The Narrative Gap

I know the Democrats have better values than the Republican Leadership and I know they have better plans, so why does it seem like we are at such a disadvantage? I had an amazing week where the universe gave me many gifts and my politics merged with my life. I walked away with some new insights and more hope that I can contribute to a better political outcome for my country.

Last Friday, I went to the first day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. While the Blue Angels practiced overhead in anticipation of Fleet Week exhibitions; Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Elvis Costello, and Emmylou Harris sang songs calling for peace and justice. Warren Hellman, an investment banker, philanthropist, and the financial benefactor of the festival, declared there was “war in the air and peace on the ground.” (He was waving my novel, Doublethink, as he said it, which was quite a thrill even though my husband and I were the only ones who knew what book he was holding in his hand.) There was a warm sense of community among the audience, which that day probably numbered about 50,000.

On Saturday, I went to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA) trade show in Oakland as a member of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. I was looking for a distributor who would work with me (as a one-title press) because it’s the only way one can realistically sell to bookstores and online entities like In the process, I met Averel Roberts Wilson who was exhibiting a wonderful set of provocative political calendars which can be found at Blue Funk Productions. We realized we were kindred spirits using our creative energies to express our dismay at what is happening to our country and trying to do something about it.

That night I heard Cindy Sheehan and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now speak at an event in Palo Alto sponsored by the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center. There were the anti-war, anti-administration sentiments expressed that I would have expected but I was amazed at the level of applause when Goodman talked about Democrats acting from a place of timidity instead of courage. The sentiment was that the Democratic Party leadership needs to understand that we are tired of the Republican lite approach that seems to give us the “lesser of two evils.” Even though it’s safe to say that all of us present were clear that the two parties are not the same, her frustration resonated with the crowd.

Sunday, it was back to the Bluegrass Festival. With 200,000 people and music on five stages it felt less like a cohesive community, though the music was still awesome. Again the themes of peace and justice resonated through the songs. I felt very fortunate to be living in the Bay Area.

On Wednesday, I again drove up to SF when Averel called me about an event at her home for the Commonweal Institute. This progressive think tank was founded in 2001 by Dr. Kate Forrest and her late husband, Leonard Salle. The staff, board, and advisory board are a very impressive group and they are committed to building a progressive infrastructure, as the conservatives have done, so we are not so dependent on individual candidates being able to rally the troops. I felt totally at home and look forward to helping advance their efforts. They were generous and supportive about what I’ve been trying to accomplish and it was very encouraging.

Geoff Nunberg (who you probably know from Fresh Air) was one of the speakers and his words about the necessity of building a successful narrative for voters really hit home to me. He talked about the success of Reagan’s “Morning in America” narrative and the way people instinctively felt they understood what he meant—without requiring an in-depth understanding of the policy positions. Same thing for our current President’s “Compassionate Conservative” and “I’m a uniter not a divider” storylines. We now know they weren’t really true but with it GW created an impression that captured swing voters’ imaginations.

So on Thursday, when I had a chance to see Senator Evan Bayh in a small group setting at a friend’s office, I was listening carefully for Bayh’s narrative. I had met him on a previous occasion at a larger function a few months ago and he has a lot to commend him: he’s intelligent, thorough, well-informed. He projects an air of competence and calm. He’s had success in getting mid-west Republicans in his home state of Indiana to vote for him repeatedly as Governor and as Senator. Bayh is working hard on behalf of other Democrats to build his standing within the Party. His delivery style is very similar to California State Controller Steve Westly’s (Westly also came to listen to Bayh) and while the Senator was much smoother than last time, it’s good there is time to continue to hone his skills. A young man who works for his All America PAC was very enthusiastic about Bayh incredible integrity.

I thought most of his answers were on the mark and his reasoning sound though I guess I hit a nerve when I asked the last question of the day. I referenced the Amy Goodman experience and the yearning I’ve heard expressed in the blogosphere for an inspiring vision that is more clearly differentiated from the Republicans. My sense is that Senator Bayh, as does most of the Democratic Leadership, genuinely believes that the distinctions are clear and obvious, which they are to anyone who is reading these words. However, intention is not the same as results.

