[This excerpt deals with the need for political parties to tell voters a coherent story. It’s from Chapter Seven in The Political Brain by Drew Westen.]
WRITING AN EMOTIONAL CONSTITUTION
“Success (in politics] has less to do with brains than guts…. Democrats have failed at the basics: defining their message, attacking their opponents, defending their leaders, inspiring their voters…. Americans don’t like what Republicans stand for, but they don’t know what Democrats stand for.”
— JAMES CARVILLE AND PAUL BEGALA
In a classic experiment, cognitive psychologists asked their subjects to try to remember the following paragraph:
The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many…. After the procedure is completed, one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated.
The task isn’t easy. But it’s a lot easier if you’re first given the title: “Washing Clothes.” Suddenly the “gestalt” or gist is clear, the description is comprehensible, and you would likely remember the essence of it a week later. Without the title, each sentence stands alone for its meaning, more like a list than a story. By first activating a network about “washing clothes,” however, the incomprehensible becomes comprehensible, the sentences assume the structure of a narrative, and the story can be readily remembered and retold.
The first and most central task of any political campaign is to capitalize on the partisan feelings of those who tend to identify with the candidate’s party. That percentage ebbs and flows over time and differs by state and region. But as the history of independent candidates for both the Congress and the presidency shows, it’s a big help to start with 30 to 40 percent of the electorate kindly disposed.
That kind of disposition is only possible, however, when a party has a coherent, emotionally compelling “story” — a narrative of what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican — sometimes described inelegantly in the language of advertising as a “brand.” You know a “brand” or “master narrative” exists when it is amenable to titles such as liberal or conservative that carry with them deep connotations (i.e., that activate extensive, emotionally powerful networks), and when it can be placed in the form of an emotionally compelling, coherent story that tells the tale of what the party stands for.
Research suggests that our minds naturally search for stories with a particular kind of structure, readily recognizable to elementary school children, and similar across cultures. A coherent story has an initial state or setting (“Once upon a time… “), protagonists, a problem that sets up what will be the central plot or storyline, obstacles that stand in the way, often a clash between the protagonists trying to solve the problem and those who stand in their way or fail to help, and a denouement, in which the problem is ultimately resolved (“And they lived happily ever after”). Most stories — and all that try to teach a lesson, as political stories do — have a moral. Many stories are complex with subplots and submorals. But in general, they follow, a similar and recognizable structure that gives them their rhetorical power.
Any compelling political narrative must have the following elements:
· It should have the structure our brains expert of a narrative so that it can be readily understood, told, and retold.
· It should have protagonists and antagonists, defining both what the party or candidate stands for and what the party or candidate cannot stand, most centrally, what the antagonists represent.
· It should be coherent, requiring few leaps of inference or imagination to make its plot line move forward or the intentions of its central actors clear.
· It should have a clear moral (and generally subordinate morals, which refer to the party values).
· It should be vivid and memorable.
· It should be moving.
· It should have central elements that are readily visualized or pictured, to maximize its memorability and emotional impact.
· It should he rich in metaphor, both so that it is emotionally evocative and so that it creates and reinforces its intended analogies.
· It should take elements of the opposition’s story, including its metaphors and recast them as its own.
· Finally, if the story is the party’s master narrative, it should be a story its framers would want to tell their children — that could he illustrated in a children’s hook — because it should be so clear, compelling, and central to its members’ understanding of right and wrong that they would want their children to internalize the values it embodies.
Most of us have read to our children the quintessentially American story, The Little Engine That Could. Although we may have thought we were just participating in a bedtime ritual, we were transmitting values, whose faithful transmission depended not just on the words on each page but on its narrative structure. This simple children’s story is rich with oral meanings — meanings so implicit I wasn’t even aware of most of them even though it was my favorite story as a young child, and one I have read to my own children many times.
The story begins with a good little train, whose mission was to bring toys and treats to girls and boys on the other side of the mountain. It wasn’t going to bring the toys to just any old boy or girl. It was going to bring them to the good boys and girls, transmitting, under the radar screen of our children’s imaginations, messages not only about good behavior but about justice, that goodness is rewarded.
