By Andrew Moss, Literature Professor at California State Polytechnic University
When he ran for reelection in 2012, Barack Obama told TV interviewer Charlie Rose that the biggest mistake of his first term was to think, simply, “that this job was about getting the policy right.” Obama explained that, “the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, criticized this statement, declaring that, “being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead.” Yet Romney missed the mark. Obama rightly recognized the narrative’s capacity to convey a coherent world-view while imparting a deep sense of meaning and purpose.
Ronald Reagan certainly understood the power of stories, and over the course of his career, helped shape a story that in many respects serves today as the dominant political narrative, influencing contemporary political discourse as it echoes through the presidential debates, particularly the Republican forums.
In brief, this particular narrative portrays a free people who wrought unparalleled achievements while carrying out a unique national experiment in liberty, but who, in a time of profound trauma (the Great Depression), became dependent on big government and fell prey to confiscatory taxation and the hyper-regulation that squelches innovation and prosperity.
Only with resolve and the help of visionary leaders could they regain their freedom, throwing off the shackles of big government and reasserting (with the help of a strengthened national defense) their role as beacons of liberty to other nations of the world.
This story has had a broad appeal over many years. Its key terms (freedom, opportunity and enterprise) have resonated deeply in our cultural history, and it offers a compact and optimistic vision of the future. But stories need to be read, or heard, for what they leave out as well as what they include. And we do not know what a story omits until we consider other, competing versions, and there are competing versions.
In these other stories, which extend back to the earliest days of the nation, groups and individuals struggled for justice in one form or another (“justice” is a term usually omitted from the Reagan-inspired narrative). These struggles required courage and sacrifice from Americans fighting for abolition, for living wages and decent working conditions, for the right to vote, or for the right to sit at an integrated lunch counter or to live in a neighborhood of one’s choosing without being barred on the basis of one’s race or ethnic background.
Americans engaged in these struggles resisted oppression or exploitation of any kind while seeking a broader vision of what the American dream can and should be. In many of these stories, government did not necessarily play a malign or oppressive role – whether, for example, in establishing a living minimum wage, in banning segregation, or in assuring voting rights for all citizens.
As the campaigning for the 2016 presidential election continues to advance, it may be well worthwhile to consider candidates’ standings in the polls in relation to their ability, or lack of ability, to communicate through stories. More important, however, may be the challenge to us as voters. In light of the serious issues facing us today, can we listen critically enough to the competing story lines that we hear – and really begin comparing them for what is missing, for what rings false, and for what rings as true to our lives as Americans?