Why fake news wins (and how to beat it)

“It’s a little-known fact that fake news is form of folklore.”

No schedule could be imposed on church services in our spirit-filled Assembly of God tabernacle. Sermons and singing and spontaneous prayers and prophesies continued as long as God, through Pastor Gall, willed. It was a space beyond the reach of time, lunch, and football. We were prisoners of the Spirit.

Wooden pews smelled of lacquer and resin, an odor that still lingers in my memory. Mom always had gum or mints, something to keep us going through the interminable sermons and stave off the scourge of hungry-breath. Filling those hard pews week after week meant keeping this East Texas crowd engaged. And keeping us engaged meant telling stories. Truth existed on a plane beyond the reach of mere facts. Some of Pastor Gall’s best stories were howlingly false, but no one ever checked or cared.

A detail from one of these sermons stands out in memory. Pastor Gall shared news that our corrupt media had failed to report. In faraway Brussels, capital of the dreaded European Common Market, scientists had built a computer which would be key to the Antichrist’s reign. This computer would read barcodes tattooed on every human being. We would all be catalogued, our loyalty to the Antichrist made a condition of legitimate commerce. And what were the first three numbers, the standardized prefix of that code that would soon be stamped on every human being?

Wait for it…

Every barcode number would begin with the prefix, 666.

Even as a child soaking up the show, that claim made me start for a moment. Beyond the titillating horror of the thing loomed a logistical challenge even a 5th grader could appreciate. We had only just gotten barcode scanners down at the fancy Safeway and they didn’t work very well. If there was a massive computer whirring away under gray Belgian skies prepared to mediate all global economic activity, who could keep that a secret? And if it was a secret, how did Pastor Gall know about it? Where was he getting this information?

Fake news isn’t new. No one questioned Pastor Gall’s bizarre assertion that day, or any of his other claims in other sermons. Years later when that assertion, like all his others about the looming apocalypse had proven patently false, I never asked him for an explanation. None was necessary. That’s not how this works.

There is a stark difference between objective, verifiable facts and common-sense “truth.” Facts are established through a process. That process is often complex, requiring specialized knowledge and equipment. Truth, as the currency of pastors and grandmothers and bar-stool prognosticators, rises from common sense. It is folklore, accessible to anyone, attainable by anyone, readily understood and appreciated.

It is a fact that human activity has triggered a greenhouse effect that is heating our planet. Very few human beings possess the training and specialized knowledge required to understand why this is happening and judge the veracity of that factual claim by review of the source data. Being college-educated, or a geologist, or a brain surgeon or rocket scientist does not prepare one to evaluate climate research. The rest of us are left to make a judgements based on the credentials and arguments of credible professionals who have evaluated the data.

Meanwhile, anyone can grasp the claim that climate change is a hoax ginned up by the Chinese to hobble the American economy. Even our incoming President is smart enough to grasp that “truth.” No lengthy experiments or computer programs are necessary to detect the hoax. There is no math required. It is folklore. All one needs to grasp and evaluate folklore is a mind shaped by millions of years of evolution.

Facts are elite. Folklore is available to everyone; free, independent of so-called experts, and easy to grasp. Fake news is a rebellion of “common sense.” It is an effort to restore the power of folklore, and by extension, the power of ordinary people over their lives.

The best fake news includes a tinge of truth. Perhaps not facts, but something Stephen Colbert once described as “truthiness.” Pastor Gall’s claim about shadowy Belgians rose from our efforts to grasp real events around us. Absolutely no one in our community understood how the new barcode scanners at the grocery store functioned. And we never would. Little stickers with prices written on them make immediate sense. Bar codes and lasers and computers make no intuitive sense whatsoever. They do not fit into folklore.

In a sense my pastor was relating a truth while speaking a falsehood. The folklore truth in this case was that our everyday lives, down to the smallest details of a visit to the grocery store, were being transformed by technological advances with implications we could not see or evaluate. There were bound to be winners and losers in this process and we lacked a strong sense of where we might fall in that great sorting. No one would have understood or expressed their concerns in such clear terms, but our pastor encapsulated them successfully in a narrative. That narrative was eerily real.

No one at the time had ever heard of a credit score. None of us had used a computer. No one I knew owned a credit card. Credit was premised on relationships, and those relationships were cemented by our character and our standing in the community. This new technology would introduce a novel new standard of commerce, mediated by faceless powers every bit as foreign to us as a Belgian bureaucrat.

Jesus wasn’t coming back and our stories about the Antichrist never quite panned out. Those stories were not factual, but they were in a sense true. Our world was experiencing an apocalypse. Whoever failed to get on board with this emerging new reality would fail in spectacular fashion. Leaving behind our folkloric faith with its demons and angels and spiritual healing and speaking in tongues would in fact be a condition for successful commerce in this new world. No one would prosper without taking The Mark.

Science and technology were conquering faith to an extent never before experienced. Only by gaining specialized knowledge, available exclusively through an advanced education, could anyone hope to participate gainfully in the economic system being born around us. And that advanced education would expose impressionable youngsters to The Beast: doubt, questioning, and fact-based investigation. A mental shift away from folklore toward measurable reality was a precondition for success in the New World Order. The Antichrist was moving among us.

Folklore may be comforting and enjoyable. It may offer a buffer against the advance of elite interests into ordinary people’s lives. But when it conflicts with measurable reality it fails. The only way to make it work is to use mass opinion to stifle the exploration and spread of facts. As the people of Tennessee discovered in the Scopes Monkey Trial, facts are remarkably persistent even against overwhelming public hostility.

Though grifters find ample opportunity in fake news, dismissing the genre as mere deception is an error. There is a philosophy of fake news, a populist ethic of folklore versus facts. That ethic doesn’t legitimize fake news, but it provides an explanation for its reach and its persistent appeal, even in the face of consistent failure. Fake news is never defeated by fact-checkers. You overcome the power of fake news by delivering a better story.

No one tore the barcode scanners out of our local grocery store, and strangely, no one ever pointed out the oddity of our compliance with that technology. We were won over. Suddenly we had accurate receipts and faster check-out. Those bar scanners delivered results. Eventually they were written out of common folklore of the Apocalypse.

We do not innately understand or relate to facts. We understand stories. Tell a better, more appealing story about issues that matter to ordinary people. That’s how you beat fake news. Don’t hate the player…


  1. Pingback: My links from the Week of 3/19 | seahawks500

  2. Chris – After a few times through your piece, I cannot determine whether you see your old pastor of the ilk of a fear-mongering, lying, agenda-driven Breitbart sort, or not. He was, you know.

    The fact that some of his spew might be seen, (albeit with substantial and kindly interpretation), as prescient is irrelevant. Liars, fakes, and cons are not defined in retrospect.

    1. ***I cannot determine whether you see your old pastor of the ilk of a fear-mongering, lying, agenda-driven Breitbart sort, or not.***

      He was, but then again everyone was. And I wouldn’t call him prescient. That makes it sound too wise. He was just encapsulating in the only language he had the anxiety we were all sensing. Again: folklore.

      I’m convinced that it’s vital to understand your enemy. I’m combing back through my memories and current contacts back in that place to try to understand what makes these people tick. Why do they choose falsehoods so faithfully and disastrously? With that in mind, how might it be possible to coax a critical few of them away from political disasters? Pastor Gall seems like a gateway to understanding how that mind works, how *my* mind worked back when I was inside that world.

      Still working on it. Got about three posts worth of material that I haven’t quite figured out how to make sense of.

      We want to believe that there is a stark difference b/t a worldview based on measurable facts and the folklore (fake news) that’s overwhelmed our political universe. The more I hammer on this the more I’m convinced that a fact-based reality is always going to be elusive. Though certain political claims can be demonstrated to be false, there aren’t as many such black and white matters as we want to believe.

      I’m trying to start with humility and see if I can get back inside that mindset. I’m not enjoying it, but it seems necessary.

      1. Try as we may, a couple of things stand out to me as obstacles. One, is education. Smart people can communicate clearly and simply to uneducated people but I wonder if there is any reaching those who don’t want to hear – regardless of their educations? Second, there is a genuine problem with people who don’t think deeply, read even less, and whose information sources are chosen to reinforce cultural or personal biases. I suspect this group has the most difficulty separating fact from folklore.

        Maybe the group to try to reach are not the working class if their personal barriers are so strong but a new group – millennials who share many of our social and environmental values. Communication is still key but the audience is different and not prejudiced. Their numbers are large and they have the energy and education to sift through fact and falsehoods. Practically speaking, we have some short term goals ahead (mid-terms and 2020) and a lot of work to do to engage the numbers we’ll need to effect change.

      2. “I’m combing back through my memories and current contacts back in that place to try to understand what makes these people tick. Why do they choose falsehoods so faithfully and disastrously? With that in mind, how might it be possible to coax a critical few of them away from political disasters?”

        Book recommendation: https://www.dukeupress.edu/transparency-and-conspiracy

        This is an anthropological study of conspiracy theories. It points out that in some technologically behind cultures including remaining non-technological ones, folklore characters such as spirits and demons and wood imps and the like have been replaced by “the IMF”, “the NGOs” and so forth — even if these cultures haven’t come into contact with the actual International Monetary Fund etc.

        One of the book’s prevailing thesis? That conspiracy theory is related to human being’s tendency to find malevolent external forces for their ill fortune or bad circumstances in an otherwise complex and hard to understand world. The same cognitive need for order that caused Ancient Greeks to invent vengeful Gods playing games of influence around human endeavor and given an objective image by the pareidolia of the stars is the same tendency for people with little ability to handle complex information to fear Illuminati and Jewish bankers.

        And an interesting conflict the book explores is how calls for ‘transparency’ are often, in their own way, a matter of obfuscation. See also: Wikileaks :).

        Anyway my takeaway from this book is that undereducated scared people with uncertain futures are highly influenceable by religiosity, fearmongering, authoritarianism, conspiracy theory, and other distinguishable symptoms of the same cognitive illness.

        tl;dr: the Alt-Right are people who are scared of the world because they don’t have control over it and lack the information or the ability to take control of their own self-determination. Or meaner: they’re bullies because they’re weak.

      3. Then, should we push forward to Millennials who may be more approachable and have more in common with the Democratic point of view? Why keep beating a dead horse? Let things unravel with Trump’s empty rhetoric and possibly some of these people will be more open to fact based arguments vs emotionally driven ones.

      4. >] “Then, should we push forward to Millennials who may be more approachable and have more in common with the Democratic point of view? Why keep beating a dead horse? Let things unravel with Trump’s empty rhetoric and possibly some of these people will be more open to fact based arguments vs emotionally driven ones.

        “Pushing forward to Millennials” is effectively admitting defeat with other generations. Don’t expect them to look at you with an ear to listen if they believe you’re indulging in cowardice. If you believe you have the right message and story to tell, then you should speak about it with consideration and pride to all people.

        Why do Democrats fail? Ultimately, why did Hillary Clinton lose? Because they engage in collective cowardice and there’s nothing people hate more than weakness. People want to be strong and they admire those that they perceive as such. There is a grain of truth to be found in why Trump’s supporters, even now, speak so unashamedly of his supposedly great business acumen and deal-making; in other words, how he can make us “win” again.

        As a famous politician once said: “There are no easy answers, but there are simple ones.”

        Behind all the seeming complexities and ‘reasoned’ explanations, people really are terribly simple.

      5. Cowardice? When you have such a small group, it would seem to me that focus is the smartest use of talent. That is not to deny the importance of a simple, coherent, consistent message that all people “can” hear, but to acknowledge that time is short. Dems have 23 Senate seats up for re-election in two years. Two Years. Call it whatever you want but smart organization with small numbers compels targeted effort.

        I’d like to hear more about your view of how Democrats were collectively cowardly. Then I’d like to see your plan to retain 23 seats in ’18 and win back the presidency in ’20. It’s easy to call others cowards, what’s hard is doing the work of organizing.

        Enlighten me.

      6. Chris,

        I grew up among these people, too. A part of me still understands them on a visceral level. Here’s my take on why folklore resonates with them:

        1) It’s fun, in the same kind of way gossip is. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant, it’s still titillating.

        2) “Don’t tread on me.” Poor/country folk can be very defensive. Just try stepping on their “property” if you want to know what I mean. Folklore appeals to an us vs them mentality that is deeply ingrained in this culture.

        3) Folklore’s easy answers appeal to the street smart, not the book smart. Many of my conspiracy-theory-believing family members are very smart (many are also pretty dumb), but none of them are the contemplative type.

      7. “It’s fun, in the same kind of way gossip is. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant, it’s still titillating.”

        I think some people do this because they think it makes them look cool, or cynical, or in-the-know. Street smart, in other words.

        The “easy answers” quote also applies to conspiracy theories I think. Someone recently pointed out that cynical people are usually the ones who fall for conspiracy theories.

  3. In off topic, in the thread about steps we’re taking now, check out Aaron Dow’s link to a document written by former congressional aides on how to resist — you know, I have a lot of difficulty writing his name.

    The authors use the tea party as an example. They compare and contrast Rs with Ds.

    When I accessed it early this morning, google docs had a system message about the document’s popularity.

    1. Hello, Chris. I discovered your “GOPLifer” site shortly before you closed it down, and followed you here. I just joined.

      Re your post on fake news: I love your writing. I am a Democrat, and I agree that Democrats desperately need effective counter-narratives. But I think we have gone beyond folklore, unfortunately. I find your post ultimately too optimistic. Your powerful piece “People Who Lie To My Father” goes deeper.

      On Nov. 9th, a friend sent me the following passage by Hannah Arendt, which she said someone had posted that day in the copy room of the department of the college where she teaches:

      “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true . . .The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

      Again and again, when confronted with something awful that their favored candidate said during the campaign, now likely to become an unpleasant reality, I have heard Orange Twitler supporters say, “But he didn’t mean it.” (See, for example, this very interesting and disheartening article in Vox, in which the reporter interviews residents of Kentucky who voted for Twitler and who also depend on the ACA for their health care). http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/12/13/13848794/kentucky-obamacare-trump
      Many of these same people, no doubt, voted against HRC because “she lies” and “isn’t trustworthy.”

      Needless to say, we find ourselves in an extremely dangerous state of affairs. As I recall, false narratives on radio played a major role in directing the Hutu population in Rwanda to carry out the genocide of the 90s against the Tutsis, for example. Orange Twitler has already shown a disturbing propensity to use social media to damage those individuals, businesses, or other entities he perceives as enemies, no matter how small the slight involved, or to provoke his followers to attack. There are many examples. See for instance the story of the college student who questioned Twitler about his attitudes toward women at a town hall early in the campaign, who is relentlessly harassed by Twitler followers even today). http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nathttp://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/ct-donald-trump-twitter-feuds-20161208-story.html
      She hasn’t discovered an effective counter-narrative. See also this piece by a former Republican commentator, Charles Sykes, from the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/opinion/sunday/charlie-sykes-on-where-the-right-went-wrong.html?smid=tw-nytopinion&smtyp=cur
      Sorry– I hope you all can follow the links– I can’t seem to insert them properly.

      1. Nita, you did just fine and your point was well made. FWIW, I agree that we are past folklore and into a tougher battle. One doesn’t have to do anything more than follow what is happening in NC right now to see the lengths Republicans will go to in order to crush their opposition. The steps NC legislators are writing into law, signed by current Governor McCrory may be one of the ugliest political events of this election for its “in your face” expression of raw power.

        Democratic leadership is still in flux which is not helping. Therefore, it is up to each of us to do what we can as individuals to fight back. The link in the Off Topic post “Steps We can take now”, gives excellent organization if this fits your need for activism. Join with others if you can and do what you can to affect change. Welcome to the group.


      1. Thanks, Mary. Although I’m a lurker on various sites, I not used to posting very often. The document on concrete steps is useful. Again, thank you. I’ll keep it as a reference, and share.

        My Congressfolk are good. As the document suggests, I have been in touch with them via personal emails on specific issues, legislation and approaches. I intend to keep doing this. Also, I will contact local politicians regarding what we can do in our largely “blue” state to preserve our values and programs, to whatever extent possible. My income is low, and I’m tapped out right now after giving $ I can’t afford during the election. But I intend to keep donating to organizations and causes I believe in, as I can. I’ll also show up occasionally in person for protests.

        I think this will be a long haul. I need to pace myself. We all must do what we can to nourish our spirits. Keeping in touch with what and whom we love is all the more important now, I think. And groups like this–where people of various persuasions and backgrounds can come together and have intelligent, respectful discussions–are extremely important. We need to keep talking (not squabbling).

  4. Amazing: Bob Dylan on the meaning of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1962)

    “The hard rain’s gonna fall is in the last verse…That means all the lies, you know, that people get told on their radios and in newspapers. All you have to think for a minute, you know. Trying to take people’s brains away, you know. Which maybe has been done already. I hate to think it’s been done. All the lies, which I consider poison.”


  5. A postmortem from John Podesta on the impact of the Russian hack and email release plus FBI failures and their combined impact on the election. Then a Mother Jones chart that graphs the impact. This election was so close…….Even close down ticket results could have been affected. Could have…sigh…….



  6. Easy to say “tell a better story,” hard to do. I think Republicans have an advantage because they consciously tell stories that make people afraid, and fear is arguably the most powerful motivator out there. Democrats, with the exception of trying to get people to fear Republican overreach, generally can’t use fear as a motivator as effectively due to the nature of what they are trying to accomplish politically.

    1. And, I also think Dems try to appeal to reason….which is not being effectively communicated and insufficient to counter fear…which is far easier to do, especially if you don’t worry about whether what you are saying has any basis in fact….just a “get the job done” mentality.

