Few political strategies grip voter imaginations like a simple tale about how America got mired in the problems it faces today. The story doesn’t have to be factually accurate. It just has to resonate in the depths of the psyche the way folk tales do.
Take the plotline of the Tea Party narrative. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore says in The Whites of their Eyes, the story opens at the moment when citizens forsook the Founding Fathers. Gradually Americans stopped being a nation of self-reliant, hard-working, freedom-loving patriots.
In the beginning, the story goes, they used their hard-won freedom from an oppressive foreign government to build America into a nation prizing individual initiative. So we grew into an economic titan and world power. But sadly, as years went by, rugged individualism began to suffer under the leaders of the land. An intrusive “big government” weakened the nation, devoured the people’s wealth, and threw Americans outside the Beltway into a vale of tears. If we don’t turn things around, and fast, they say, the story will have a tragic ending.
The Tea Party narrative is only the most recent edition of a story repeated with impressive message discipline over the past 30 years by the Republican Party. Individual tellings of the story may vary slightly, but all are based on the theme that, as President Reagan so memorably phrased it in 1981, “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”
It’s the perfect culprit, this “government.” The abstraction is so shapeless and multifarious that almost any evil or idiocy can be pinned on it. And almost any pet proposal can shine with the reflected virtue of a hero who will confront it in battle. The simplicity of the story sticks in the mind — even in the minds of people who don’t believe it.
Democratic politicians have not come up with a competing narrative that would explain the importance of government — a story about why government is necessary for developing the kinds of things they believe will keep the country strong and healthy.
Enter Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senatorial candidate has framed a simple, compelling story that Democrats can use as a common anchor for their ideas instead of just floating their individual liberal or progressive balloons around for Republicans to pop, one by one, as being beside the point (or proving it).
Warren told the story, which is becoming familiar around the country, in Seattle Friday night before a crowd of people with $40 tickets to a joint fundraiser with Sen. Maria Cantwell at the Paramount Theatre. The story begins in the Great Depression, Warren said, “a dark point in America's history,” a colossal bust in the boom-and-bust cycle that had caused panics, bank crashes, and the destruction of ordinary American lives and livelihoods every 15 years or so since the 1790s.
But then “America said we can do better,” Warren said. We instituted FDIC insurance, banking rules, and the SEC to enforce those rules. We also “invested in ourselves and built America’s middle class” by putting money into education K-through-grad school (“for every dollar we put in, we got five dollars back in taxes”) plus into infrastructure like highways, transit, a power grid, and “research, research, research.” Thus “our country got richer, and families got richer right along with us. It worked for more than half a century.”
Sadly, the story goes, about 30 years ago we lost our way. A deregulated financial industry and unfair taxation have “staggered America's middle class,” said Warren. “G.E., a profitable company with worldwide operations, pays zero taxes.” At the same time, we starve the infrastructure that our millionaires depended on for growing their enterprises, “and we tell young people ‘You’re going to have to take on debt to get an education.’ ”
Republicans rooted their story in patriotic American values of can-do, take-charge freedom and individualism. Warren roots hers in patriotic American values of can-do, take-charge working together and providing for the next generation. “How did we become a country that says ‘I got mine; you're on your own?’” she asked. Instead we should be saying, “’If you make it big, we'll celebrate, we love success. But you gotta invest a piece of that forward so the next kid can make it big, and the kid after that and the kid after that.' ”
Economists like Robert Reich have written similarly on the social impact of changes in economic policy. But I think Warren is the first politician who has drawn from the complexity a simple, compelling story that Democratic pols across the country can use as a way of anchoring their different local ideas and competing with the prevailing Republican narrative.
At a reception Friday night, I asked Warren how it feels to have done that. “It’s not about me,” she replied. “We’ve all got to say it, the same story in our different ways.”
Will other Democrats pick it up, though? Even if relentlessly repeated, a fresh narrative is unlikely to be the cause of a Democratic landslide in 2012. But the kind of message discipline that relentlessly repeats it decade after decade might win Democrats more elections 10-20-30 years down the road. Can they develop that kind of party discipline? Do they even want to?