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Robert Reich: The Democrats Need a New Narrative

Robert Reich, in the New Republic (3-28-05):

Democrats are finally waking up to the fact that Republicans have succeeded in framing the issues to their advantage. Tax "relief," tort "reform," regulatory "burden," and "opportunity society," for example, have all defined public debate in a way that benefits the GOP. But, though Democrats have finally started talking about how they can recast their ideas to best appeal to the public, they've failed to realize that the rhetorical challenge they face is deeper than simply finding the right words and phrases. For Democrats to win back the heart and soul of the electorate, they have to speak to the basic stories that have defined and animated the United States since its founding. For most of the last century, they did this instinctively, but, over the last ten years or so, they have tended to speak in technocratic terms while conservative Republicans have mastered the art of the political narrative and, in doing so, exiled Democrats from politics itself.

There are four essential American stories. The first two are about hope; the second two are about fear.

The Triumphant Individual. This is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. It's the story of the self-made man (or, more recently, woman) who bucks the odds, spurns the naysayers, and shows what can be done with enough gumption and guts. He's instantly recognizable: plainspoken, self-reliant, and uncompromising in his ideals--the underdog who makes it through hard work and faith in himself. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is the first in a long line of U.S. self-help manuals about how to make it through self-sacrifice and diligence. The story is epitomized in the life of Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who believed that "the value of life is to improve one's condition." The theme was captured in Horatio Alger's hundred or so novellas, whose heroes all rise promptly and predictably from rags to riches. It's celebrated in the tales of immigrant peddlers who become millionaire tycoons. And it's found in the manifold stories of downtrodden fighters who undertake dangerous quests and find money and glory. Think Rocky Balboa, Norma Rae, and Erin Brockovich. The moral: With enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in the United States.

The Benevolent Community. This is the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good. Its earliest formulation was John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," delivered on board a ship in Salem Harbor just before the Puritans landed in 1630--a version of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, in which the new settlers would be "as a City upon a Hill," "delight in each other," and be "of the same body." Similar communitarian and religious images were found among the abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. "I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low," said Martin Luther King Jr., extolling the ideal of the national community. The story is captured in the iconic New England town meeting, in frontier settlers erecting one another's barns, in neighbors volunteering as firefighters and librarians, and in small towns sending their high school achievers to college and their boys off to fight foreign wars. It suffuses Norman Rockwell's paintings and Frank Capra's movies. Consider the last scene in It's a Wonderful Life, when George learns he can count on his neighbors' generosity and goodness, just as they had always counted on him.

The Mob at the Gates. In this story, the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces. Hence our endless efforts to contain the barbarism and tyranny beyond our borders. Daniel Boone fought Indians--white America's first evil empire. Davy Crockett battled Mexicans. The story is found in the Whig's anti-English and pro-tariff histories of the United States, in the antiimmigration harangues of the late nineteenth century, and in World War II accounts of Nazi and Japanese barbarism. It animates modern epics about space explorers (often sporting the stars and stripes) battling alien creatures bent on destroying the world. The narrative gave special force to cold war tales during the '50s of an international communist plot to undermine U.S. democracy and subsequently of "evil" empires and axes. The underlying lesson: We must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us.

The Rot at the Top. The last story concerns the malevolence of powerful elites. It's a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places--of conspiracy against the common citizen. It started with King George III, and, to this day, it shapes the way we view government--mostly with distrust. The great bullies of American fiction have often symbolized Rot at the Top: William Faulkner's Flem Snopes, Willie Stark as the Huey Long-like character in All the King's Men, Lionel Barrymore's demonic Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, and the antagonists that hound the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Suspicions about Rot at the Top have inspired what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in U.S. politics--from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements through the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts. The myth has also given force to the great populist movements of U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States in the 1830s through William Jennings Bryan's prairie populism of the 1890s.

Speak to these four stories and you resonate with the tales Americans have been telling each other since our founding--the two hopeful stories rendered more vivid by contrast to the two fearful ones. But the challenge isn't just to find a good speechwriter or a cunning political consultant, or to mine focus groups and polls. Candidates must say what they believe and speak the truth as they see it. (Americans can spot a fake thousands of miles away.)...