      1. Reason, logic, power point presentations, etc, are boring and don’t capture attention.

        Republicans and right-wing reactionaries own fear. It’s their bread and butter. It’s their entire schtick.

        Democrats and liberals own comedy to narrate reason. Period.

        An effective narrative for Democrats and liberals is couched in comedy. Describing objective, observable reality and facts/evidence as comedy.

        See: Show, The Daily; Report, The Colbert; etc.

        NB: Both Stewart and Colbert retired their facts and evidence programs that was the news for young people before the 2016 election.

    2. Some Democratic goals and policies could be considered fear-based, for example, when citing the damage to the planet from global warming, or the violence from lack of gun control, or sick people dying if Obamacare wasn’t passed, but the Republicans usually turn the tables and use fear to say all these are all evil plots for more government intervention.

      1. I think the big difference, Tutta, is the use of fear without basis in fact, rather, as a tool of manipulation. There are things in this world to genuinely fear, and then there are those that are massaged and twisted to gain a particular result. That is when it is wrong because fear is being used without basis.

    3. I agree with Creigh and all the replies. Fear is a powerful motivator and is an easy emotion to exploit. Even though Tuttabella mentions that issues such as global warming or gun violence are fear based, those require logical thought to realize the consequences and they do not stimulate the fear and flight response. People think it will not happen to me. Even health care which has been used for demagoguery so much does not stimulate that fear and flight reaction. These do not immediately threaten us physically, although health care comes close, particularly like the woman whose husband has cirrhosis, which was discussed yesterday.

      All these factors give the Repugs an advantage and they have honed it to a razor’s edge. Nevertheless we must keep on puggin’ along. Let us not forget FDR’s statement that “We have nothing to fear, except fear itself.” I think that is as true at this time as during the 1930’s.

      1. I have great concern for all that is going to happen courtesy of the GOP majority, but I think they’ve bitten off a lot with their plan to repeal/delay health insurance coverage. I follow a Forbes blog – The Apothecary” – on this subject coordinated by Avik Roy. The great majority of the commentators to the blog posts (which are all pro-repeal), have been informed and negative. Of course there may be a silent larger group that supports repeal, but the fact that this blog is generating so much open, direct criticism tells me that this is going to be really difficult for most people to swallow. If you consider that the ACA picked up about 10 million subscribers while still leaving 33 million or so without coverage, this is an issue that will resonate. I hope Dems exploit the hell out of it because it’s important and it has a direct, personal affect on people.

        Also, in the repeal process the GOP is also going to change medicare and medicaid and related health programs. That is going to be a real hotbed of angst regardless which party people belong to – especially the elderly and the poor and disabled. As Schumer said: bring.it.on.

      2. I basically concur. The GOP is going to overreach and there will be a counter-reaction.

        Regarding ACA I know several people who either because of preexisting conditions or other reasons have health insurance for the first time in many years. I good friend of ours has leukemia. She is a very active person physically and socially, and works as a biologist for National Marine Fisheries. Once she mentioned that because of the ACA now she has insurance for the the first time in many years. Also she mentioned that her medication costs in the neighborhood of $18K annually. Another example is the woman discussed yesterday, whose husband has cirrhosis. These people should not be ignored.

        When the seniors who are on Medicare and Social Security realize what Mr. Ryan has in store, there will be a real outcry. Mr. Ryan will be in danger of “being beaten to a bloody pulp by those elderly codgers with the canes.”

      3. It couldn’t happen to a better hypocrite. Ryan could use his position and knowledge to improve health care; instead, he has chosen privatization. I don’t and won’t feel a moment’s pity for him. In fact, I hope it costs him his career in politics. It should.

      1. This is what I was talking about in my earlier post. This is how the GOP works- do everything within their power to suppress the vote, pre-determine the vote (gerrymandering), and stacking committees and courts, and if that still doesn’t get the GOP candidate elected, why – change the laws so the incoming, legally elected Democrat CANNOT function.

        Democrats are going to have to start playing hard ball. Working within the system is.not.working when the party in power simply changes the laws to obstruct. Cooper won fair and square; McCrory lost because he pissed off business and the people in his state with the bathroom bill and other egregious governing moves.

        Republicans will not be satisfied until they have crushed Democrats. If they have the luck or temerity to defeat the Republican opponent occasionally, that simply will not be allowed. NC is not a state in which I’d ever consider living as long as the GOP control it. Mean. Small people.

      2. A second point to all the other piling on by Republicans, concerns what they are considering about enlarging their NC Supreme Court size from 7 to 9, with the outgoing governor appointing two conservatives to fill the two new slots which would be approved by the majority Republican legislature.

        The reason this is so important is not simply NC’s brazen political play, it’s indicative of tactics we can expect in every GOP dominated legislature across America and in federal politics.

        Ready to throw some shoes, folks?

    1. That’s inspiring, Bobo. Essentially, Sanders did the same but his platform (IMO) was not as effective or as broad).

      “Trudeau, 44, swept to a majority government on an ambitious platform that included addressing growing inequality and creating real change for the country’s middle class.”

      Clinton knew these things but didn’t focus on them; Trump “used” these things to mobilize and energize people who were not inspired by facts, but by emotion.

  7. Re – What is wrong with the Dems? – Why don’t they fight/have a better narrative

    In many ways the USA has served as an example to the rest of us
    (unfortunately an example of what NOT to do)

    In this instance the British Labour Party could show you guys what is happening

    Labour did what the Dems did and “triangulated” to the center – in the process it became “Tory Light” – and lost power

    A new leader with a better vision was elected (Jeremy Corbyn)- BUT the Labour MP’s have pushed back massively – they were elected as “Tory Light” and that is what they intend to stay

    This struggle has murdered Labour in the polls

    Your Dems have a similar problem

  8. What are some of these ‘stories’ Republicans have told? How do they compare to Democrats’ rhetoric which apparently in this case is not ‘story’ told? How is “Make America Great Again” a story but “The Audacity of Hope” isn’t? Also keep in mind Obama actually wrote his own memoirs. Trump can’t even complete a single stand alone sentence even though he has ‘the best words’.