But then something happens: through apparently no fault of its own, the train stops with a jerk, unable to move (the obstacle that sets up the plot). At first, the toys on the train panic, but then they realize they have nothing to fear because many trains would pass by that could give them a helping hand — inculcating the value of community and the expectation of trust in the goodness of others.
But that’s not what happens. One locomotive after another — a shiny engine with fine carriages and elegant dining cars that carries people, not lowly toys, apples, and lollypops; a powerful engine capable of much heavier lifting — ignores the pleas for help because each felt it was too good for the little train and its cargo (the antagonists). The implicit message is that no train, no matter how rich or powerful, should put itself above others and refuse to help out a poor neighbor in need.
Eventually, just as the clowns and dolls on the stalled train are about to lose hope, a little blue engine approaches. The clowns and dolls explain their dilemma. The little blue engine isn’t very strong and has never been over the mountain. But those poor little boys and girls on the other side must get their treats. Although she has no material interest in helping the train and its cargo, she takes their plight as her plight and decides to do everything in her power to help them. Again, the moral lesson is clear but implicit: to help those in need — even when you don’t know them, even at a cost to yourself, even if you’re not sure you can do it — is the right thing to do.
So then the little engine begins pushing them up the mountain. It isn’t easy, and it takes all her strength. But as she climbs up the mountain, she expresses the central theme of the story: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Because she has confidence, the motivation to succeed, and a worthy goal, she does succeed (the denouement). And as she begins to roll down the mountain, she smiles to herself and chugs, “I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”
What a magnificent set of messages this little story teaches our children. It teaches them to have good hearts, and that the good should be rewarded. It teaches them the dangers of pride, class, and division, and the importance of helping those in need. It teaches them that those who are truly rich are those who are rich in spirit, not in the trappings of success. And perhaps the central theme of the story is that if you try hard enough, you can overcome adversity to achieve whatever you want.
It is difficult to imagine a more American story of the relation between personal achievement and the welfare of the community.
For years, Democrats have been running campaigns that lack the story structure to which our minds are so receptive, competing not only against an ideological “brand” that has a highly compelling, well-honed story but also against the natural disposition of our brains. Against a coherent narrative, the 2008 John Kerry For President campaign ran a rational-utility laundry list. As James Carville and Paul Begala, two of the best political storytellers in the business (and, up until the Obama campaign in 2012, the only ones to engineer the reelection of a Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt) put it, instead of telling a story, the Kerry team focused on issues: “They talked about the economy. They talked about health care. They talked about the environment. They talked about Iraq. They talked prescription drugs and Social Security.”
They practiced trickle-up politics, listing all the ways a Kerry presidency could offer high expected utility. But without a storyline, without a plot, without protagonists, and having deliberately chosen to leave out the antagonists (the Bush administration and its extraordinary failures) because of a misguided belief that voters dislike “negativity,” they provided voters with a list, a description of the steps they would take to wash our collective clothes. But they forgot to mention that the clothes were dirty, that they needed washing, and that the other party had muddied them up.
And as result, they got taken to the cleaners.
Just as we share our values with our children through stories, candidates and parties need to share their values with voters through stories. And the first and most important story — the story that picks up the first 40 percent of votes, and may well carry the election on its own if it is coherent, well crafted, resonates with the electorate, and is read with enough of the right vocal intonation by a reasonably good storyteller — is the story of what the party stands for, which should be an extension of the story of the nation and its principles.
So the next time a political strategist tells a Democratic candidate to run an “issue-oriented” campaign, to offer a laundry list of policies instead of a genuine story of who the candidate is and what he or she stands for, I suggest that candidate stop memorizing all those facts and figures and simply read voters The Little Engine That Could. That little book contains all the “issues” that really matter to most Americans and all the values that define the American dream and the Democratic Party: Try to be a good person, don’t put yourself above others no matter how rich or strong you are, understand that you are a part of a community, show your appreciation for what you have by sharing your blessings with others who are less fortunate, achieve so that you may become the best person you can be, and in so doing you will not only become strong and virtuous, but you will contribute to the strength and virtue of your community.