Why Democrats Lose: "stories always trump statistics"

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why do Democrats lose debates and elections, even when they have all the facts and rational arguments on their side? Read this article in the BBC and you'll get some interesting answers. For instance:

*Why is it that "the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform - the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state - are often the ones it seems designed to help?" According to this article, it's because "they resent having their interests decided for them by politicians who think they know best," because "[t]here is nothing voters hate more than having things explained to them as though they were idiots."

*According to psychologist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, "stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win." Thus, according to Westen, "Obama's administration made a tremendous mistake by not immediately branding the economic collapse that we had just had as the Republicans' Depression, caused by the Bush administration's ideology of unregulated greed. The result is that now people blame him." Why hasn't Obama's political team figured it out, when it's obvious to Westen (and to so many of us)? I don't know for sure, but it's exasperating and infuriating that they haven't done so. Essentially, the geniuses in the Obama political team have completely ceded the narrative to the other side, despite having the facts to constructive a powerful narrative overwhelmingly on their side. Lame.

*Thomas Frank, author of What's The Matter with Kansas, "authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics," even if the "authenticity" is totally fake. So, Republicans - with self-serving faux-"authenticity" - "stoke up resentment against the patronising liberal elite, all those do-gooders who assume they know what poor people ought to be thinking." Republicans "[channel] this popular anger against intellectual snobs," with the result that "many of America's poorest citizens have a deep emotional attachment to a party that serves the interests of its richest."

In short, what Republicans and right-wingers do is crazy, irrational, factually incorrect and destructive, but unfortunately it works more often that not. The way to beat it? What this article's saying is that Democrats need to cite fewer statistics but to tell more - and more engaging - stories. For starters, Democrats need to tell people, early and often, exactly who caused the current economic mess we're in. And Democrats need to explain in a compelling manner how Democrats are going to get us out of that mess. If Democrats fail to tell those stories (or to tell them effectively), we're going to lose, even though we have all the empirical evidence on our side.

UPDATE: Nate Silver has some specific messaging advice for Democrats this year. Key point: "the Democrats need to figure out what their November messages are now and begin planting seeds for them now."