Politics & Policy

After the Crack-Up

Conservatives need to support their arguments with creative storytelling.

It’s been weeks since our “surprise” loss on November 6. The conservative crack-up began in real time, as we watched Karl Rove, à la Captain Queeg, insist that his employer, Fox News, was calling Ohio, and the election, for President Obama prematurely.

Then came the fingerpointing, and the conjecture. Our pundits covered every scenario. We were too conservative. We weren’t conservative enough. The social issues killed us. We didn’t hit the social issues hard enough. We had a candidate problem. A woman problem. A Hispanic problem. It will continue for months, this self-abuse masquerading as self-examination. And liberals will eat it up, watching us wallow in self-doubt.

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.

“The universe is made up of stories, not atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said. Stories, not facts, are the way people process information. Screenplays, plays, scripts, and stories are packed not with hard data but with something more powerful and human: emotional data. That’s why we remember stories long after we’ve forgotten facts. Stories stir our souls.

And we’re not talking about the anecdotal stories politicians deploy to inject humanity into their stump speeches. We’re talking about the narrative of our nation. The story of America. The story of who we are, how we got here, and what we’re to become.

It is extremely serious business, that kind of storytelling.

Plato understood the power of storytellers. It’s why he wanted to ban them in his dream society. Wisely, the Left understands the importance of storytelling and dominates almost every aspect of it in the culture, from content creation to distribution. Regrettably, too few conservatives think storytelling matters.

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.

In 1980, Ted Turner launched CNN. It struggled for years to find an audience and became a player thanks to the first Gulf War — and to the spread of cable TV. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes launched a news network that leaned right, offering the public a counterpoint to the left-leaning CNN. It didn’t take Fox News long to beat CNN.

So much for that 16-year head start!

You’d think our wealthiest conservatives would want to mimic that accomplishment in other areas of our culture. Why not create an alternative to NPR? It reaches 33 million people with its feigned neutrality. Or The Daily Show? Ridicule is a powerful weapon, and the Left offers Americans much to laugh about.

In the past two presidential cycles, we spent billions of dollars on political TV ads that many Americans skipped or ignored. And those billions ended up filling the coffers of entertainment conglomerates whose news and programming relentlessly attack and caricature our side all year round.

We aren’t just throwing money down the drain on commercials. We’re funding the Left’s storytelling and programming machine. And we’re the smart guys?

Why do we keep ignoring the importance of story? And why are we surprised when, even when we win elections, our national debt piles up, and the administrative state expands?

Why haven’t we developed studios or messaging tanks that support our worldview?

It’s simple. Too many of our smart guys think the storytelling stuff is silly. They’re like businesspeople who think success is predicated on spreadsheets, data, and process but ignore the importance of human relationships.

We don’t respect storytelling. We believe deep down in our hearts that if we just keep pounding away at America with our superior policy positions and our superior arguments, we’ll win — that if we just educate the masses, they’ll vote with us.

We forget that most Americans get their education through stories. And most Americans don’t connect with the smartest person in the room, even if that person believes in the American experiment and the innate genius of the American people.

We have all the wrong people communicating our story. Asking policy wonks and pundits to rouse a nation is like asking an NFL linebacker to be a ballerina.

Our smart guys are like the off-Broadway playwrights who write plays that appeal to people like themselves and, when the plays fail, blame the audience for being stupid.

Arthur Miller’s plays have been seen and read by hundreds of millions of Americans. His best revolve around the universal anchor of the father-son relationship. It’s why his plays connect: No matter what our age or skin color or level of wealth, we all have fathers — good ones, bad ones, even absent ones.

And invariably, there is a scene that hammers capitalism. There’s that one in Death of a Salesman where the heartless boss ignores Willy Loman’s appeal to keep his job after years of service. While Willy is breaking down, the boss plays with a machine on his desk. Even committed capitalists want to punch the louse out.

That was Miller’s modus operandi: Lure the people in with stories they understand and then slip in a dose of leftism while no one notices.

Miller wrote that play in 1949. He died in 2006. And that is the power of storytellers. Their work moves audiences long after they’re gone. But who will remember Benghazi in three years, let alone 30? Indeed, most Americans are finished with it already.

That’s the ephemeral nature of news and politics in the age of instant communication: It gets old faster and faster.

60 Minutes is just as crafty. Don Hewitt, the man who created the hit show, was asked why it was so successful. “Tell me a story,” he said — preferably, one with a beginning, middle, and end. That show has been top-ranked on Sundays since the beginning of time. At least it feels that way.

Hewitt knew well what we don’t. Storytelling matters. Stories have characters, conflict, and resolution. In the liberal universe, the bad guys are greedy corporate types, Christian extremists, Israel, the U.S. military, millionaires, and billionaires.

The good guys are journalists, trial lawyers, union leaders, Palestinians, and government agencies, all there to protect the little guy from the big guys, the bad guys: us.

We need not be depressed by this state of affairs. The gatekeepers don’t have a grip on cultural platforms the way they used to, and we are highly capable of competing on mass-media platforms, including radio and TV.

We need bold conservative capitalists to invest in our storytellers and in our storytelling platforms. In our Don Hewitt. Our NPR, Daily Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, 60 Minutes, Frontline, Oliver Stone, and Charlie Rose. We need them to invest in storytellers who look and sound like America and who share our values.

There is a reason why people of every ethnic background in the world risk everything to come to America. It isn’t bigger government. It’s opportunity and freedom.

“In the Soviet Union, the future is predictable,” goes an old dissident joke. “It’s the past that keeps changing.” There’s great truth in that joke; it’s the storytellers who determine a nation’s future — and it’s past, too.

So as we study the gender gap, the marriage gap, and the other various gaps in the electorate over the coming months, we need to tackle the most important gap of them all: the storytelling gap. We are on America’s side. We’re on the side of the little guy. We’re on the side of men and women of every age, ethnicity, and class, and of the principles that have drawn people here for centuries.

Too many Americans just don’t know it yet.

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is the president and chief operating office of  the Las Vegas Sands and a member of the Job Creators Alliance.


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