Although Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president, she has vital lessons to learn from Bernie Sanders (and Donald Trump) if she is to motivate the turnout she needs to win. These lessons have to do with leadership, and the role of public narrative in public leadership—a story of self, of us, and of now.
Even though the particulars of the stories they told were quite different, Trump and Sanders both communicated leadership through narratives that animated outpourings of enthusiasm that have eluded Clinton. Clinton, for the most part, tries to communicate leadership through policy proposals to solve our country’s problems. But, narrative-based leadership elicits far more motivated constituencies than do policy proposals. Indeed, Trump and Sanders generated passionate support, despite a dearth of policy detail, while Clinton’s lackluster campaign has been loaded with policy specifics.
How did Trump and Sanders do it?
They both told stories of threat, struggle, and redemption, narrating leadership rooted in the authenticity, courage, and strength needed to meet the challenge. Trump presented himself as a straight-talking, street-smart, courageous dealmaker—a rich outsider, his “own man,” strong enough to visit judgment upon the weak “politicians” who run the country. Above all, he is a “winner.” Sanders also defined himself as a straight talker, a “prophetic” outsider, who also has the courage to “speak truth to power” and the strength, determination, and persistence to fight for a better future.
They narrate the stories of their constituencies, however, quite differently. Trump describes his constituency as unjustly beleaguered economically, threatened by immigrants, Muslims, and “job loss” from abroad, and yearning for an idealized past when life was better. Even as he stokes his followers’ fears, he evokes their anger at betrayal by weak, stupid, and corrupt “politicians” unable to protect them from “smarter” foreign leaders.
Sanders also describes his constituency as unjustly beleaguered economically, but rather than offering a return to an idealized past, he offers a march into a hopeful future. Unlike Trump, Sanders does not blame threatening “others.” Those responsible for the crisis are instead the super-rich—and their allies—who have “rigged” the political and economic system to benefit themselves at everyone else’s expense.
Although both Trump and Sanders propose to fix economic problems, their stories are rooted in very different visions of leadership. Unlike Trump, Sanders has not been “chosen” to be the instrument of redemption. In fact, he shares little of his origins, how his values were formed, or why he may be “called” to lead. Instead, he embraces the labels of “independent” and “socialist,” which mark him as the “outsider” who has long been speaking truth to power. The hope for change is not in Sanders himself but in “the people” who, if they turn out to vote, can become the source of a “political revolution.” Trump, on the other hand, promises he can “wall out” the threat, while Sanders calls on his people to confront it. So Trump’s followers end up dependent on him for redemption, their agency compromised, while Sanders’ followers become agents empowered to secure their own redemption.
For both candidates, policy proposals are enactments of the values driving these narratives, not technical proposals to solve technical problems. Trump proposes to build a wall, close the borders to Muslims, force nations to trade on his terms, redeem the government from the hands of the weak, and, above all, become winners. Sanders proposes free public colleges, universal health care, breaking up banks, and getting money out of politics. Although his actual proposals are often attacked as “impractical,” they are rather like John Kennedy’s Peace Corps or his commitment to put a man on the moon: values expressed in the form of policy.
The form of Trump and Sanders’s leadership narratives is not new. Their stories link three elements: the values that drive them (story of self), the values shared by the community they hope to engage (story of us), and the values that can motivate hopeful action in response to urgent—and unjust—threats (story of now). In these narratives, values are not abstract intellectual ideas but sources of the emotional energy that actually influence our choices and move us to act upon them. By linking stories of self, us, and now, public narrative communicates the moral authority of the speaker, brings the shared hurts and hopes of their constituency alive, and offers a hopeful, if challenging, opportunity to respond.
These stories are rooted in a tradition of leadership narrative as old as Moses at the burning bush and Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. Leadership often requires enabling people to achieve shared purposes in the face of challenge. Leaders use public narrative to enable people to access emotional—or moral—resources to motivate courageous responses to threats. These stories balance the urgency of danger with plausibility of hopeful action: They articulate both the injustice that requires action and the hope to enable that action.
The stories they tell also have a common structure: a plot, a protagonist, and a moral. Plots are constructed from specific narrative moments in which an unexpected threat confronts a protagonist who must respond. Because we can identify empathetically with the protagonist, we can experience the emotional content of both the threat and the sources of hope, efficacy, and support that enable his or her courage to respond. The “moral” is an experiential lesson: not a statement, like “never give up,” but an experience of the emotional resources on which the protagonist draws for the courage to “never give up.”
As such, stories, unlike policy proposals, teach the heart, not just the head. And it is from the heart that we draw our motivation, commitment, and enthusiasm.
So what of Hillary Clinton? What is her “public narrative”? How does she narrate herself? How does she narrate her “us”? And where is her hopeful “now”? We all know her résumé, but what is her story?
Despite many years in the public eye, Clinton’s “story of self” remains opaque. How—and why—does a 1964 “Goldwater girl” become a Wellesley College activist who studies community organizer Saul Alinsky, a Yale Law School graduate who serves as a Children’s Defense Fund attorney, a first lady of Arkansas, a first lady of the United States, a failed campaigner for healthcare reform, a person exposed to painful public humiliation, a senator from New York, a supporter of NAFTA and the Iraq war, a failed presidential candidate, a secretary of state, a public speaker who takes $200,000 from Wall Street banks for a speech, and the first woman to win nomination for the presidency by a major party?
Her résumé tells us that she is competent, a hard worker, and a survivor. But what of her authenticity, courage, and strength—not only on her own behalf, but on behalf of others, or even on behalf of her values? Opacity about her story undermines the value of her obvious capacity to survive, thrive, and operate in a complex political environment. She becomes an acceptable but not inspiring candidate.
And who are we to her? What connects us to each other? What sources of hurt do we share? And what sources of hope? Is there a fight to be had? Is it our fight?
Finally, where is her “fierce urgency of now,” other than warding off Donald Trump? What are we to join her in building? What part are we called to play? Are we to be beneficiaries of her policies? Are we to be wards of her protection? Or are we to be participants in her project?
As the Democratic nominee, she not only faces Donald Trump, she also has an extraordinary opportunity to shift our political direction. To do so, she has three bridges to cross:
She will have to tell us the story of how she became who she really is, and the values that guide her choices. Years of image management may have made this impossible, but without it, her candidacy will be seriously crippled, especially when competing against an opponent whose “self” has been at the heart of his appeal.
She will have to narrate an “us” as people who experience hurt and hope in their lives, a constituency far closer to that of Sanders—or that of Barack Obama eight years ago. When she minimizes the hope, and understates the hurt, her narrative serves only to reduce motivation, not engage it.
Finally, her story of now will have to bring alive a set of aspirations rooted in the values that animate her constituency. To do so, she must find a way to articulate an authentic response to what the country wants, needs, and expects from presidential leadership.
Fear doesn’t motivate turnout. Hope does. Anger can. It won’t be enough for her to rely on fear of Trump to motivate her constituency in the absence of an effective—and hopeful—leadership narrative of her own.