    The Democrats as we speak are telling a story of Russian interference, the Kremlin’s interest in subverting Western democracy and hegemony and undermining valuable relationships to gain power. How come Trump’s story of “Eh it could be anyone, someone in China, someone in Jersey” is better? How come his story of seeing Muslims celebrating 9/11 is taken seriously when it’s fake, and the Democrats’ story of Russian interference is considered a farce even though it’s true?

    Scientists have been telling a lot of stories about how climate change is going to affect us, where climate change came from, and so forth. Environmentalist activists have even given that story an easy villain, Oil Companies (r)(tm)(Satan 1970-20??), which combines the bugaboo billionaire with corrupt government. Everybody loves that villain. Why does the story that climate change is some elaborate hoax run by liberals and China to subvert capitalism overpower the one that has actual facts behind it? China and liberals can be scary maybe, but climate change stories have all sorts of easily attainable threats: rising waters, ocean acidification, desertification and drought, poisonous atmospheres, mass extinctions, Soylent Green and AI: Artificial Intelligence. This is blockbuster stuff here.

    What does the China liberal story have? A bunch of people sitting in a room saying “And this elaborate costly prank that requires the commitment of 97% of the world’s climate scientists, several deep state functions of most country’s governments, dissemination of thousands of books, articles, research, and development, the backing of corporations and NGOs, and THAT’s the easiest and cheapest way to ‘defeat capitalism'”? That’s one talky movie with huge leaps of logic and hard to follow characters. Climate change story’s got pictures: slashed and burned forests, bleached reefs, smokestacks, burning trashpiles, starving polar bears on shin sheets of melting glacier, and yearly oil spills.

    Or are we being less specific and looking at ‘grand narratives’, like the genius of the founding fathers and the righteousness of the American way? Well there’s the pluralistic society that cares for its destitute and neglected story the liberals tell. Reagan may have the ‘Welfare Queen’ but modern liberals have the self-educated programmer. Conservatives have War on Christmas but liberals have War on Poverty. Why does “This country was founded as a white Christian nation!” story seem to always out yell “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should have to starve?” Both of those are stories featuring characters that make a decision and have an outcome, but the former isn’t true and we have documentation to prove it (The Treaty of Tripoli).

    It’s not about storytelling, it’s about critical thinking and education. Here’s the story:

    Trump won the undereducated. He won the old. He won the paranoid. He won the people least capable of navigating media in a critical or meaningful manner. That goes for the Internet and digital media, but it includes all forms of mass communication. He won the people who are incapable of telling the difference in source qualifications between an investigative journalist working for a long-running newspaper and some blogger who goes by the name of a fictional character from a shitty pop-nihilist novel that came out in the 1990s (Tyler Durden, ‘lead editor’ of ZeroHedge, if you think I’m making this shit up).

    He won the people who get angry when you say, “Actually, this thing you just posted simply isn’t true.” They aren’t angry that it’s not true — they get really pissed off that you called them out on it. They take it personal, like you giving them information is a confrontation of their character and not a discussion of the issue.

    Or, easiest way to say it: he won the people who watch Celebrity Apprentice and WWE. Some of these people still think these shows are ‘real.’

    There’s no lack of stories out there being told by people from every perspective. There is a lack of directed education in critical thinking skills. Somewhere between writing a five paragraph essay and doing their high school senior thesis, students lose track of the fact that they’re really being taught to read beyond the surface of a text and their complaints of “When will I ever use this IN REAAAALLLL LIIIFFFEEE???!” goes unanswered, turned five years later into memes posted on Facebook about how American education failed to prepare them for adulthood and how terrible awful the education system is.

    Luckily there are some adjustments we could make, minor, and fitting in with our current education system, to change this, even if just a little — it would at least help. ‘English classes’ in high school should cover books like they already do but in addition to literature and literary history it can also cover non-fiction and journalism (sophomore year), television film and radio (junior year), and ‘new media’ (senior year). And unlike what most ‘media literacy’ advocate programs out there seek to do (more or less they’re just looking for demographic wins in proportional representation of people of color and various sexualities in ‘mainstream media’), ‘media literacy’ can be considered a holistic approach to applying reason and critical thinking to the thousands of messages people consume every single day…

    … regardless of what story those messages are trying to tell.

    1. Also I want to sum two things you’ve said, Chris:

      One thing you’ve mentioned is the conservative entertainment industrial complex. That is to say that conservatives can be as outlandish as they please because if it doesn’t get them votes, then they get hefty media deals.

      The other is this idea that ‘they tell better stories.’

      No. What you’re describing is by definition what is known as ‘the cult of personality.’ A cult of character focuses on what people do and how they represent their values to a community, their leadership skills and thoughtfulness and humanism. A cult of personality is a game of attention — whosoever gains the most attention must be ‘smart’, says a cult of personality, because if they weren’t smart they wouldn’t be able cut through the noise of all the other people aiming for attention.

      People keep calling Trump ‘smart’ for what effectively boils down to public trolling from a billionaire. That’s not intelligence or smarts, that’s trolling from a billionaire. Claiming that he is a good ‘storyteller’ is the same sort of accreditation to society’s larger privileging of him than he deserves. He’s not a good storyteller, he can’t even write a book. You can, you did.

      There’s no reason to give Republicans credit for being so crazy that we HAVE to pay attention to them to try to defend from them fucking us over. That’s not Democrats or anybody else not telling good stories, that’s a diverse majority of independent interests trying to defend against a plurality of insane clowns.

      One thing I’m seeing in this thread that’s annoying me is this villification of the Democrats from going centrist, like they would be even more successful if they went left. Maybe, but where does that leave the moderates, the pragmatists, the technocrats who want a fucking party to believe in? I don’t want the Democrats to go full Sanders any more than I wanted the Republicans to go full Nazi. Sanders may ‘tell a better story’, but what are the people who just want intelligent policy to do?

