identify as cats.” But that critique misses the fact that the lies are the point: The Right is creating its own myths to justify its own means (and ends). These narratives can then be used to provide an explanation for events that adhere to their followers’ beliefs—alternative facts, if you will.
That gets back to messaging and how Democrats often fail at it, allowing bills that probably would be quite popular to fail, and allowing our national politics to be dominated by blatantly false narratives from Republicans, such as the belief that critical race theory is being taught in public schools to make innocent White children hate themselves.
To put it simply, the belief among Democrats seems to be that good policy sells itself. That increasingly looks woefully naïve in the face of the Republican war on facts.
Thing is, it’s a lot easier to understand a story about a hero fighting a climactic battle against evil than the economic impacts of the expiration of the child tax credit expansion. If your story is believable and triggers strong emotions, people will glom on to it—whether it’s an attempt to recast the Civil War in less “Northern” terms, or the story of a stolen election, or the story of a mythic, idyllic national past. If your narrative fails to grab the imagination, doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, is hard to follow, leaves people uneasy, or is just plain boring, then people will look for a better story.
The real struggle for the future of the U.S. and the world is one between myths in the making. If American Liberals in general, and Democrats in particular, want to make sure Trump not only doesn’t return to power, but also doesn’t become his own Lost Cause to poison us for generations, they need to make sure they’re telling a better story than he is.
We may think QAnon’s tale of a spray-tanned action hero battling satanic forces is ridiculous. That doesn’t change the story’s hold on its fans; it only casts Liberals as elitist snobs who look down on the rubes who consume such garbage entertainment—which reinforces the toxic “us versus them” narrative.
This is a difficult request to make of a political party that has become the epitome of policy wonkishness, grounded in the often-boring minutia of lawmaking. Excitement (as in, drama, engagement, story) has historically come from outside the party mainstream. But those narrative elements can still capture the popular imagination, and they helped change history (and public opinion): John Brown raiding Harper’s Ferry, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching to Montgomery, Cesar Chavez leading the Delano Grape Strike. Even President Barack Obama’s election had elements of a heroic narrative—born to a single mother, attending Harvard Law School, cutting his teeth as a community activist, then rising to the highest office of the land. Scandal couldn’t touch him, because not only did Obama conduct himself with dignity, but we all knew his story, and the Republicans could only fling mud (death panels? The tan suit? Dijon mustard?) and hope in vain that something would stick.
Even today, myths still have the power to capture the attention of our post-Enlightenment brains and take us into the realm of adventure and epic struggle. John Ford, the Hollywood director who more than anyone helped bring the myths of the Wild West to the big screen, emphasized this point in his 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the final scene, a journalist (Maxwell Scott, played by Carleton Young) who has been interviewing a senator (Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart), comes to realize that the politician’s entire life story, his heroic arc from frontiersman to senator of a new state in the Union, is built on the foundation of a single event in his past that turns out to have been an invention. The journalist then destroys his notes. “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” Stoddard asks. “No, sir,” Scott answers. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That is considered one of the classic lines of Hollywood, and not just because it was good writing. It’s because there are no truer words that convey the power that comes from telling a good story.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.