Elections Are A Competition Between Two Stories of America

Almost a year and a half ago, Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau wrote this:

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.

I thought of that when I read the book review by Daniel Kurtz-Phalen featured in the Washington Monthly. He starts off with this:

Countries, like people, tell themselves stories in order to live. They look to the past, its travails as well as its triumphs, and from that raw material they craft stories. These stories offer lessons and goals. They provide legitimacy to leaders and cohesion to communities. They generate meaning and direction for the present.

Since the 2016 election, there have been countless attempts to analyze what happened. I’ve read most of them and they almost always contain useful information. But the critiques of the Clinton campaign tend to fall into two categories that can, at times, sound mutually exclusive. On the one hand a lot of people say that she never articulated a vision. On the other hand, there are those that suggest she needed to emphasize policies that would have appealed to the angry white working class voters who supported Trump.

In other words, one critique is that Clinton spent too much time talking about the trees and should have described the forest. Others suggest that they know of the perfect tree (or grouping of trees) that would have made all the difference.

Based on what Favreau wrote above, I’m here to say that Clinton was never a good story-teller. But then, neither are most Democrats. Whether we’re idealists or pragmatists, we like to argue about trees. Meanwhile, Trump and the Republicans are busy crafting a story about this country that even I bought into lately.

They describe an ugly place where we’re all divided into tribes that see each other as the enemy. It’s a zero sum story where, in order for me to win, you have to lose. It’s a story where facts don’t matter and reality is irrelevant. And as Favreau said, it’s a story dominated by identifying the villains, who are” Muslims and Mexicans and Black Lives Matter protesters; the media, business, and political elites from both parties.” The reason why I say that I’ve been buying into that lately is because I’ve been increasingly feeling like their story is becoming our story.

Then yesterday another Obama speechwriter, Cody Keenan, tweeted about the 10 most hopeful days he’d ever seen in politics. They happened only two years ago.

It all started with the horrific shooting in Charleston. As Obama and his staff were preparing their eulogy, the Supreme Court handed down it’s ruling on Obamacare. In the Rose Garden, the president said. “Someday, our grandkids will ask us if there was really a time when America discriminated against people who get sick. That’s when America soars: when we look out for one another. When we take care of each other. When we root for one another’s success.”

Next, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling making marriage equality the law of the land. Once again, the president spoke in the Rose Garden, saying, “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments…propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes, there are days like this — when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt. What a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things …Those countless, often anonymous heroes — they deserve our thanks. They should be very proud. America should be very proud.”

Finally, the president went to Charleston, where he sang Amazing Grace. You’ve seen the video before. But did you notice what he said right before he started singing?

That reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things. That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

That is the story Obama’s been telling us about ourselves since 2004 and over the eight years of his presidency. Did we lose all of that in the short span of two years since he sang Amazing Grace? I don’t think so. We simply started telling a different story.

There is at least one person who is bucking that trend. In fighting against the Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare, Congressman Joe Kennedy III reminds us of the story Obama told us about ourselves…the one we need to keep telling.

Dave Weigel is right about what Republicans are likely to do, regardless of whether Trumpcare passes or not.

Keep in mind that what he’s referring to isn’t about the policies supported by Nancy Pelosi. It’s all about the stories Republicans tell about how she threatens conservative values. That’s precisely why I suggested that Democrats need to tell the story about how Mitch McConnell threatens our democratic values…just the way Joe Kennedy did in that video. In other words, as Favreau said, “Every election is a competition between two stories about America.” Democrats need to tell the story of who we are and the values we share. Vision statements are about what a politician wants to do and policies are the result of those values. But our stories define us.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .