A man with a Renaissance mind envisions a resurgent Republican party with a strong popular narrative

I have to be honest here:  Before I read After the Crack-Up, Lee Habeeb’s and Mike Leven’s article urging the Republican party to develop a strong and appealing narrative line, I’d heard of Lee Habeeb, because he’s published at NRO before, but I’d never heard of Michael Leven.  I got curious about him, though, because I liked what I read.  The article’s message harmonizes closely with what I’ve been urging here at the Bookworm Room when thinking about the 2014 and 2016 election cycles:

But if there is one thing conservatives can agree on post-election, it’s this: The dominance of the Left in the storytelling arena is making a difference at the polls. It’s impossible to measure, but anyone who doesn’t think it skews outcomes is living in an alternative universe.

The fact is, it’s easier to sell a political narrative to America when it comports with the cultural narrative we see and hear every day.


We’ve invested billions in our great think tanks but little in the task of translating that work into stories the average American will care about. Yes, we have Fox News and political talk radio — important outlets, but outlets that narrowcast to the conservative base and are driven by politics and opinion, not storytelling.

What we don’t have is an alternative to NPR. Or The Daily Show. Or 60 Minutes. Or The Charlie Rose Show. Or Frontline. Or Ken Burns. Content that doesn’t scream its politics at the audience but that lures America in with great storylines, not lectures.

Conservatives have a profound storytelling deficit, yet all we do is whine and complain about it. It’s part of our DNA, our whining about the culture, as if we’re incapable of reverse-engineering the Left’s success.

Please read the whole thing.  I know we’re feeling disheartened now, but I’m certainly not ready to quit the fight, and Habeeb and Leven have set out a good strategy (or at least, one with which I agree).

A friend sent me a link to an interview with Michael Leven which revealed that Leven understands the importance of story-telling because he’s that rare thing:  a true Renaissance man.  He’s currently President and COO of Sands, in Las Vegas, a job description that might lead one to conclude that his world view is limited to local business concerns.  That would be a very bad assumption to make.  In fact, Leven is a fascinating man, with a classical education that, surprisingly, led him to a long work-history in the dynamically changing hospitality industry.  He’s also a catholic reader in the old sense of the word, in that his interests are broad-ranging and he feeds his mind with a steady supply of good literature, biography and autobiography, and other non-fiction.

I don’t usually have the patience to sit still for 25 minute interviews (I read much more quickly than people talk), but I gladly stuck with this one.  When it ended, I wished that I could have Leven as a guest at one of my dinner parties.  (Although, as I told the friend who sent me the link, I’d have to figure out how to be a good listener, rather than an almost heroic talker if I wanted the benefit of his presence at my table.)

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  • biancaneve

    Yes, absolutely, we need to improve our narrative abilities.  Please read Made to Stick, by Heath and Heath.  I think humans are hard-wired for stories.
    A couple of problems that I foresee as we figure out how to tell our story, and I’ll start with a story:
    A few years ago I heard about a woman who worked for a company that was about to implement some broad changes in policies and procedures.  She was assigned to travel around and present the changes.  At one office, every time she explained a change and the principle behind the change, someone would say, “That won’t work at our office because . . .”  Finally the woman said, “I’m here to explain the new policies and the principles.  Once we all understand the new policies, then we can deal with the exceptions.” 
    I feel that liberals are letting the exceptions dictate their policy.  They want to create government programs to deal with all the exceptions – gays who want to marry, women who want to go into combat, single moms, etc.  Conservatives, on the other hand, want policy based on principles with the understanding that the exceptions are best handled at the local level or by charities, or family, or society.  The problem for us is that it’s easier to tell a compelling, emotional story about the exception (“Maria is a dedicated soldier who wants to make the military her career, but promotions have been blocked because she doesn’t have combat experience.  Let’s all feel bad for Maria!”) then it is about a principle (“Women are not biologically adapted for long-term combat situations.”)
    So that’s the first problem.  Liberals will always be able to point to an exception and tell a story that tugs at your heart.  It tugs at your heart precisely because it is an exception to societal norms.
    Secondly, liberals are able to tell stories that call for immediate action.  “Billy’s mom lost her job, and now Billy has to sleep in a car.  Let’s give Billy’s mom some money so Billy won’t have to sleep in the car.”  Whereas the conservative story is usually less immediate and less concrete.  “The only way we can afford to give Billy’s mom some money is if we take it from Sally’s family, and then Sally’s mom will have to go to work and Sally will be stuck in daycare.”  Conservatives can try to point out the unintended consequences of liberal’s desired policies, but the unintended consequences aren’t immediate and concrete.  And even pointing to past failures of liberal policies won’t work because liberals can say, “But this time we’ll write the laws better.”
    So yes, we need to figure out how to tell our story, but it won’t be easy.  We’ve got to create a compelling story that illustrates the dangers of liberal policy to society at large and that points out the harmful unintended consequences of liberal policy.

