May 17, 2006


U.S. Political Debate Stuck in 'Mob At The Gates' Story, Real Story Is 'Rot At The Top'

U.S. political debate is stuck in the wrong story and as a result, we see ourselves as heroes in the wrong plot.

On everything from immigration to national security, disaster relief to Social Security, energy to the environment, healthcare to education--Americans have been steered into the wrong story by a political system dominated by Republicans.   We are talking about America, but the plot we describe and the characters that we are following are all wrong.  And until Progressive Democrats drive the debate into a new story--the real story--America will continue to head down the wrong road.  So far, elected Democrats are not leading American to that new story.

What is the wrong story and what is the real story? 

Four Big Stories: Robert Reich's Useful Insight

The idea that there are 4 key 'stories' through which all Americans understand politics comes from a piece called 'The Lost Art Of Democratic Narrative' written by Robert Reich, former cabinet member under Bill Clinton.  This description from Democracy Arsenal is a good synopsis of Reich's point:

Robert Reich has an interesting piece in this week's New Republic where he talks about the need for progressives to reclaim the four basic narratives that have defined American politics:  The two hopeful variants are the Triumphant Individual (a la Horatio Alger and Erin Brockovich) and the Benevolent Community (barn raisers and It's a Wonderful Life).  The flip-side are two fearsome parables:  The Mob at the Gates (everything from Nazi Germany to Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and the Rot at the Top (from the robber barons to the latest accounting scandals).

(see the entire story at Democracy Arsenal)

Reich's use of the word 'stories' is a very good way to talk about the 'big ideas' that govern the entire political debate in America.  Individual issues may have internal logic that relates to one or another version of the facts, but the entire debate--the big discussion that cuts across every issue--the logic of that large conversation is defined by an overarching 'story' or 'narrative.'  The story has a plot, a good guy, a bad guy, and a moral. 

According to Reich, there are two 'hopeful' stories and two 'fearsome' stories--corresponding, roughly, to American ideas about what is good and bad, and to our ideas about how we should act in the world to solve problems.

In every moment in American history, in other words, what we as citizens believe is good or bad to do is being defined by the big story that frames the discussion. 

But keep in mind:  these stories do not accidentally emerge.  They are the product of powerful people driving the discussion into one or another story. 

Reich's argument is simple:  Democrats have given up interest in driving the debate into their stories. And as a result, the Republicans have driven the debate into their story.  So, when Americans try to decide what is right or wrong, and how we should act in the world to be good people--we do so according to the plot of the story chosen for us and dominated by Republicans. 

The 'Mob at the Gates' vs. 'Rot at the Top'

In our current political moment, every single political issue is being dominated by a Republican version of the 'mob at the gates' story.  And every decision we are making as Americans is based on how we see ourselves relative to the 'plot' in the story.

Every.  Single. issue.

The alternative to the Republican 'mob at the gates' story is for Democrats to drive the debate into a 'rot at the top' story. 

To understand what this looks like, consider the following recent debates in terms of 'story' and 'plot' from the perspective of these two stories:

"Mob at the Gates" - America faces danger: hoardes of immigrants crossing our open borders.  To protect ourselves from this danger:  send troops to the border, build a wall.

"Rot at the Top" - America faces danger:  greedy and corrupt leaders in America and Mexico are breaking the law, creating problems by luring  workers across the southern border. To protect ourselves from this danger:  confront business leaders and politicians who take advantage of poor workers in Latin America,  break labor laws in the United States, and undermine the hard-working Middle Class.

"Mob at the Gates" - America faces danger: terrorists everywhere are trying to get into America to destroy our cities and kill our citizens. To protect ourselves from this danger:  attack and kill the terrorists before they can leave.

"Rot at the Top" - America faces danger:  Massive wealth accumulated in the hands of a greedy few at the top in the Middle East has led to deep anger and frustration towards the West.  To protect ourselves from this danger:  work for global equality and cooperation to eliminate radical economic injustice, smart growth and development, and creating new allies through long term fair investment and cooperation.

"Mob at the Gates" - America faces danger:  too many people want to use gasoline, creating huge demand and higher prices.  To protect ourselves from this danger: we must pay oil companies to find more oil, pay higher prices, use less, and open more and more of our natural reserves to corporations  who promise to supply us with gasoline.

"Rot at the Top" - America faces danger:  we are dependent on greedy oil companies for our energy, companies that manipulate markets, corrupt governments, and care only about obscene profit.  To protect ourselves fromm this danger:  we must confront oil companies, forcing them develop sustainable fuels.  We must confront automotive companies, forcing them to develop smaller, more efficient cars that run on those new fuels.  We must invest as a nation in a new vision of energy for the future.

"Mob at the Gates" - America faces danger:  to many people need insurance and as a result the cost is just too high.  To protect ourselves from this danger: free insurance companies from liability and responsibility, allowing the insurance companies to enroll as more people without the risk of losing profit.

"Rot at the Top" - America faces danger:  health has become a privilege of wealth.  To protect ourselves from this danger:  re-invent the entire medical system in America so that it focuses on basic, quality care for everyone.  Invest in more training of registered nurses, community and school clinics, and massive wellness education for the entire country. 

"Mob at the Gates" - America faces a danger:  special interest groups dominate politics.  To protect ourselves from this danger:  regulate the special interest groups with stringent donation laws, clamp down on freedom of speech on the Internet.

"Rot at the Top"- America faces a danger:  elections are open only the wealthiest in society.  To protect ourselves  from this danger:  immediately pass a Constitutional amendment requiring all elections in America--from the PTA to the Presidency--to be funded by public money.  Restore the democratic process in America immediately to the people.

Each story has a clear 'plot' and that plot dictates how we understand the issues.

On immigration issue, we are stuck in the story of hordes flowing across the border, when we should be talking about breaking down the doors  of unlawful employers and confronting the Mexican government for colluding to abuse Mexican workers and defraud American working-class citizens.

On national security, we are stuck in the story of terrorist hordes trying to get into America, when we should be talking about taking a leading role in restoring equality and justice in the world.

On energy, we are stuck in the story of supply and demand, when we should be talking about confronting greedy corporations and investing in new fuel and transportation technologies.

On health, we are stuck in the story of market forces and costs, when we should be talking about basic care for every American right now, investing in education and training.

On elections, we are stuck in the story of special interest groups, when we should be talking about eliminating all corrupt private money from elections and returning our democracy to the hands of the people as it was intended.

When Democrats realize that they must drive the debate into a new story--a big story--then the debate will change.

Once Democrats switch the story from 'mob at the gates' to 'rot at the top,' Americans will not only reject Republican failure, but will begin to embrace the vision of Democrats--a basic vision of restoring Democracy to the people.

Until then, we will all be  stuck in the wrong story.

©  2006 Jeffrey Feldman

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