Monday, 11 August 2008

Wanted: not one political story, but four

There’s a lot more talk about the art of political story-telling at the moment. For instance, has an article by Paul Willis, who says that the US presidential election will boil down to whose story voters prefer, even more than where the candidates stand on the issues. And within the Liberal Democrats, there is more interest. A few local parties are inviting me to speak to them and run workshops on narratives and storytelling.

Two questions keep coming up. I suggest that both are really false dilemmas.

Paul Willis asks:

"Do you think you could be persuaded by a politician's story over their policies?"

I don’t agree that’s the choice you need to make. If it works, a politician’s (or party’s) own story should work with their stances on issues (or policies), to engage both the heads and the hearts of the public. The personal story will make the policies seem real and authentic; the policies (framed correctly) will provide the substance and exemplify the story.

That’s what Margaret Thatcher succeeded when telling her political story. She argued that the solution to Britain’s economic problems was based on hard work and thrift, with government limiting its own spending and borrowing; England’s middle classes would thrive when freed from the bonds imposed by state socialism and the trade unions. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham worked all hours and played the frugal housewife.

For all his strengths as a personal storyteller, this is what Barack Obama is not doing now. Drew Westen, author of the acclaimed book The Political Brain, says:

"Barack Obama has told one story: that he will bring change and hope. Many have argued, from early in the Democratic primary season, that his was a campaign of soaring rhetoric and words without substance. That charge has "stuck" in the minds of many voters, who say they don't really know who Obama is and where he stands. It's a peculiar charge for a candidate who has laid out detailed plans for every issue of our time. Try going to his website or listening to his wonkish policy addresses.

"But whereas the standard Democratic response is to throw more plans and positions against the wall and hope that they'll stick, that's missing the point: that Obama hasn't yet told a coherent, consistent narrative of who he is that weaves together the themes of his campaign with his own life history. The result is that he has left his race, his exotic history, and the smear campaigns aimed at defining him as "not one of us" to resonate with voters."

The other false choice is: whether to tell a positive story about yourself or a negative one about your opponents.

Drew Westen’s brilliant article explains why this is a blind alley. He discusses why many American voters still have an uneasy feeling about Obama and says:

"His campaign needs to understand why that happened, because it's the same thing that happened to Al Gore and John Kerry. It's about narratives.

"There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of "issues" but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this "message grid" win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose."

Westen argues that Al Gore didn't tell any of the four; John Kerry told just one and lost when he failed to respond to the two major stories told about him: that he was a flipflopper and a fake war hero. Neither campaign told a coherent story about George W. Bush.

He goes on:

"John McCain is telling a story about himself--that he's a man of courage and conviction who loves his country. He is telling a story about Obama--that he's a man of none of those things . . . After watching Obama enthrall the rest of the world and the troops McCain claims Obama doesn't support last week, he is now in full attack mode, trying to tell a story about his opponent's greatest strength (that Obama is someone who can inspire people, and can even do so on a world stage, where McCain's master narrative had claimed a decided advantage). So now he is telling the story of Obama as an arrogant, uppity, empty celebrity."

Westen says that, like Kerry, Obama has offered American voters one story (“change and hope”) when he should have offered four. And he wants Obama’s team to be much faster and more forceful when in making a counter-response and to do more to define McCain so as to drive up his negatives (that is, tell a story about him).

Westen’s story quadrants apply in British politics. In 2005, for instance, Tony Blair told a story about himself and his government: that the economy was strong, public services were getting better and it was no time to risk a change. He had a story about the Liberal Democrats: that we were irresponsible and unrealistic in our spending promises. When we took Blair to task over Iraq, he told stories based on his personal courage (“the right thing to do”) and fears about world security. And when we called ourselves “the real alternative”, he claimed that, in voting for the Lib Dems, people could let the Tories in. All of these worked, to various degrees.

Now, two (related) questions:

Do the Liberal Democrats (nationally or in your area) have stories for all four quadrants of Drew Westen’s message grid?

And do our story about the party (and Nick Clegg) and our policy stories match with and embody one another?

More on that soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this.