Obama and narrative

[Cross-posted at dailykos.]
Barack Obama’s announcement speech was terrific. It had some genuinely spine-tingling moments; moments we haven’t had in far too long, like where he stands tall against right wing scapegoating of immigrants and gay people. But about two thirds of the way through, he gets into the “Let us” section. There are 20 uses of the construction “let us…” packed into the next six paragraphs. This was the weakest part of the speech. It felt like an ordinary laundry list, like he stepped out of telling an otherwise compelling story for those few paragraphs.
Education, health care, support for unions, ending of poverty, energy independence – these are all great goals, these are my goals as a progressive. So why did this part feel so flat?

Perhaps I’m wrong, and as my wife felt very strongly, the laundry list needs to be there. To check myself I started looking back at other announcement speeches and came across Reagan’s, from 1980. Maybe this isn’t a fair comparison, as this was the “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech, one of the finest pieces of 20th century American rhetoric. And, it was delivered at or near the historic apex of an extraordinarily well funded and organized political movement; billions of dollars of highly persuasive marketing and the words of thousands of others on similar themes preceded this speech. Even now, after the multiple failures and overreaches of this movement as it draws to a close, authoritarian conservativism still clearly holds strong sway over the thoughts and beliefs of numerous American voters. We have to present a robust and resonant alternative. If we’re going to win, we have to be this good. And even at this early stage of our movement, I think we can be.
Two things are striking about the Reagan speech. First, every policy direction was tied to a basic principle of some kind, and he mentioned just a few of these. Second, the reason he was known as such a compelling storyteller was that his stories tied into people’s everyday experiences. He didn’t just give us his whole laundry list: he gave the voters a couple of them, told them why, and made the case for the future he was presenting. Progressives then and now may have known that Reagan’s philosophy was based on a flimsy, narrowed definition of freedom and a retrograde notion of the purposes of civilization, but it fit the political moment that the conservative movement had created for him perfectly.
Principles give rise to narrative. Clear principles allow a storyline to develop around candidates: whether a leader was able to clearly articulate and govern from them, or not. Principles and narrative are both tools to help all of us – voters, organizers and elected leaders – order and grasp the astonishing complexity of governing.
Senator Obama and his campaign has given us some stirring rhetoric even already. My criteria for who I want to support is simple: we just need someone who can tell the story. Individual policy positions matter, but they aren’t the first thing I think about. Mostly, I want someone who can define his or her principles and make a strong case for the progressive future.
So the Senator is close, very close. His frequent references to MLK seem to indicate a potential to match Reagan’s raw storytelling abilities, but should he accomplish this, he’ll be left facing an ever bigger challenge: Reagan had the advantage of an existing economic narrative to tie into. By the time he ran in 1980, the conservative movement had already laid the groundwork of the narrative that is now baked deep into the neural structures of practically every American that’s picked up a newspaper in the past 30 years. You’ve heard it a million times: small government is good, taxes are bad, and freedom means the ability to buy lots of crap. This ability to translate difficult economic understanding into everyday language and a coherent worldview is one of the wonders of the conservative movement.
The good news is that the emerging progressive movement is in the process of becoming fully engaged on generating an alternative. Here are just a few of the groups working on this, and links to some of their most recent efforts:

Beyond this cornucopia of efforts, there have been a number of books on the topic (Inequality Matters and The American Dream Vs. the Gospel of Wealth: The Fight for a Productive Middle-Class Economy are two recent standouts), a pile of discussions at various websites, and numerous research organizations like American Environics, Real Reason and the Rockridge Institute applying their approaches to this.
Despite the enormous mental firepower being trained on this topic, there seem to be two gaps in both the process used to create these stories and the products themselves. First, none of these messages have apparently been focus grouped, or, if they have, a Luntzian, “words that work” type analysis that candidates and organizers can use on the ground hasn’t been put forward. Second, none of them are presented (at least so far) in the form of common-sense ready, easily memorized principles.
The emerging movement, both inside of and outside the party as well as in electoral organizations, still doesn’t make nearly enough effective use of focus groups yet. This is probably due in part both to their expense of running them, but certainly is also due to an inexcusable degree of consultant inertia, and maybe an occasional sprinkling of the mistaken belief that the truth will set us free. But, again from an organizing principle, if we don’t need to listen to people we won’t get through to them. Focus groups are a key tool in understanding where people are at, so that we can take Saul Alinky’s advice and meet them there. When we do use these techniques, we have a tendency to win unlikely but glorious victories, such as two consecutive Planned Parenthood-led battles against theocratic “parental choice” initiatives here in California that both started far, far behind in polling.
The message laid out here also hasn’t been focus grouped – yet. But as far as principles go, in a post last year, I attempted to come up with a starting point for some principles that would help organizers craft a 21st century progressive economic story. The original impetus for this was quite simple: as a volunteer working for a variety of local and national candidates and, in particular, a City of Santa Barbara living wage campaign, I found myself needing a compelling way to talk about why I was doing what I was doing, and why I believed what I believe.
I had some loose criteria for this project: I was looking for around a half dozen principles that I could sum up in a couple of words. And, it needed a name. Ideally I was looking for something I could explain to someone even after a couple of glasses of wine at a party. (Having had to do this on several occasions over the past year – San Francisco being one of what must be only a handful of places on Earth where party conversations turn occasionally to economics – it passes that test fairly well.) Republicans are to supply-side economics as Democrats are to… what? I was looking for something to fill in the blank.
One of the best features of our emerging movement is that we already have something of an embarrassment of great policy ideas floating around. What we’ve lacked so far is a way of ordering them, of tying them together into a simple way of saying “this is what we’re fighting for” and creating narratives around them. The following six principles, then, comprise the first draft of the High Road:

