The failure of progressives to tell the story of the world we want is largely to blame for the dismal state of the world we’ve got. And we’re running out of time to fix it.
This sorry tale begins on an up-note with Gouverneur Morris, an obscure founder of our nation. The wealthy 35-year-old New Yorker was, in effect, the first communications consultant to the (not-yet-fully-formed) U.S. government. In the summer of 1787, in Philadelphia, after the initial drafting work on the Constitution was done, the Convention’s leaders tasked its “Committee of Style,” of which Morris was a member, with polishing the language of America’s founding document. The final draft was led by Morris, who added a single introductory paragraph to the top of James Madison’s dirt-dry plan for self-government.
THE CONSTITUTION OPENS WITH A TIMELESS STORY
Morris could have opted merely to summarize the Constitution’s main talking points. Instead, his Preamble was a study in compact storytelling that created coherence and added inspiration, tying the Convention’s turgid and, occasionally, morally indefensible compromises to the timeless narrative of humanity’s desire for belonging, justice and freedom. The Preamble has no legal validity. Yet, it remains the only thing most of us recall from the Constitution and it arguably confers all of the document’s moral authority. In case your constitutional memory is as foggy as mine was:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Morris’s Preamble had the audacity and vision to narrate the missions our new government had to accomplish for us, the people. His primary mission statement, which became one of the most famous phrases of post-Revolution rhetoric, asserts eloquently that we reorganized America “in order to form a more perfect union.”
WE’RE TO BLAME FOR POLARIZATION AND PARALYSIS
Does anyone really need to ask how that’s working out? As we approach the 2018 midterms, the nation is beset by a panoply of the founders’ worst political nightmares — uncontrolled factionalism, regionalism, corruption. The U.S. government has recently been shut down (again) by partisan bickering. Non-urban areas war with cities. The president is enriching himself off the presidency. The country is progressively isolated from the globalizing world that America largely made. With racism driving policy from the White House, race remains a corrosive divider despite a bloody Civil War, the 14th Amendment and the bloody Civil Rights Movement. And…
At the heart of this polarized mess is our whole, long-standing approach to political and social campaigning. For decades now, everything has been presented as a short-term binary choice: Two parties; pick one. Here’s a policy; support it or oppose it. Here’s a poll; are you for or against? All our data, all our messages, all our talking points, all our ideas play on simple divisions that promote polarity and imperil our country’s mission to form a more perfect union. We use the power of computers to slice and dice the citizenry into ever-tinier and more-isolated factions. None of us, apparently, ever ask our pollsters, “But what do all these segments have in common?” Our entire approach requires polarization and rejects unity.
Trump didn’t create this catastrophe. We did.
WE LOST OUR STORY AND OUR STORYTELLING
The right-wing-ish pundit David Brooks, for whom I have no patience most days, wrote a smart New York Times op-ed last year in which he said:
“One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.”
There are mounds of scholarly research identifying the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus as the root of our national story. The story of Exodus may no longer resonate with all Americans, but it is a simple way to understand the critical and eternal connection among stories, and their influence on behavior and beliefs, in both the long- and shorter term.
Exodus is the prototypical nation-building narrative — the ur-myth that establishes the power of story in political movements. Exodus united the Israelites for a few thousand years (for the purposes of this discussion we’re going to set aside its role in the now-problematic project of modern Israel), and beginning in the 16th century, the same mythic tale supported and preserved Pilgrims as they fled persecution to the New World, Europeans as they colonized the land and nearly wiped out the native inhabitants, enslaved Africans who were kidnapped to the Americas and needed a mythic story to keep hope alive, colonists who required inspiration in their revolution against the world’s most powerful nation, and, finally, crusading civil rights leaders who needed to spread the faith that they could successfully push back on America’s racist, genocidal foundation.
All the world’s talking points and taglines never could have driven such a multi-millennial, multi-ethnic project of freedom-building and culture change. But a story could and did.
Proof is all around us that American politics — especially on the left — has forgotten the power of storytellers armed with unifying narratives. One proofpoint is the fractured, degraded nature of our union. Another, more mundane proofpoint is the website of The Office of Hillary Rodham Clinton. There, if you click on “Learn about Hillary’s vision for America,” what you will find is 41 disconnected talking points linked to 41 disconnected policy memos. More binary choices. Not a unifying story or an actual vision in sight.
THE TIME FOR STORIES IS NOW
Our many failures as communicators have been vastly compounded by our general failure to grasp the huge shift in audience attitudes and behavior that the advent of digital has brought about. In the pre-Internet era, any campaign — commercial or political — could buy attention and force people to listen to its messages. But the web ushered in a post-advertising age with a complete arsenal of message-blocking and ad-avoiding weapons available to everyone for free. Today, virtually the only “messages” people hear or see are the ones they choose to hear or see. Everything else is banished from their feed.
In this era, the only way to engage an audience is to tell stories that the audience perceives as authentic and compatible with their view of the world. In the post-ad age, the audience is the beginning and end of everything we do. The audience is the most significant arbiter of what gets attention. And what gets attention, according to all metrics, is storytelling.
Given all this, if we are to consistently win campaigns and drive long-term culture change, we need to migrate the practice of political and social campaigning:
- from talking points, policy memos and ads to storytelling worth sharing
- from campaign-centric to audience-centric
- from just talking to listening before talking
- from top-down pronouncements to stories that are authentic and emotionally resonant
- from slicing audience into ever-tinier segments to creating ever-more-inclusive communities
There’s no time to waste and, once we make this turn, there will be no time to rest. We can correct the way we view, categorize and talk to people. We can end the right-wing’s hold on national government. We can actually build a lasting movement that will, over time, banish official racism, reverse growing inequality, provide justice, change the culture and form the more perfect union we’ve been seeking for three centuries.
But first, we’ve got to change our own ways right now.
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