The Left Needs Better Stories

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I write here a lot about rhetoric when it comes to politics, which partly stems from my training as a teacher of rhetoric and composition. As a fiction writer, though, I’m also intrigued by how the power of narrative plays a role in our politics. The ability of the human brain to communicate through story, both real and fictional, is one of the most marvellous abilities we possess. Particularly in an election year, we get inundated with stories from “average Americans” in campaign commercials and speeches, talking about the jobs they’ve lost or how government regulations are crippling them. Many argue that trying to persuade people through stories isn’t ethical, usually because stories can be interpreted in so many ways, or even outright made up, although some argue that any appeal to emotions is a sign of logical weakness, that we should stick to straight facts when making our decisions. I personally don’t agree with this, and regardless of how you feel about the validity of arguments based on narrative, there’s little denying that they can be incredibly effective.

When you look at where this year’s presidential election stands now, you would think that President Obama would have the stories on his side. Certainly the pace of economic recovery in this country has been unsatisfactory to many, a point Obama has no choice but to concede, but it wasn’t that long ago that Republican policies got us into the huge hole that Obama and congressional Democrats had to dig us out of. The whole collapse of four years ago pretty much reads like a bullet-point list of why the modern Republican party shouldn’t be in power: A “CEO President,” and a Republican Congress eager to do his bidding, cut taxes on the wealthy and gutted important financial regulations meant to protect the average American citizen from the tyranny of unchecked greed that is endemic in laissez-faire capitalism. Now the Republicans are running another candidate, and another campaign, based on the idea that America should be thought of as one big business and we need an experienced — and oh-so-wealthy — CEO to get in there to cut out anything that might make it harder for businesses to do as they please, from marginal tax rates to “wasteful” help for the neediest Americans to the simplest of safety regulations.

Obama wins on the “Are you better off now than you were four years ago” question, but most of the “yes” answers he gets to that are muttered or mumbled. Still, if the question is whether people want four more years of Obama or they want to go back to the economic policies of the last Republican president — note how so few Republicans and conservatives think Mitt Romney should invoke the name “George W. Bush” in his campaign — that should be a no-brainer for swing voters. Obama isn’t going to win this election with the same margins of victory he won in 2008, in either the popular vote or the electoral college, but just by putting Bush 43’s face on a television commercial every hour, you’d think he should be able to at least guarantee himself victory in November. Maybe he will do that later in the campaign. After giving it thought, though, I’m not so sure that will necessarily work.

Maybe I’m more sensitive to this than most, having lived all my life in a part of the country where unions were historically strong, but it’s always seemed to me that hardly any conservative commentator can say the word “union” without also saying “Hoffa” in the same sentence. Even generations after Hoffa’s disappearance, there is almost a magical quality to Hoffa’s name, a set of images in invokes in people’s minds that holds a great deal of sway. Conservatives invoking Hoffa’s name in the discussion of unions clearly do so in an attempt to try to paint all other union figures with the same brush, implying that all unions are corrupt and you can’t trust them.

Why does the name “Ken Lay” not have the same sway with the American public? Why do people need to be reminded of the whole Enron scandal, about company traders caught on tape literally laughing about screwing grandmothers in California out of money? Yes, the Enron scandal broke at a time when terrorism was still in the forefront of American consciousness, but once you take the factor of scope out of the equation, what happened at Enron has certainly happened many times over in this country both before and after Ken Lay’s name was forgotten by most Americans. The malfeasance behind the collapse of four years ago was little different, yet despite this, we are reassured constantly that cases like Ken Lay’s are the rarest of exceptions, and most CEOs are honourable people. I haven’t met enough CEOs to make a judgment on that, but I will at least concede that every CEO is not a Ken Lay. Why, then, are conservatives so successful at convincing people that every union figurehead is a Jimmy Hoffa?

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the reason there’s still this mystique around Jimmy Hoffa is because Americans are more fascinated at the Hoffa story. Even ignoring the fact that Hoffa’s disappearance came on the tails of the phenomenal success of the first two Godfather films, America has always had a love of organized crime. From The Untouchables to the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise, and everything in between, fiction about organized crime has always featured the same elements that captivate so many of us: Shady characters, backstabbing, and of course the excitement of gunfights. Even for people who’ve never read or seen any of the  Godfather stories, it’s still impossible to hear the Hoffa name and not see him through those goggles that American stories about organized crime — both fictional and factual — have fitted over all our eyes.

In comparison, the story of the Enron scandal really doesn’t make for good television. Yes, you have all this shady stuff going on, but it’s technical and not all that exciting. It’s certainly not as easy to follow, or as thrilling, as one person pointing a gun at another. If you were to cast the collapse of four years ago, and you were to make someone other than George W. Bush as the primary villain, who would you choose? Do you even know the names of the bank CEOs at the time of the collapse, or the legislators responsible for the bank deregulations that contributed so much to the collapse? The only scandal involving Republicans that has had any real sticking power in the American consciousness is Watergate, and that had break-ins, that cloak-and-dagger stuff that makes so many Americans practically salivate.

What does the left wing of this country have to do, then, to make the stories of corrupt CEOs, and greedy executives, and their lapdogs in Congress, as enticing to Americans as the Jimmy Hoffa story? Right now, I’m fairly certain it can’t even be done at this time. As a rule, when people are hurting, like so many Americans are now, they generally don’t want to read stories that remind them of their own problems. Escapist fare tends to be much more popular in these times, which is why popcorn movies have performed so consistently well these past eleven years despite turbulent economic conditions. Relatively few people have had their lives directly affected by the violence of organized crime, so watching a mobster shoot someone doesn’t remind many of their real problems. Watching a fictional CEO screw people over, though, reminds too many people of why they (or people they know) lost their jobs or houses, and they don’t want to be reminded of that because it just makes them upset and/or angry. Somehow I have a feeling this may be a conscious strategy on some conservatives’ part: If everyone is miserable, then no one will want to hear stories based on how that misery came to be, so conservatives won’t have to defend as much against the power of narrative.

If the left can’t use stories to the same effect that conservatives can use them right now, then it seems the next best thing they can do is to make Mitt Romney, and by extension other Republicans, seem as villainous as possible, so people have the same guttural repulsion to conservative figureheads that they do to a Cruella de Vil or a Lord Voldemort. The thing is, Romney’s own campaign is already doing so much to make him seem like an out-of-touch (“chocolate goodies” and the many uses of the phrase “you people”) unsympathetic (“I like being able to fire people”) CEO stereotype that I wonder if they haven’t already calculated that casting Romney in that mold won’t do appreciable damage to him. The Obama campaign is certainly doing a lot right now to bring up Romney’s record at Bain Capital to point fingers in that direction, but it’s hardly done anything on the level of the “Why So Socialist?” images of recent years, even as Romney’s new favourite word to describe Obama these past couple of weeks has been “foreign” and you don’t need a degree in rhetoric to know what Romney’s trying to do with that.

This election may be providing me with a lot of material for rhetorical and tactical analysis, but in so many other ways it’s just making me sick. The results of November will be less about who “wins” and more about who does the best job of not losing. For too many of us, we’ve already pretty much lost, and no storyteller is going to be able to craft that into a story we’ll want to hear anytime soon.

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