I have previously written about how people tend to gather and remember information best thru stories, or narratives. This is narrative bias. In my last post about the narrative bias, I discussed how narratives form in the political world. The Republican Party has created narratives to justify their positions: from trickle-down economics to Trump’s myth that illegal immigrants are criminals, therefore should be deported immediately. Both policies aren’t necessarily supported by facts – but they don’t need to be. These stories make sense to people. So what about the Democratic Party? Does it have a narrative too?
The Democratic Party Narrative?
Does the Democratic Party have a narrative rife with mythology about who they are and explain how they think? As political psychologist Drew Westen writes:
When I wrote the story of conservatism, it was easy. It flowed. There was no question what elements to include, how to frame the arguments, what words to use, who the good guys and the bad guys were, what obstacles the protagonists had to face to defeat the evildoers, and what the desired and ultimate outcome would be. That’s branding at its finest…But when I tried to write the same kind of story from the left, I drew a blank. I couldn’t even figure out whose story it would be.
The short answer: No. The Democratic Party hasn’t cultivated a narrative from year to year. The Democratic Party’s narrative is almost fully based on who the leader of the Democratic Party is at that time. In the hands of a gifted politician, the Democratic Party narrative can uplift him or her to the White House. During the Obama years, Barack Obama shaped the narrative around his policies (do you support Obamacare?). This narrative helps him, but doesn’t necessarily help other Democrats. Between 2008 and 2016, the Democratic Party lost more Governor races, lost more state legislators, lost more seats in the U.S. House and lost more seats in the Senate than the GOP.
When the Democratic Party sells out (or “triangulates”) its core principles, that makes it impossible to consistently push a narrative of the Democratic Party. If the Democratic Party stands up for workers’ rights, why is it pushing trade deals that would hurt the American working class? If the Democratic Party stands up for the poor, why is it pushing a Welfare Reform Bill that punishes people for being poor? If the Democratic Party stands up for social justice, why are Democratic mayors and governors pushing for stop-and-frisk, broken windows-type police tactics? If the Democratic Party stands up for economic justice, why do criminals on Wall Street get to avoid any prosecution for their enormous crimes under a Democratic administration while the full force of the criminal justice system is brought down on the poor?
The Democratic Party doesn’t have a master narrative full of mythology for people to repeat day in and day out because Democratic Party leaders follow whatever message they think will work on that day or for that election year. Most of these messages are framed around opposition. The Democratic Party isn’t the party of xenophobia. The Democratic Party opposes President George W Bush’s tax cuts. The Democratic Party opposes Trump’s immigration ban. This isn’t a narrative. This is a list of things you don’t like.
Bernie and a new Democratic Party narrative
When I worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign, I was lucky enough to interact with hundreds of volunteers throughout the country. They were there because they believed in Bernie. They believed in Bernie because they believed his narrative. Yes, we lost the primary. But Bernie as a candidate was a 72 year old Jewish Socialist from Vermont with little name recognition at the beginning of the campaign. No one, including Bernie himself, saw what would come next. Bernie’s message was simple: income inequality is undermining the American dream. That’s a message people understood. Huge crowds came out to see him make the same speech over and over. I would see the crowds and speak with the volunteers. It was as if Bernie was offering fresh water to a crowd of people left in the desert. People were thirsting for his message and found their messenger.
These people weren’t all Democrats. Bernie’s supporters weren’t “Bernie Bros” or whatever the dismissive punditry called them. One of the legacies of the Bernie 2016 campaign that few are talking about is this: Bernie seized on a narrative of “us” vs. “them” that transcended political party – corporations vs. the people. This narrative gained traction in the Democratic Party, but also had appeal to conservatives and independents. I worked for the Bernie campaign in New Hampshire. We won New Hampshire by 22 points in the primary not simply by winning the Democratic vote (which we did), but, thru open primary rules, we were able to convince Republicans and Independents to vote for Bernie as well.
In order to build a Democratic Party narrative and win the American people back, corporatism within the party must die. Bernie fought against corporate interests that exacerbated income inequality. Corporatism represents the cancer that is weakening any narrative that Democratic public officials could use. Corporatism within the Democratic Party ensures it won’t take a stand against corporate campaign donations (hey, we see you DNC), won’t take a stand against trade deals that hurt working families (like NAFTA or the TPP), won’t take a stand against pipeline construction (No DAPL) and won’t take a stand against Wall Street. When the party won’t take a stand against corporate interests, it cannot create a narrative about corporations vs people as the hero of the story.
With the existence of that narrative, Bernie supporters often see corporate Democrats as the villain. That’s where the Bernie or Bust anguish came in. That’s where the frustration with the DNC chair vote came from. In the corporate interests vs. the people narrative, we knew Bernie was our hero, as were his supporters like Keith Ellison, Nina Turner and Tulsi Gabbard. When Bernie was defeated in the primary, he worked hard to put his policy positions into the Democratic platform. This was important in defining what Democrats are – to define the narrative itself. If the Democratic brand can all get behind one narrative, it will be stronger and more successful. We can’t afford to wait around until the 2020 race to figure out what their narrative should be.
It’s not about taking back the White House. It’s about connecting with millions of Americans on their level so they can see politics thru a different lens. Its about giving them a narrative in which they can see the world and accept the mythologies that surround this new narrative. Its about branding this narrative in a way that Democrats and liberals are the heroes. Only then can the Democratic Party win elections up and down the ticket in blue states and red. If you are a Democrat who wants to win elections, stop looking for a savior figure to save the party. Start watching Star Wars. Understand that narrative. Understand the hero’s journey. You may learn something.