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.