The first impression that many Americans had of Barack Obama was that of a great storyteller. His 2004 DNC speech was memorable oratory that linked his complex, multiracial, international, bicoastal personal narrative to a broader national identity—one that he described saying, “in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible.” Four years later, the 2008 Obama for America campaign repeatedly made rhetorical history with the “Yes We Can” New Hampshire concession, the Philadelphia “More Perfect Union” race speech, the memorable DNC nomination acceptance and, of course, the extraordinary November speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Candidate Obama had an ability to tell a story of America that captured national striving, greatness, accomplishment, and triumph without ignoring struggles, disappointments, disagreement, and loss. Take, for example, the night he was elected president of the United States. Barack Obama told a story about an African-American woman, Ann Nixon Cooper. Cooper was 106 years old, lived in Georgia and vigorously supported his candidacy. She was born in 1902, a time that President-elect Obama described as “just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky, when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons—because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” During her life Cooper was a civil rights advocate, a community leader, a mother and a wife.
As he marked the moment of his historic victory, Barack Obama chose Cooper as the lens through which to tell the story of America. He tied her personal story both to the arc of the nation’s history and to the future embodied in his own African-American daughters. Never before had a president invited us to see our national history through the lens of a disenfranchised black woman, but in doing so Obama gave us a way of understanding our national story as one rooted in growing inclusiveness and active government action on behalf of equality.
Whatever one thinks of the foreign and domestic policy outcomes of the past two years, it is clear that the Obama administration has stumbled in its ability to tell a compelling story.
Many progressives kept waiting for the great storyteller to emerge throughout the summer of the health care reform debate. The Tea Party effectively rewrote American history as they equated efforts of an enthusiastically elected government to pass a popularly mandated reform with the founding struggle against an oppressive monarchy. But there were few effective, penetrating tales of Americans who needed, wanted and supported reform. The Democrats proved incapable of linking health reform to great American traditions of civic responsibility or care for the vulnerable.
Similar failures of narrative have been egregious during the current budget fight. Once again the extremist elements of the GOP have managed to tell the most legible and convincing stories. Republicans hammered home the idea that the national budget ought to mirror household budgets. “When the going gets rough,” the GOP says, “people have to tighten their budgets, the American government ought to do the same.” This is a compelling story. People hear this and think to themselves, “Yes, yes, I have cut my cable bill, cancelled my vacation, and started cutting coupons; the government should do the same.” This is a false equivalency.
Household budgets are not the same as national ones. In fact, this narrative obscures the reason that Americans are tightening their belts—because the failed, short-sighted fiscal policies of GOP-led governments brought our economy to the brink of disaster. By telling the story this way Republicans effectively dodge the main point that massive tax cuts redistributed wealth to the top 1 percent but failed to stoke job growth. They ignore that disinvestment in educational grants made college more expensive for Americans. They ignore that their deregulation of lending practices foreclosed on the American dream for millions. The government (under Republican direction) created a mess for American households and has an ethical obligation to address the mess it made. To ask poor, disabled and elderly citizens to sacrifice basic needs to underwrite the extravagant choices of their wealthier neighbors is profoundly un-American. In my house, when somebody makes a mess we clean it up. When somebody is sick, we care for them. When somebody needs a hand, we lend it. All of these basic realities are obscured by the good story about household budgets and fiscal responsibility.
And I can’t stand to linger on the most infectious narrative of all from the bards of the right wing: birtherism.
The Democratic Party has largely failed to counter these well-spun fictions. The Democrats’ poor story-telling is going to have long-term consequences. It is a mistake to think false storylines are easily forgotten or that they can be swiftly overturned by simple recitation of countervailing facts. Today’s observance of the Civil War is a perfect example. Reconstruction was a short-lived effort and Confederates were given leave to (re)write the story of the Civil War from their own perspective. Thus Southern states still fly the flag of traitors and school kids are still taught that it was the “War of Northern Aggression.”
So what are we to do? It is time to take back the narrative. Time to tell our stories.
One organization with a commitment to precisely this kind of effective, progressive story telling is The Opportunity Agenda. Just last week The Opportunity Agenda celebrated its fifth anniversary. Their work focuses on framing our pressing national issues in the language and narrative of shared American values and identity. The Opportunity Agenda’s Communication Institute works with nonprofit leaders to give them comprehensive training on a variety of communications skills, including framing and narrative development, using public opinion and media research, and persuasive writing. Community leaders have a keen understanding of our challenges and important ideas about how to solve these problems, but they sometimes lack the ability to convey this information in memorable, convincing stories. The Opportunity Agenda is working to build our capacity to challenge the false narratives of the right and to offer our meaningful, substantive and engaging stories of our own.
Theirs is one of the crucial efforts to take back public space and to tell our stories. We need many more.