Fareed Zakaria wants liberals not to be upset with Barack Obama. In his latest column, he accuses those on the left of clinging to “a liberal fantasy that if only the President would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his poetry.” In this regard, he especially cites Drew Weston, whose article “What Happened to Obama” appeared recently in the New Yor Times. Mr. Weston indeed said: “Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end.” Zakaria makes the straw-man argument that such a speech, even if Obama were to give it, would never have the desired effect.
I agree with Zakaria’s distilled assertion that one speech will not have any magical effect. However, I believe Zakaria is wrong in his assessment of what Weston and liberals in general are saying. If you read Weston’s entire article, you’d see that he was not assigning any magical power to a single speech. Rather, he was asserting the immense power of a well-told and repeated story, a story that helps make the complexity of today’s events understandable and relevant.
By story, I (and Weston) do not mean something made-up, like a fairy tale. Rather, I mean a framework that can be used to hold together a group of often complex facts and help people make sense of them. For example, one basic story, often told by Republicans, is that raising taxes is a bad idea. It hurts the economy by taking away money from consumers and businesses, leaving them less to invest and spend. And it gives it to the government, who will either waste it or use it on things that you oppose, with the net effect of needlessly increasing the national debt. If you can convince someone that this story is true, it will color almost every other political opinion that they hold. It will almost certainly mean that they will oppose President Obama and all of his economic initiatives — or any initiative that involves raising taxes. It will mean they will be against universal health care. And so on.
To convince people to accept this story, Republicans tell it over and over again, in their talking points, in interviews, in articles, on the campaign trail and wherever else they can. As Weston points out, and as has been well documented by numerous others (especially George Lakoff), a resonating story is more powerful than an armful of facts. People start with a belief in a story. If your facts contradict the story they believe, people will reject the facts. Lies that fit within the framework of the story are accepted as true. To get people to break out of this box, you must first convince them to accept a different — or at least a modified — story.
This is what Weston was hoping Obama would do. It is much more than simply giving a stirring speech. Mr. Zakaria may think that this is of little consequence. But he is wrong.
Centrist vs. Extreme Positions
Later in the Time magazine version of his column, Zakaria warns his readers “not to fall prey to ideology from the right or left and to celebrate the democratic process that balances the two extremes.” I believe Mr. Zakaria is wrong here as well.
I agree there is value in being able to assess both sides of an issue, to seeing the grays and not assuming that everything is either black or white. If this means I am a centrist, I am guilty as charged. However, I also believe it is a mistake to assume that extreme positions are always wrong — that a centrist position is the one that, in the end, is the best course to take. In the end, a centrist position may be the only possible course of action. Extreme positions rarely become public policy because they are, by definition, a minority position. You have to accept compromises along the way. But that doesn’t mean you should start by pushing for a centrist position.
In fact, centrist positions are often on the wrong side of history. There was a time when it was a centrist belief that a “woman’s place is in the home.” There was a time when (at least in the South), the center firmly held that blacks belonged in the back of the bus. There was a time when the center held that gays should not be allowed in the military (some may argue that this is still a centrist belief). Heck, there was a time that most of the people living on this planet thought that the earth was flat at that the sun revolved around it.
It takes courage, sometimes risking one’s own life, to stand by and defend the “extreme” beliefs that run counter to centrist positions. In the examples I cited, “extreme” positions were eventually adopted by the mainstream. Indeed, they are today’s centrist maxims. But back when they were considered extreme, I contend that the centrist position would not be the wisest course of action. On that basis, no one would have ever fought for the extreme beliefs — women would still not have the right to vote and blacks would still be sitting at the back of buses.
There are ideas today that are considered extreme. Single payer health care on the left. A balanced budget ammendment on the right. Some of these ideas may be exactly on target. That is, if the country adopted them, the country would be better off, by almost any measure. But we’ll never know if we stick to the idea that only weak compromises that barely move the needle from the center are the ideal we should strive to achieve, As Paul Krugman eloquently stated (in an article appropriately titled The Centrist Cop-Out): “Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.”
In defending Obama, Zakaria points out the “pragmatism” of many of the president’s positions, noting for example that “he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.” That is all well and good. But the problem is not in the president’s position, or his accepting some centrist compromise. The problem is that, when the bill was finally passed, there were no tax increases. There were only spending cuts. It looked very little like a compromise and very much like exactly what the Republicans had demanded. From the very beginning, the Republicans had set the terms of the debate (almost taking any revenue increases off the table) and left the Democrats in an all-too-familiar defensive crouch.
The same is true for issues like health care. While the Republicans pound ceaselessly on the importance of repealing “Obamacare” — Democrats (including Obama) too often shy away from even mentioning the topic. Instead of strongly defending the law, and offering a coherent “story” explaining why Americans should support it, the Democrats’ logic appears to be: “Now that the bill has passed, talking about only risks alienating voters and gettting us nothing.” Unfortunately, that leaves Republicans as they only ones with a story to tell. In such an environment, where only one side is on the ofdensive, lies can easily become accepted as fact.
This returns us to my original point. Zakaria is wrong about his supposed “liberal fantasy.” Telling a story, and convincing voters to believe in it, is critical to political success. Republicans are winning at this game because they are far superior to Democrats in getting their “story” out. The fantasy is believing that this story telling doesn’t matter.