Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Politics: Who's the Best Storyteller?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - CBC Television's The National last night ran a nice piece about how Americans care about the personal lives of their candidates and Canadians do not. The focus on personal details fits right in with the emphasis on image expected of an "emotional"-type culture, as discussed previously.

During the CBC piece, the idea that American candidates required a compelling personal narrative was raised. However, it runs deeper than just having a story about one's life. Michael Dukakis, the son of immigrants, had a quintessentially American story to tell in 1988 and lost in an effective landslide. John Kerry arguably had a much more interesting life story to tell in 2004 than did George Bush, including his military service and how that shaped his political views. The missing element for Dukakis and Kerry was that they did not tell their stories well and defend them against their opponents. It is story-telling that is critical to US electoral success.

Ira Glass, the host of the Public Radio International radio show This American Life, should know a thing or two about story-telling. His weekly hour-long show does nothing but present stories straight out of the lives of average--and not so average--Americans. When he goes on tour, he talks about how to tell a good story at length. Inevitably, as I observed in Boston in 2005 and in Seattle in 2006, he is asked about how this applies to politics.

Glass happens to be quite left-leaning and the fact that Democrats have failed miserably at story-telling since Bill Clinton, while Republicans have been masters, drives him crazy. "I want to ask them, 'Do you need help?'" he stated at the Boston event. Glass gets quite worked up over the apparent focus of Democrats of having facts on their side and letting those facts tell the story. "People don't want to go to school; they want to go to the movies," he has stated. That the principles of story-telling are widely-known makes the Democrats' failure all the more inexcusable.

Glass also points out that this has been true throughout American history. Historians note that Paul Revere was actually captured by the British on his ride to Concord. Dr. Samuel Prescott was the one that delivered the message that the British were coming. Yet, between the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem on the "Midnight Ride" and a long list of descendants that wanted to defend the myth, nobody has heard of Prescott and every American learns about Paul Revere. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin, while unquestionably an important figure who contributed invaluably to US history, apparently made up stories to add to his fame. In an episode of This American Life, Glass and Jack Hitt discussed how even the famous story about discovering electricity by flying a kite during a thunderstorm is almost certainly untrue.

In 2008, it seemed that the Democrats were finally learning something about story-telling. Barack Obama, who not only personified what many believe is the multi-racial future of the United States but also understood how to tell his story eloquently, became the nominee of the Democratic Party, out-flanking a more experienced candidate with her own uplifting American story (but not nearly the oratory skill) in Hillary Clinton.

Yet, this was apparently the victory of story-telling within the Democratic Party and not a sign that the Democrats have learned their lesson. Besides the personal narrative, the candidate has to have a story to tell about where they are taking the country. Obama seemed to be heading toward such a vision during the primaries, but since gaining the nomination, this element has been sorely lacking. I can't re-count what the Obama vision for the future of America is right now since he hasn't been talking about it. "Change you can believe in" is a slogan, not a story.

Meanwhile, the Republicans chose as their nominee the candidate in their ranks with the best life story, war hero John McCain. Then, he chose as his running mate a woman with another great personal narrative in Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a role model for conservative, modern women. The combined effect was to create a very clear story about where the Republicans were going to take the country. Never mind the Bush administration, John McCain will chart a maverick course to reform Washington DC. This may not be a vision consistent with the Republican ticket's background, but it is a story that resonates, and the bump in the polls after the Republican convention showed just how powerfully it resonated.

There is still time in this election, with four debates forthcoming, for Obama and vice presidential nominee Joe Biden to start telling a cohesive storyline about their future vision, and it is clear that Obama can tell a story. Perhaps the dynamics are so stacked against the Republicans that the Democrats don't even need story-telling to win this election. However, those wondering why Obama isn't riding the favorable political climate to a landslide shouldn't be looking to race, gender, or accusations about his religious background. The reason Obama has not run away with this election is that he isn't telling an adequately compelling story.

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