Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Obama must tell a better story

It’s a Democratic conundrum that we see playing out over and over again: Why do Americans vote and speak (often angrily) against their self-interest? Why did the truck driver vote for a guy who lowered taxes on the rich? Why is the waitress so furious because Democrats in Congress are trying to ensure that she and her kids can afford health insurance?

As President Obama enters his second year in office, pundits are prescribing many ways for him to improve: be more like Ross Perot, be more forceful, be more progressive.

Writing for Common, political scientist Dr. David Runciman has a suggestion that resonates with both the fact-loving side of my brain and the emotional side. He suggests that Obama isn’t telling enough good stories.

My left brain is aware that breakthroughs in brain science have found that for logical thinking (the kind that Democrats seem to favor) to be effective it must go hand in hand with emotional thinking, that is, with stories. My right brain says, yes, it knew this all along.

Runciman describes the work of psychologist Drew Westen, the author of The Political Brain:
For Mr Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win: "One of the fallacies that politicians often have on the Left is that things are obvious, when they are not obvious."
The story that conservatives are good at telling is one of "elite Democrats" who talk down to Americans and tell us what’s best for us. This image strikes a nerve with lower and middle income people who feel like our economy and politics have left them behind. This story certainly worked for George W. Bush.

Runciman writes:
If people vote against their own interests, it is not because they do not understand what is in their interest or have not yet had it properly explained to them. They do it because they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best.

There is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots.
On top of better storytelling, in order to get more support for his policies, President Obama must work harder to understand his opposition. According to the author of Management Rewired, a study of brain science and business management, using empathy is key to getting cooperation from others.

Since conservatives and independents want the government to “keep their hands off their Medicare,” it will take empathy, not logic, for Obama and Democrats in Congress to understand where this anger is coming from and how to get these groups' support. Understanding what motivates voters will help lawmakers find the right story to sell their policies.

Runciman describes how the right-wing has used empathy to pervert U.S. politics:

Right-wing politics has become a vehicle for channeling this popular anger against intellectual snobs. The result is that many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest.
Democrats should tone down the facts and figures and integrate them with stories that resonate with Americans' experiences. The human brain is programed to use stories to understand the world, and Democrats should tap into that natural inclination. It's not what we're saying, it's how we're saying it.


Blogger Martha Koester said...

Passing the Senate health care bill as is strongly reinforces the notion of Democrats as an elite with no concern for the opinions of the public. 2/3 of the public is against mandates and against an excise tax on health care benefits. 77% are in favor of a public option. If this bill passes, it could cost us control of Congress.

February 3, 2010 12:44 PM  

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