      1. Sure, there is a need for that, but there is also the need to “throw some shoes” at the other side….Republicans have become so intimidating, so callous about using whatever nefarious tactic they need to gain their end goal, Dems also need to learn how to parry with force.

        Here’s a prime example – but we know about Swift Boats and voter suppression and other dirty tactics – That Are Working. They aren’t using better rhetoric, they are powering their way to the goal post. Democrats have to fight big, bold, hard again. They don’t just need to articulate their agenda, they need to land some punches. Here’s how the Repubs do it. Do I admire it? Definitely not, but does it work for them? You betcha. This is what has to stop. Repubs are so emboldened they don’t bother with decorum – they go straight for the jugular. Democrats have to organize and, yes, they have to message, but they also need to throw shoes and throw punches. Democrats beat McCrory (and he helped) and instead of whining, Republicans are going to pull every parliamentary, legislative maneuver they can to hamstring Cooper until the next election. Just like they did to Obama, and we see how that has turned out. I’m getting mad and so should the leadership and rank and file of the Dem Party. Playing fair, being right, isn’t getting the job done. Republicans are winning the war and Dems are focusing on digging trenches. That is not offense.


    2. My go-to example of a powerful story: “The deficit will burden our children and grandchildren.” It’s easy to understand, and it appeals to common sense and personal experience. It’s also wrong, but explaining that with a similarly powerful response is something I haven’t yet seen done, and not from lack of trying.

      I believe it was John Kenneth Galbraith who said “Ideas are not defeated by other ideas, but by a mass of circumstance with which they cannot contend.” So far the deficit argument has managed to contend with 180 years of deficits which have not visibly burdened children or grandchildren.

      1. I have never been on the side of balanced budgets (for federal government) – managed deficits are necessary to a diverse nation.

        But, from my reading, there is credence to the reduced earning power of children born from the 1980s forward as compared with that of their parents. This has been documented by numerous studies, not lastly in an effort to explain some of the economic frustration/anger that exists currently. Despite more people attaining high school degrees than ever before, the education bar keeps rising higher out of necessity – to keep up with a market place that demands it.

        Possibly I am missing your point –

      2. Mary, my point was just about the ease of making plausible sounding deficit arguments and the difficulty of coming up with counterarguments that have the same power. And yes, earning power has stagnated for most people since 1980. Many reasons, but I’ll blame neoliberal economics generally. Austerity, financialization, free trade, tax policy favoring capital over labor, things like that squeezing the broad-based economy and pushing money to the top of the income scale.

        There are plenty of jobs for less educated people to do. We have chosen to let those jobs pay less than a living wage. And it wasn’t “the market” that did that, it was specific identifiable people who did it for specific identifiable reasons. It was good for those people and they didn’t give a damn about anyone else.

      3. And now we have as Sec of Labor, a man who opposes worker rights, increases in hourly wages…Do you, as I, wonder if any of those hourly wage earners who bought the Trump miracle, are connecting the dots between the contradictions of his campaign rhetoric and the appointments he is making to his cabinet? Their work careers and personal history offer the antithesis of support for working people’s issues. Labor help was never going to be a Trump commitment; instead, it was simply a tool of exploitation. If it weren’t so sad, it would be a real “I told you so tool.”

    3. Excellent response, Aaron, but you forgot Trump’s appeal to bigots…..a rather large group, as it were.

      You nailed it with this statement: “It’s not about storytelling, it’s about critical thinking and education. ” That is what “should” matter, and it’s not what Trump offered. Clinton was so far down in the weeds that she couldn’t inspire even though she was so much better informed.

      Still, one can make a point (or more) and still do so with eloquence, passion, and clarity. Those people, those voices are too few in the Dem ranks. Democrats have been playing defense since Gingrich. Not since LBJ have the Dems been able to engage in a “dirty” fight – the kind Republicans love to start.
      Well, they better learn. WE better learn. WE have to stand up and speak out or are we any better than those in our party who we criticize?

      1. You nailed it Mary. The Dems lost the ability to engage in a “dirty” fight” following the reaction against Vietnam. They seemed to lose their street smarts. Bill Clinton had some but for some reason he would not use it. Obama’s step father tried to teach that to him, but maybe Obama suppressed it so as not to appear as an angry black man.

      2. Well, it’s time to throw some punches, as the NC State Legislature is provoking us to do. If reason fails to motivate and crass political stunts fail to embarass, get mad and do something about it.

        I liken this to my parenting years. Our 3 children were good kids, but every now and then, they pushed us. We always believed in using reason as our initial approach to demonstrate why their “choice/s” were not good ones. That worked sometimes as did shame, when and as deserved. When neither of these methods worked sufficiently, we got mad. We withheld privileges. We spoke loudly or we didn’t speak to them at all. We let them know that they were not going to win with unacceptable behavior. Evidently, Republican leadership were raised in a different family concept. They were taught that you could and should bully people to get your way. If that didn’t work, you bent the rules, or you twisted the truth. That’s where we are now, folks. We have to fight back in a way that gets their attention, is effective, and gains public credence. We need respect from our opponents and playing nice has not worked.

        Fight.back. Stand up. Speak out.

    4. Aaron-

      That’s a great reply! I agree the Dems tell stories too, and we need to figure out why our stories don’t seem to resonate the way Republicans’ stories seem to.

      A few conjectures:
      1) I disagree that fear is the greatest draw of a story. Look at Hollywood: scary movies don’t gross nearly as much as action movies, superhero movies, love stories, or even comedies. People want a lot of things before they want to be scared.

      2) In the stories you point out, I’d say Dems’ stories aren’t as plausible as Republican stories. For example, yes Dems’ narrative on global warming is devastation and catastrophe. But people look around them and think “I don’t know. This winter is mighty cold. Therefore, global warming is false.” Rising sea levels are going to inundate our coasts, but I still go to the same beaches every summer and the water line hasn’t moved. On the other hand, Republicans talking about nefarious Chinese resonates because I’m already scared that they’re taking my job, 90% of the stuff I buy is already Chinese, in my mind they’re already a menacing force swallowing up my future, so it’s easy to believe that they’re also behind this global warming “hoax”.

