Monday, May 17, 2004

Opportunity and Responsibility: A Liberal Story  

Matthew Yglesias posts some commentary on an article by Joshua Shenk in "Mother Jones." The thrust of Shenk's article is that Republicans know how to tell a good story about their candidates and cause while Democrats do not, and that this story-telling ability translates into more Republican votes. Shenk writes:

According to Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, & Co., the president of the United States of America is a great gentle warrior, the scion of a noble line: He's a Texas cowboy descended from George Washington descended from the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. He's a man of God and family. Truly, the story goes, he's a simple man--wanting only to care for his own, tend to his plot of land, and go to church on Sunday.

But this man is besieged--on all sides--by the rabid armies of the Godless and the cowardly. By terrorists and evil-doers. By bureaucrats who want to run his life. By liberals who want to tax him. By drug dealers, welfare mothers, and atheists.

What is he to do? He would dearly love not to fight. But his enemies are climbing the walls of his castle. The killer has got a knife to his little girl's throat. Not fight? Fight he must.

This story works, in Shenk's words, because "It presents a classic hero and a journey that reaches down through the brain into the gut. And Republicans can translate into simple, clear lines of action: Wage war and don't stop. Cut taxes. Put bad guys in jail, or to death."

There is a lot of truth, in my opinion, to what Shenk is saying. Many people make their voting decisions on an emotional level, rather than a rational, calculating level. How many people do you know who would've voted for Gore on policy issues, but didn't because they just did not like him? Stories not only appeal to our emotions, but also give us an opportunity to make sense of a confusing, morally ambiguous reality.

Matthew Yglesias agrees with Shenk's analysis, but worries that the Democrats are unable to tell compelling stories because they are reluctant to "make stuff up." The Republicans are only able to tell stories, Yglesias argues, because they lie.

While I agree with Yglesias that Republicans often lie about substantive issues, I think the idea that Democrats are unable to tell compelling stories is both untrue and unproductive. During the '96 campaign, Bill Clinton articulated a Democratic story that appealed to most Americans, and will continue to do so. It was a story of Opportunity and Responsibility.

Clinton realized that Americans don't mind helping the less fortunate, so long as those less fortunate people are perceived as working hard, rather than getting a free ride. This is why so many voters who abhor welfare are happy to see their tax dollars channeled into tax relief for families that have children in college, or turned into financial aid for students who are the first in their family to attend. The idea of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers who decide to re-train is another popular idea from the Clinton administration. The GI Bill, which gave a free college education to soldiers who served in World War II, is perhaps the ultimate example of this Democratic principle in action.

This story argues not only that the granting of opportunity be conditioned on personal responsibility, but that those who grow rich and powerful by exploiting their opportunities have a responsibility to pay society back. This means that politicians should implement policies that are beneficial to our country and economy as a whole, rather than to wealthy, connected insiders. Similarly, the Opportunity and Responsibility story frames the graduated income tax as a fair trade for those people who have benefited from our free markets, rather than an onerous and unfair obligation.

The story of Opportunity and Responsibility is what America and the Democratic party are all about. Losing Democratic candidates, such as McGovern, Carter, Dukakkis, and Gore, use slogans like "The People vs. The Powerful" which make "the people" feel like victims and losers who are getting pushed around. Winning Democrats, like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton, articulate a positive, can-do message that puts the American Dream within the reach of every voter.
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