Getting the Story Right

Back in February, Jon Favreau said something that is worth revisiting.

Every election is a competition between two stories about America. And Trump already knows his by heart: He is a celebrity strongman who will single-handedly save the country from an establishment that is too weak, stupid, corrupt, and politically correct to let us blame the real source of our problems—Muslims and Mexicans and Black Lives Matter protesters; the media, business, and political elites from both parties.

Trump’s eventual opponent will need to tell a story about America that offers a powerful rebuke to the demagogue’s dark vision for the future…

In her campaign against Sanders, Hillary has begun to tell that broader, more inclusive story about the future…And now she has a chance to tell the story she’s always wanted about America: the story about a country that found the courage to turn away from our darkest impulses; that chose to embrace our growing diversity as a strength, not a weakness; that pushed the boundaries of opportunity outward and upward, until there are no more barriers, and no more ceilings.

I agree that presidential campaigns are ultimately about the story each candidate tells about America and I think Favreau did a pretty good job of summarizing the ones told by Trump and Clinton. While hers was effective enough to win the popular vote, his won the day in crucial states for a victory in the electoral college.

In some ways, that is why I agree with what David Atkins wrote about Trump’s villain story and its effectiveness with white working class voters. Immediately after the election I found this explanation from Nathan Robinson to be accurate.

Here’s the problem: if Democrats had actually spent time with Trump voters, as opposed to judging them by polls, they would have found this theory incomplete. They missed the fact that many Trump voters had a kind of undirected dissatisfaction and anger at the Establishment. For some, the source of this was most likely economics. For many, immigration. For others, it was probably simply an existential despair at the hopelessness of modern life, such as we all feel. But many of them simply didn’t know what they were angry at. They just knew they were angry. Trump came along and gave them a convenient narrative: the source of this anguish was ISIS, Mexicans, and Hillary Clinton. This was very powerful.

Of course, every story about a villain requires that a hero come to the rescue. Trump told that part of the story at the Republican Convention when he said, “I alone can fix it.”

But where I part ways with Atkins is in his recommendation that Democrats need to tell a better villain story. My reasons for that are not what he described.

The need for populism to establish, attack and defeat a chosen villain is precisely why so many comfortable centrists on both sides of the aisle have such a strong disdain for it. They see vilification as intrinsically ugly, uncouth, simplistic, and beneath the dignity of an educated populace that should be making policy based on dispassionate analysis of objective problems. Populist solutions are decried as fairy tales, and blaming any particular class of persons–be it immigrants or Wall Street–is seen as the juvenile tantrum of the unsophisticated.

My problem with the villain story is that it is not an accurate depiction of reality. When it comes to human nature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn captured it well in The Gulag Archipelago.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Beyond that, a villain/hero story is a linear concept of good and evil in a world that is systemically oriented. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated that very well in his speech at the memorial service for the four little girls who were killed in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He recounts the message their death sends to each of us, ending with this:

They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.

Notice that MLK doesn’t dismiss the importance of holding the bombers accountable. He simply says that is not enough to bring justice.

Before his Hajj to Mecca, Malcolm X was articulate in casting white people as the villain. But before he returned home, he wrote his important “Letter From Mecca,” in which he recognized that his experience of white people was limited to America, where a system of racism prevailed.  His pilgrimage to Mecca showed him that was not endemic to white people everywhere.

I have written before about what the development of systems theory in biology has taught us about a world that – instead of being a linear cause/effect binary – is interconnected in ways that create feedback loops, which either maintain homeostasis or incentivize change. As MLK pointed out, simply identifying a villain as the one to blame doesn’t alter the systemic forces that produced him/her/them. When it comes to implementing public policy to change systems, it is important to analyze interconnectivity so that interventions can be created that guard against the backlash created by the drive to maintain homeostasis.

I’ll grant you, that explanation doesn’t tell a very compelling story. But screenwriters like David Simon have demonstrated that it can be done. In talking about his HBO series, The Wire, Simon says, “Good and evil, at this point, bores the shit out of me.” His characters, caught up in the failing systems of Baltimore, demonstrate exactly what Solzhenitsyn described in the quote above. Other screenwriters, like those I quoted after watching the Norwegian series, Occupied, have told gripping tales based on similar themes.

The really interesting conflicts are ones where you can understand both sides. It’s just a matter of what you emphasize. I don’t believe in evil, and I don’t find evil characters that interesting. In this show, everyone is trying to do their best, trying to do good in whatever situation they’re in. It boils down to their perspective and what they view as their task. And I think that’s part of why the world, why a lot of conflicts in the world, don’t have easy answers. But unfortunately we have to deal with them.

It is unclear whether the need to identify a villain to blame is innate or has become fairly ubiquitous because it is something we’ve been fed as a steady diet in our storytelling. But we know that politicians throughout history have often used this narrative to gain power. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the decades-long attempt to frame every conflict in the world as part of the Cold War and the casting of the USSR as the “evil empire.” Bush and Cheney used the same framework to create a narrative in support of their “global war on terror.” The Republican’s Southern Strategy was an attempt by that party to win over white people in the South by inviting them to point the finger of blame at their African American neighbors.

At minimum, a villain/hero story is an incomplete version of reality. They are simplified tales that have tremendous PR value – but very little in common with how the world actually operates. That is what makes our job as liberals more difficult than conservatives – who are always happy to rely on a simple good/evil narrative. Here’s how Barack Obama put it back in 2005:

The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives’ job. After all, it’s easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it’s harder to craft a foreign policy that’s tough and smart. It’s easy to dismantle government safety nets; it’s harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It’s easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it’s harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that’s our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose.

One of the things that made Obama unique is his ability to tell a compelling narrative that challenged the villain/hero story told by Republicans. That is what initially caught everyone’s attention when he gave a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. It might be difficult to replicate that. But I believe that is our job as liberals.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.