      While stories don’t have to be true, they have to be “truthy”. They need to sound plausible, and not in the rational “Yes, the preponderance of evidence and experts tell me this is true” but in the “Yeah, my gut tells me this is probably true” sense.

      Just take one simple example: As the saying goes, “common sense” is what tells us the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. That’s supposed to be followed by a laugh about the fallacy of relying on common sense to make judgments. And yet, we live our lives as if the common sense is true. We talk about the “sunrise”, “sunset”, etc. We don’t give distances in arc (the appropriate unit for distances on a curved surface), we give them in linear feet.

      So yes, Dems tell stories. But they’re not “truthy” enough. They don’t tap into a fear / hope / hunch that people already have.

      To take another example, you mentioned Reagan’s welfare queen. I’d wager that thanks to economic and geographic stratification, most middle class white people don’t know a single poor person (also, poor people in their neighborhood hide it well; you’d be surprised how many kids in “good” schools qualify for school lunches, for example). Their only experience of a poor person is someone begging on the street when they visit a city. Similarly, they don’t have any black friends, but do have a friend who was mugged by a “thug” a few years ago. In that mindset, Reagan talking about welfare queens has a higher truthiness quotient than a liberal talking about a good, law-abiding citizen struggling with poverty.

      3) Hillary won the popular vote. That means our stories *do* resonate with a lot of people. Why wasn’t it enough? Partly because our side didn’t turn out. And that’s because most of us are comfortable. People tune into politics and vote when the stakes are high. For example, if you’re a Tutsi in Rwanda and the Hutu Presidential candidate is promising to murder all Tutsi when elected, you get out and vote (actually you do more than that; you might even grab a panga and hack a few Hutu and firebomb the polling station). Forget about elections: in the macabre calculus of political participation, civil war is the highest form of citizen involvement, and it comes when people feel threatened enough.

      But if your life is reasonably comfortable, things are going reasonably well, you have the luxury of not caring about govt. Leave well enough alone. It’s not that all Dems are sitting happy, but in this election, it’s obvious that Trump supporters were the angriest, most upset with the way things are, feeling like they’re losing ground, etc. They’re mostly right (witness the fall in life expectancies for high-school educated white men). It’s therefore not surprising that they turned out in higher numbers than Dems.

      Remember, the highest vote getter in America wasn’t Donald or Hillary, it was ‘none of the above’ by the 45% of Americans who didn’t bother to vote. They’re not engaging with *any* story. I’d say it’s far more productive to try to engage those non-voters rather than trying to first disengage Republicans from their stories and then re-engage them with ours.

      1. That’s correct, WX Wall, there are 45 million voters out there to go after. It’s like the story about the shoe company which decided to make it’s initial expansion to Africa. The first sales interviewed was shocked that he would be asked to go to Africa to sell shoes when millions of people there don’t even wear shoes! The second interviewee said: “Sign me up! There are millions of people in Africa that need shoes!”

        One minor addition to your comment about voting patterns. Dems tend to vote in presidential election cycles, but not in mid terms; whereas, Repubs vote in ALL elections – regardless of purpose and conservatives always are highly agitated – legitimately or provoked. Point is – they vote, consistently. Dems need to do a better job in GOTV.

      2. “While stories don’t have to be true, they have to be “truthy”. They need to sound plausible, and not in the rational “Yes, the preponderance of evidence and experts tell me this is true” but in the “Yeah, my gut tells me this is probably true” sense.”

        So I am gradually, though inconsistently, getting past rage and reaction and moving toward broader, more fundamental thinking, and one thing I’m realizing is that I have a natural tendency to think and sound patronizing, and so I need to stop doing that in order to find some of these solutions.

        However, confronting that is also some basic fundamentals. I expect better of people and I don’t think it’s wrong for me to do so. ‘Truthiness’ may be effective and real and speak toward the cognitive biases of human beings, but it doesn’t mean that it’s ethical or even effective long term to rely on it. Instead of adopting ‘truthiness’ to talk to people, we should be be promoting people be educated away from truthiness.

        ‘Expecting better’ of people can also have a motivating effect as long as it’s not patronizing. It will have to be my own job to figure out where that balance lies. But while I work that out and continue my explorations into political activism and advocacy (and make many mistakes along the way), two things I will not be doing is calling for Democrats to wrap reality in truthiness and embrace the GOP’s dirty tactics.

        In the long run, Democrats of conscience and the American moderates of the left and right need to continue to take the higher ground. They need to confront lies and spin with real facts and data, they need to continue operating under the assumption that good policy can be written that is good for everybody (or at least most people), they need to continue to search for real solutions to real problems, and they need to continue to contradict the impulses of undereducated desperate people to reach out to liars and conmen for answers.

      3. I’m heading somewhere with this, but let me give you the gist of it. Not everyone can comprehend empirical facts. That may sound patronizing, and on some level perhaps it is. But it’s real, and it’s important for all of us to get real.

        Again, more to come on this subject, but facts, as we define them, may be more accurate than folklore, they may represent a better model of authentic reality than folklore, but they are also elite.

        That may sound strange, but it shouldn’t. It takes training, education, and effort to comprehend and evaluate facts. Not everyone possesses the necessary tools to do this. Folklore is innate. Folklore is how we think before we ever encounter scientific reality.

        You don’t need to lie to people to persuade them. You do, however, need to understand that most of them will never comprehend empirical reality. If you want to relate to people truthfully AND be broadly persuasive, you need to invent a folklore, a narrative, complete with archetypes, that relates that empirical reality in emotionally engaging terms.

        Democrats do not so this anymore, partly because most Democrats in leadership positions are too elite to ever know they are elite. Longer story here that I will pick up later.

