In the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Tina Turner belted out the tune, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” For progressives that care about their policy and electoral futures, it turns out that she may have been dead wrong.
Heroes, Villains and Power
Recent experimental research by one of the authors suggests that heroes play a critical role in policy narratives (Jones, 2010). When Dr. Jones began his research, he suspected that there was power in narrative, hypothesizing that the villain would be the focal point of that power. However, the most surprising element of the research is that it is simple stories with clearly identifiable heroes that are most able to help citizens make sense of complicated policies and issues.
Progressives often stand in awe of the ability of Republicans to communicate their message in simple stories. Usually that begrudging admiration is focused on the ability of conservatives to so effectively make progressives the villain. To the extent that progressives have even attempted to use narrative, their efforts have often zeroed in on how to return the favor by demonizing Republicans.
Consequently, when it comes to coherent policy narratives, progressives either don’t produce one at all or reactively focus on villainizing Republicans. This has had the effect of depriving progressives of any hope that voters might conclude that they are their “heroes.”
Up until now, progressives appear to have presumed that their policy proposals self-evidently reveal the underlying motives for seeking those outcomes. They’ve felt no need to offer the “why” for voters to evaluate — seemingly hoping that the sheer force of their logic and the weight of the facts would carry the day. However, work by scholars like Jerome Bruner suggests that narrative reveals intentions or the “why” behind the actions of a player in a drama far better than a rational argument does.
For voters assessing complex policy questions that they may not feel that they fully grasp the details of, knowing why a politician is pursuing a policy may be the critical question the voter wants answered. And it is in that regard that the current communication tactics of progressives falls most woefully short.
Meanwhile, the narratives that conservatives use often in fact make progressives the villains. What progressives have failed to notice is that those same narratives “star” conservatives in the role of “heroes” of those same stories, and the research of Dr. Jones suggests that’s where the real power of those narratives resides.
The proposed strategy here should not be misinterpreted as just the wishful thinking of Pollyannas saying that progressives simply need to “tell their positive story.” In fact, Republicans will often be the villains of the progressive story, but progressives must no longer forget to make their own worthy efforts and goals known explicitly as well. And that is best done with a well-formed narrative.
Progressives must find a way to do in a coordinated fashion what conservatives appear to do almost instinctively — communicate in narratives that make themselves and the positions they take heroic in the eyes of a majority of voters.
So Who Was the Hero of Financial Reform?
So how does this apply to an actual policy fight? Let’s take the recent debate over financial reform as an example.
According to a New York Times report at the time of the initial Senate passage of the Dodd-Frank bill, here’s the Republican view of financial reform:
Embedded in that simple phrase, is this story, which because it was nearly universally understood, was repeated by the reporter himself, rather than actually expressed by a Republican elected official:
Villain: Democrats are trying to expand the scope of government — an argument presented in the context of this fight and reinforced in nearly every other debate over the last two years.
Villainous act: Trying to grow government for unspecified, but presumably nefarious purposes.
Victim: Taxpayers (implied).
Heroic act: Standing in opposition to the Democrats nefarious goal of “growing government”.
Readers, viewers or listeners can quickly draw conclusions from this narrative without any knowledge of the content of the legislation.
Here are the comments by the Obama administration in the same news account:
How does this “story” compare?
Villain: Vaguely some combination of Wall Street and the recession.
Villainous act: Lack of responsibility and accountability.
Victim: Vaguely everyone.
Hero: The President?
Heroic act: (Passively) making “Wall Street Reform one of [his] top priorities.
Now imagine that the story the President told was more like this:
The only thing standing between middle class families and more abuse from unethical bankers on Wall Street are the tough reforms we’re fighting for. That’s why we’ll continue this fight no matter how much Wall Street or the politicians who enabled their abuses object.
From almost the same number of words, you get this “story.”
Villain: Bad actors on Wall Street and the politicians who enabled their bad acts
Villainous act: Financial abuse
Victim: Middle class families
Hero: The President
Heroic act: Taking on bad actors on Wall Street and its enabling politicians
Is This The Same Old Argument About Moving Further to the Left or Toward the Center?
The power of this approach goes beyond mere framing. Research by Jones and McBeth describes how policy narratives can actually shape public policy by growing political coalitions through the use of heresthetics (Jones & McBeth 2010). Heresthetics are the strategic use of rhetoric (or, in our case, narrative) to shape the possible choices (Riker, 1986). Let us explain how.
