immigrant faces make the American flag at Ellis Island

This Election Day, the causes I care about look set to take a beating. Millions are still unemployed, there’s a pervasive sense that we’re headed in the wrong direction, and many people have thrown in their lot with a group that imagines “creeping socialism” as the root of our problems, believes there’s a crypto-Muslim president in the White House, and pretends that the First Amendment doesn’t separate church from state.

It doesn’t matter that none of these things are true. Conservative communicators have tapped into powerful fears, and their candidates look set to reap the benefit.

The conventional wisdom is that we’re a “center-right nation” and politicians defy this center-rightness at their peril. There’s a counter-narrative to this: that a recession as bad as the one we’ve just been through spells trouble for politicians aligned with the party in power, whether they helped cause the recession or not.

Neither of these ideas are very uplifting and I suspect we’ll have enough bad news when the polls close on November 2. Let’s take a different tack, shall we?

The estimable Molly Ivins once wrote:

“It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”

This quote is not uncontroversial. I know this because it is at the core of my work on the “Telling American Stories” initiative, which has inspired a lot of contentious conversation over the past five years.

The purpose of the “Telling American Stories” initiative is to convince progressive communicators that they’re more likely to win on the issues they care about if they frame their work in a way that taps into deeply held beliefs about American history and values.

Why should progressive communicators tell these American stories? For three reasons:

  1. Narrative Works
    As Andy Goodman once wrote, “No one ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart.” Humans make sense of the world by constructing narratives, by telling stories that explain why things are the way they are. You can throw around all the science and statistics you want—you can, in short, be objectively right about an issue—but it won’t stick if people can’t fit it into a story. Progressive communicators need to provide that story.
  2. Clear Majority Wins
    Winning on the causes we care about takes more than simply 50 percent plus one vote. Winning any kind of lasting change in our democratic system means assembling a clear majority, which requires reaching out to voters beyond the progressive base. Connecting with those voters means explaining issues in terms they understand and values they share.
  3. We Are on a Path of Progress
    Ms. Ivins was right. It is possible to read American history as a tale of progress. The Revolution was based on the then-radical belief that kings didn’t have a divine right to rule and that people should be able to govern themselves. There’s no denying that the founders’ definition of who was entitled to that right was tragically limited. American history can be understood as a story of the slow, painful broadening of who is entitled to that right, and who gets to be part of the American story. That’s what the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements were about. Today, it’s what gay and lesbian Americans are fighting for when they rally for marriage equality, and it’s what undocumented workers are asking for when they march for immigration reform.

At the Communications Network conference last month, I heard a talk by Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist who studies how people make decisions. Mullainathan explained that rationality, perhaps unsurprisingly, often takes a back seat to gut feelings and deeply ingrained beliefs about the world.

One of the key points I took away from Mullainathan’s talk was that one of the most difficult (and almost impossible) things to accomplish in any kind of communications initiative is to change the mental frame that an individual uses to understand the world. It’s far easier and more productive to fit the story you’re trying to tell into their preexisting mental frame.

Not everyone buys the “Telling American Stories” concept. Many people whose opinions I respect would tell a very different version of America’s history, one filled with aggression, oppression, and injustice. They‘re not wrong. But, explaining how we could be living up to our high ideals makes for a more powerful and compelling communications choice than explaining why those ideals were never real to begin with.

What I’m advocating is for progressive communicators to tell the American story that taps into a mental frame that already exists in the minds of a lot of Americans—the very people we need in order to build a lasting coalition for progressive policies. Even if you don’t believe Molly Ivins’ idea about America, you can still believe that explaining progressive causes in terms of the American story makes sense as a communications tactic.

Politically conservative communicators have spent the past 40 years connecting their issues to the American story, and they’ve had a run of successes that looks set to continue at the polls this year. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the long arc of history bends towards justice. There’s nothing wrong with giving it a nudge in the right direction—and telling American stories is one way we can do that.

(image courtesy Flickr user gerson721, Creative Commons)
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Heath Wickline is a raconteur at LightBox Collaborative. He is looking forward to voting on November 2nd.