  • Mike Devx

    I agree with biancaneve.  Consider the problem of regulations.  Any one regulation is not penury.  At worst its a hassle.  But you add regulation after regulation on top of each other, and it becomes in the end disastrous.  It’s easy to do a populist storytelling riff on any one regulation:  Choose an example where the one regulation positively helps someone, and dramatize it.  It’s much more difficult to storytell the effect of a thousand such regulations on all the many people whom the SUM of all the regulations harm.
    I also think that storytelling is an example of “populism”, and conservatives generally mistrust populism (and demagoguery).  I guess it is against our mindset to throw ourselves enthusiastically into populist efforts.  But I believe it is a necessary and vital part of fighting, and winning, the long culture war.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    I think it is easy to develop stories to personalize the malign impact of bad regulations. See, for example, the couple who were bullied and almost financially destroyed: A defensive victory against administrative tyranny. Or see the many small business crippled and destroyed by the “Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act” and the unbelievable arrogance of certain defenders of that ill-thought-out legislation.
    Or one could talks about the destruction of American living history represented by the congressional jihad against the steamboat Delta Queen: Big Wheel Cease from Turnin‘.
    There are all KINDS of stories to be told to illuminate the dangers of overly-intrusive government. Our problem is that too few of our candidates…too few of our think-tankers and other publicly-visible figures…lack the rhetorical ability to effectively translate abstract issues into such tangible stories.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    The think tankers aren’t even aware of such issues, nor do they particularly care much. Their class and economic prospects rest with DC, not the rest of the country. There’s a difference there that is quite stark.

  • Texan99

    The stories that give me a spring in my step are the ones in which the downtrodden guy has to take crap from the powers-that-be because they’re got a monopoly on whatever he needs to keep his family safe and fed.  Suddenly he figures out a way to wire around them.  Suddenly it doesn’t matter whether they’re willing to give him what he needs, because he can make it himself or get it from someone else.  A liberal version of this favorite storyline is Rosie the Riveter.  What a change in women’s lives when they were able to command paychecks!  A whole country full of fathers and husbands had a much harder time getting them to toe the line after that.  Why do we cheer Rosie the Riveter but doubt the blessings of the free market for others?  Why is it so hard for a Republican politician to speak movingly about freedom?  Reagan knew how.

  • Mike Devx

    Texas99: The stories that give me a spring in my step are the ones in which the downtrodden guy has to take crap from the powers-that-be because they’re got a monopoly on whatever he needs to keep his family safe and fed.
    Texas99, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head where conservatives can really make some headway in telling the story.  Well said!  What you wrote rang true and loud and clear, instantly in my head.
    Gov. Bobby Jindal’s speech also seemed important to me for what it emphasized and focused on.  I’ll repeat that link here, though others have already linked to it in the comments on other Book posts:
    One of Governor Jindal’s points:
    We must quit “big.” We are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, or big anything. We must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys. We have to be the party that shows all Americans how they can thrive. We are the party whose ideas will help the middle class, and help more folks join the middle class. We are a populist party and need to make that clear.
    And why can’t we make the case that Obama is in bed with Big Pharma?  That Obama is in bed with Big Bank?  That Obama is in bed with Big Lawyer.  Etc, etc.  Why can’t we make that case, when it is true?

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    So long as people recognize that the well off corruptocrats are the Left, things can change. Otherwise, not.

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