In the context of the modern Congress, for all practical purposes, the last votes you are likely to need for a winning coalition to pass legislation are generally well-known from the beginning. In performing the vote counts, there are those votes that are reliable partisan votes, those that you can never get — which in the modern era, except for the most select votes — is the entire minority, and then there are those members of the majority who for either policy or political reasons are not automatic votes for the majority position.
Under our proposed approach, you would start by telling a problem-defining story that would be beneficial to those in the political center — the swing votes in the caucus. The current approach, we think, doesn’t accomplish this sort of problem definition very well; rather, too often, it preaches only to the policy converted by emphasizing the immense complexity of both the issue and the proposed package of solutions. In turn, the “complex” problem definition — which defines the reformers as heroic to too narrow an audience — actually creates cross-pressure on independent members of the chamber, politically forcing them to distance themselves from the proposal as part of a strategy to show that they aren’t “just another member of the party faithful.” By defining the problem in ways that moderate members don’t feel they could sell themselves as heroes to their constituents by joining the reformer’s effort, progressives are actually making it more difficult for the pivotal allies to join their coalition.
On the other hand, no one but the villain tries to distance themselves from the hero in a story. Indeed, everyone wants to bask in the glow of their heroism. So the policy narrative must be structured in such a way that those seeking a solution are portrayed as heroes, with particular emphasis on making those swing votes heroic figures in terms of their constituencies. The lesson for the most progressive members: Don’t draw the circle of virtue too small by how you tell your initial story.
It’s About Broadening the Coalition Through Narrative
When progressive leaders are formulating the initial strategy, instead of just asking, given this problem, what is the perfect policy solution? — they should instead also ask the narrative question: How can we structure a story around that policy so that centrist and/or vulnerable members of the caucus can tell it in a way that accurately portrays those members as heroes to their constituents?
The end game, of course, is that instead of having to apologize for what the majority is up to, pivotal congressional votes might instead feel pressure to be a part of the solution, rather than feeling pressure to distance themselves from it because the initial proposal either sounds too radical to their constituents, or is so narrowly specified that only a tiny sliver of constituents with detailed policy knowledge can follow the story.
In short, bring those members whose votes you will ultimately need into the process of shaping the story, even if they aren’t yet committed to the current policy proposal. Their involvement in shaping a story that they can imagine themselves the heroes of to their constituents might very well bring them into the fold, without the necessity of large policy concessions on the part of the more progressive members of the coalition. Done well, this approach will result in progressive policy in a way that does not inflict such a high political price for progressives overall.
So what are the coalitional effects of a thoughtful narrative approach?
Remember it is our contention that the problem-defining drama from the progressive perspective is almost always unspecified or entirely too ambiguous. The reason for this is that the left presumes that people can already “see” the correct storyline because of the “obvious” logic and the sheer weight of the “facts.” We are not offering something magical here; rather, our story simply makes the heroic intentions of the left more explicit. So with financial reform, here’s how it works:
There is an active villain or force in the world — Wall Street run amok — that will continue to do harm to the middle class, unless stopped. Reformers are heroically stepping into the pathway of that active villainous force, without regard for their own political futures or self interest to protect the middle class. Once our story is laid out, voters can feel cross-pressured to choose between two possible heroes: the champion fighting corrupt bankers and the champion fighting oversized government. We already know that some voters have a natural disposition to see one hero as more of a threat than the other (see, for example work done at the CCP), however “swing voters” probably have the capacity to recognize either hero, but both must be presented to them to create cognitive dissonance, and ultimately a choice between which heroes they most identify with on election day. And explicitly providing that choice to their constituents will finally give centrist members of both legislative chambers additional freedom to align themselves with progressive policy causes.
Too often after an electoral defeat, Democrats and their progressive allies descend into bickering about whether they should adjust their message and get better at communicating, or if they should instead moderate their policies toward the “center.” Our approach suggests that the answer is neither as they are normally discussed. Instead, progressives can achieve more satisfying policy advances — and preserve and enhance their political standing — by making fundamental changes in how they communicate. They may be right to mimic the communications tactics of the right, but our approach reveals what it is about the tactics of the right that are so effective.
Conservatives are the heroes of their own stories. Progressives need to internalize that same sense of pride in their efforts and then infuse their policy narratives with political champions. This may finally activate the reasons voters already believe are good cause to support progressive policies, but constantly push to the back of their thoughts — or the “why” of public policy. People want more than to be a part of a laundry list of meaningless policy facts or sterile solutions; rather, at the very core of humanity you will find a need to explain the world in a way that makes each one of us the protagonist. And nobody wants to be the protagonist in a story nobody would want to read or hear. No, we all want to be the hero in a story that places each one of us as a champion of what is righteous and good. Progressives certainly have the building blocks for such a story.
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