» secure basic freedoms
» invest in people
» democratize wealth
» build the green economy
» housebreak capitalism
» globalize this approach

Each point can be summarized in a few sentences:
Secure basic freedoms. FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights is a good template for this: housing, health care, useful work, education, and basic economic security are all basic rights that the federal government can and absolutely should play a role in securing. Without a basic level of security, people can’t even get to the kind of freedom and opportunity that is so central to progressivism: the freedom that is the fruit of cognitive liberty, the potential to develop one’s self as fully as possible. Securing these basic freedoms is the aim of social justice and it is the heart of the high road.
Invest in people. To compete in the 21st century, we need to take our education and research system to the next level. Financial resources aren’t the only thing the system needs, but they are certainly part of it. There is a bottom-line rational for beating structural racism and fairly distributing educational resources and opportunity; tax cuts don’t create jobs, people do. The job creating leaders of tomorrow will be new immigrants and inner-city kids, if we give them a chance.
Democratize wealth. Unions, progressive taxation, minimum and living wage laws, and employee ownership all have one thing in common: they democratize economic power and wealth. This is a good thing, and we can’t be afraid to say so. The American people are good and tired of being trickled down on!
Build the green economy. As I put it in the previous post: the long-time argument against building the green economy – that it would cost to much – sounds increasingly like total nonsense in the days of $50 and rising barrels of oil. The dangers and costs of not doing anything are far, far greater. Markets are tools for solving problems, not ends unto themselves. We should use them to solve environmental problems.
Housebreak capitalism. Capitalism is just like a puppy: it’s great, but it has a tendency to make messes. An American Prospect article last May used just the right frame for how to approach this: it needs to be housebroken. The right wing is always accusing us of trying to kill the puppy, but this is an absurd argument. Progressives are fine with capitalism, at least until we come up with something better, and the search for that something better is a critical part of the movement and the research it’s engaged in. But in the meantime, it’s time to stop having to clean capitalism’s messes off the rug.
Globalize this approach. The purpose of our trade policies, other than opening up international markets to our products, should be to encourage other countries. We can avoid races to the bottom, but only if we deliberately use our market power to compel our trading partners to avoid them.
How does not having this kind of narrative hurt us? Last year’s California Governor’s race is a good example. Of course there were many variables, and the Angelides team was pitted against the sharpest and most remorseless A-list consultants their movement has evolved. Schwarzenegger also had quite an advantage in an estimated $45M in free, “earned” media (the traditional sense of earned media hardly fit here, since the main thing he’d done to “earn” it was be already famous).
But Democrats beat candidates that outspend them 2:1 or 3:1 or more all the time, especially here in California. What happened? Schwarzenegger’s team defined Mr Angelides, weakened from a disgust-fest primary, early and hard by going immediately on the attack with their “walking backwards” ads:

Would you drive backwards? Walk backwards? Then why take California backwards to a time we never want to see again? When soaring taxes forced jobs and businesses to flee our state. That’s where Phil Angelides has promised to take our families with his $10 billion in new taxes.

This was unreconstructed bullshit: taxes simply aren’t “soaring” in California, the Treasurer most certainly wasn’t proposing they should, and the PPIC had fully debunked the claim that jobs were leaving the state more than a year earlier. But it didn’t matter: this message tapped into the deep anti-government and anti-tax sentiment that the people of this state are still stuck on because progressives haven’t yet offered a sufficiently compelling alternative. It was practically the only attack that stuck and it was the only one that needed to. Of course, it didn’t help that the Angelides campaign had the phrase “tax relief” all over their website through the entire campaign.
The high road message – deliberately – doesn’t address the larger issues of what the values that power our movement are, of what we believe society is for. It doesn’t need to. Whether we’re mainly about substantial freedom and realizing interdependence, or the common good, or we’re all in this together, or something else altogether, is another fascinating and ongoing conversation.
The high road is, however, very much a work in progress, as are all the ideas being cooked down by the bevy of progressive organizations listed above. But this is an area the top-tier presidential campaigns need to direct some of their resources towards. A compelling economic message that all the distributed parts of the campaign could use might be a better investment than pouring millions down the increasingly vanishing returns coming from TV commercials. It isn’t the Obama campaign’s fault that the 21st century incarnation of the progressive movement has barely cleared the starting gate and that a resonant economic narrative can’t be built overnight, but his campaign can absolutely help define our principles and tell the progressive economic story over the next two years, should they decide to. The onus is both on campaigns and outside organizations to make this happen, but since campaigns have such a disproportionately huge bully pulpit, they have a correspondingly important role.
The American people have responded repeatedly throughout history to candidates – and movements – that vigorously make the case for their worldview. Reagan was spectacular at this. Barack Obama could be. In a 1995 interview, the Senator asked, “What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer?” If he is able to move away from laundry lists, start telling the story, answer that question and connect with his background as an organizer, he will do exactly that.