Sunday, 20 April 2008

Learning from Barack Obama's original sin

Here’s another reason why the US Democratic presidential primaries are so closely fought and why just a few points separate either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton from John McCain.

OK, it’s all about narratives, the candidates telling their stories. It’s more than that – the contest is about how America wants to see itself.

Roger Cohen of The New York Times says that the US may now be ready to confront one of the darkest chapters in its history, its central conflict; what Barack Obama has called America’s “original sin” – slavery and segregation.

In so doing, Cohen reinforces an invaluable insight into what makes a political narrative work.

“It’s striking how the three contenders for the presidency offer different self-images for America. John McCain comforts the classic heroic narrative. Hillary Clinton breaks the male hold on that narrative and so transforms it. Obama transfigures it in another way by personifying America’s victory over its most visceral blemish.”

In Leading Minds (1995), Howard Gardner showed how great leaders’ stories have addressed “issues of personal and group identity” for their audiences. He showed how providing audiences with a way of reframing their thoughts and plans for the future, “where they have been and where they would like to go”, is fundamental to the effectiveness of any leader’s story.

Recent political history offers some good examples. During World War II, Winston Churchill told the British people how and why they would prevail against Nazi Germany. Margaret Thatcher told a story of reversing national economic decline and “making Britain great again”. Tony Blair talked in 1997 about a national renewal, a “new Britain”.

Gordon Brown delivers sermons about “Britishness” but he does not tell stories that connect people with his ideas and, most importantly, a vision for the future. David Cameron avoids stories about identity, doubtless recognising that his party may want to live in little England but the voters do not. Nick Clegg has started to tell the story of a “better Britain”, in which government leads the way in enhancing individual opportunities. That’s a welcome move. The next step is to play that into the stories that Liberal Democrat inclined voters believe already about their country. We need to understand what Roger Cohen calls their self-image of the nation.

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