As we try to reach the independents and apolitical types who do not analyze and evaluate policy positions and who cannot discern the differences, I believe we need a more compelling narrative NOT policy shifts to the right. The narrative a given candidate uses must be in sync with his or her personality as well as the best ideals from our (small d) democratic tradition. The primary season gives us an opportunity to test, compare, and refine those narratives. My fantasy is that the Democratic hopefuls will put the country’s well-being ahead of personal ambition and refrain from viciously attacking each other but instead figure out what speaks to the public.

I believe emphasizing those ideals will inspire our base to do far more than careful, timid words that try to avoid offending anyone AND are far more likely to reach independents and disillusioned Republicans and Libertarians (as growing segment of the population.) I think the way to win back the Congress and the White House is not to descend into the nasty realms of fear and distrust but rather to appeal to our collective best selves.

I’ll close with a link to a speech by JFK that ayawisgi, a blogger on the Daily Kos referenced this week. It still resonates with power and wisdom for us today as it did when JFK gave us the narrative of shared service that called upon Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

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3 Responses to The Narrative Gap

  1. JESchwartz

    Thanks for this – we can all use some food for thought and yes the narrative is oh so important.

    Thursday night I went to hear John Trudell and his band Bad Dog. I plan to get my head clear enough to post about the experience soon. I’ll share this much.. John Trudell words resonated deeply with the small audience gathered in the supper club in Hollywood that night, so much so that he at one point acknowledged that “got it”. It was a sensory overload experience the intense passion spoken word, the blues, and native american canting all rolled into one way to short hour of thought provoking listening.

    Short bursts of poetic rants that echoed what we all feel – rage, frustration, loss, sadness and the need to make a difference.

    A different sort of narrative but one I would have loved to have shared with everyone I know.

  2. Ginny Cotts says:


    Thank you, this is an excellent addition to the insight and clarity of what the message needs to be. Narrative is a very good word. I have been very frustrated by the focus on the linguistic framing concept. It is a piece of the picture, not it’s central or overall focus.

    The emphasis here on each candidate having their own narrative is very key to my thinking. We don’t want our candidates to sound like the GOP Talking Point Parrots.
    Because we want a bunch of independent thinkers who will bring both their open minds and firm attitudes to Congress, where they will be willing to present their own thoughts and listen to others.

    Unfortunately some of us are stuck in an area where getting a candidate like that elected is simply a fool’s errand. In Colorado we supported Ken Salazar over Mike Miles in the primary because as good a Democratic candidate as he was, even Pete Coors would have defeated him in the home state of James Dobson and other hard core conservatives.

    I have the same problems with Bill Ritter who is running for governor here. But it is those moderate Democrats that win the general elections and move up the ladder in experience and (positive) name recognition.

    One of the problems that we have to understand is that we think in metaphorical and concept associated words, not specifics. Liberal has come to mean much more than the true definition, just as gay is now used in reference to something completly different (in fact, opposite) to happiness.

    I have used this understanding of human knowledge and opinion to help my patients understand enough to make lifestyle changes to manage chronic illness’. I can boil down the physiology and pathphysiology into an explanation that is simple and accurate – but not dumbed down. It contains the essential facts that explain why the lifestyle change is necessary – at the cellular physiology level. I don’t neccessarily expect or care that they all remember the specifics (some willL. What matters is that for 15 minutes to an hour, they had an understanding that was so clear, they knew that the change is essential. Even when they can no longer explain the specifics, the clarity of that undersanding stays with them – until someone has new facts that convince them there is now a better way to change the management program.

    For too many people, the basic beliefs that the Dems are weak or have no ideas or plans was laid down so thoroughly in the last 3 decades by the GOP and the MSM, the ones who have spoken out and the plans and ideas are not connecting because of this past schooling.

    The individual narrative is somthing I think most candidates have a sense of – they just need to focus on what to say so that it resonates with the voters and they can say it with total confidence, because it comes from their convictions and values. I have noted before that the confidence projection is a subtle difference that needs to be just the right note. Hitting it wrong can kill the entire message.

  3. JESchwartz says:

    More than anything, people respond to an authentic voice. There are so many ways to approach the possibilities for a better existance, that there is room for different narratives that complement each other.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each of the Democratic candidates did this and the entire primary season was a celebration of why Democratic values of collective prosperity/fairness/justice are more consistent with American values?

    Do you think that it is possible for those of us in the blogosphere to influence the political consultants who control the campaigns?