      4. Dumb it down. Outspin the spinners. Then what when that doesn’t work? I hope when you develop this piece you’ll also have a paragraph on “when all else fails”…..Another point, we are out of time. The Republican majority is stressing opposing forces to engage differently or effectively because the pace for change is suddenly, unavoidably now. Taking the high road works with people with a conscience which hasn’t been very effective with either low information folks or the bullies in the GOP. It doesn’t make me feel any better to know that 2.6 million more Americans supported HRC in this election when the game is scored by different rules.

        Just as a gentle reminder, we were all surprised (some shocked) at the outcome of this election. I’m all for reflection and new and better approaches, but time is short.

      5. Another point, Chris. Please define “elite”. That word is getting bandied about a lot. Let’s talk about elitism. Is it how you talk? Where you went to school? Who you associate with? How much money you have? Where you live? Who you represent?

      6. And, while we’re doing all those good things, we better be ready to get tough. Dems have been playing “nice” and fighting the GOP with facts, but it hasn’t been getting through to either the GOP or the public. Call for better messaging, a better story, or whatever, but I think it’s time for a call to action here. Use education and information whenever possible, but don’t back down when it isn’t respected – which I promise you it won’t be. Bullies roll over nice people. Well, it’s time to fight back.

  9. I think this is true, but empirically it seems to put those who respect reality at a serious competitive disadvantage.

    People ask “what’s the matter with Kansas.” One answer has been that Dems abandoned high-school educated whites to fail in the face of globalization. But there has been some pushback on that, and I think rightly so. Dem policies have been pretty sympathetic to the working-class broadly defined, even if there is a social-justice component or if they underestimated the dislocation of globalization. Absolutely Democrats see themselves as defenders of the little guy, of whatever color, and craft policies and take positions consistent with that.

    Ok, so then it’s not about policies, it’s about the attitude. The critique being that the Dems are too condescending and elitist toward working-class whites, too quick to play the racist card, etc.

    OK, maybe there is some of that. But honestly, a lot of it is also a *story* that the GOP has been telling for a long time.

    I think Chris is correct in suggesting that the GOP ascendancy has been even more about what stories the white-working-class is believing. That was essentially the takeaway from “Kansas” in 2004 also–that Dems need better stories and to proudly claim the moral high ground.

    And yet… I think Dems really struggle because, unlike the majority of GOPers these days, they have a moral and intellectual commitment to telling *true* stories. This means they might exaggerate, but they can’t lie. They admit tradeoffs. They caveat and define terms and acknowledge doubt and respect alternative views. This is much of what people hated about Clinton, and while Obama pulled these same tendencies off better stylistically, they hurt him too.

    Unfortunately since I like the truth, I’m sympathetic to the way they think. But maybe that’s what we need the Bernie crazies for: to push the left over the cliff, so they can join the right in Post-Truth nirvana…

    Maybe Trump will make the stories easier. It seems to me that the left does need a single theme they hit over and over.

    Perhaps it should be about how Trump is poster-child for a GOP made up almost exclusively of con-men. How they say they will protect your healthcare and retirement and work tirelessly to cut them to fund tax breaks for millionaires. The challenge there is that no one like to admit they have been conned…

    1. Democrats have been dismal performers at selling their values and their achievements. They have allowed the GOP to tell re-order the narrative. Organization in the “big tent” has not been stellar. That has to change if the Dems are going to be competitive. It’s not that they need better stories so much that they need to communicate their positions and accomplishments and efforts more effectively and forcefully.

      With all their shortcomings, I find the Democratic Party much more honest and decent than the Republicans. Truth and facts matter. Telling stories is not as important as telling the truth well so that people understand what you stand for. It’s hard work but necessary.

      1. That has to change, Bobo, because in being quiet, we are allowing other people to set the agenda. We should never be reticent or afraid to speak out when we feel strongly. I’ve seen honest testimony change outcomes – mostly at the local level, but that’s a good place to start. There is honesty in putting oneself out there. It requires going to meetings, stating your concern/belief/facts and standing ready to defend them. When we lose our courage, we have lost the ability to fight back. We must not, cannot allow that to happen. People have to be encouraged to speak out even if the truth is uncomfortable.

        Look at what happened with the TX special ed public school issue. Sure, it took too long to challenge, but that’s why print newspapers are still so vital in the protection of rights. Too many children and too many years have been lost but if we speak out when we know something is not right, that’s the beginning of change.

        Encourage your union representative to speak out. If she needs support, lend it with your presence. Sit in the audience, speak after her to affirm her points. We have to help one another.

    2. We’re not talking about the difference between facts and lies. We’re talking about telling stories, building a compelling narrative. Democrats have largely stopped doing this, and it’s never been clear to me why. It seems like they’ve been coasting and playing defense since late in the Clinton years. It always seems like they’re scared someone is going to find out what they really stand for.

      1. We agree on that, Chris. And I don’t understand it any more than you do. I don’t care what position one holds in life, be it a laborer or a bank president, be proud of your work and stand up for what you contribute. Then, when you see something that is wrong, stand up and speak out. If you don’t, others will fill the void and your views may be subsumed or ignored.

      2. Telling stories and building a compelling narrative is a talent most are not blessed wit. Bill Clinton is; Hillary is not.

        The Democratic primaries showcased a candidate who had that talent. He was an erstwhile Socialist who wasn’t even a member of the Democratic Party. He had grandiose ideals with very little detailed planning to back up his sweeping visions of Nirvana.

        That he made a contest out of the primaries is a testament to that story-spinning talent.

      3. they’re scared someone is going to find out what they really stand for.

        Yes. And consequently, even those of us who call ourselves democrats don’t know what they stand for either.

        I think they’ve been bullied by the Rs and they don’t get that they have.

      4. >] “We’re not talking about the difference between facts and lies. We’re talking about telling stories, building a compelling narrative. Democrats have largely stopped doing this, and it’s never been clear to me why. It seems like they’ve been coasting and playing defense since late in the Clinton years. It always seems like they’re scared someone is going to find out what they really stand for.

        Arguably, Bill Clinton has some fault in that. Having to moderate as a centrist for most of his presidency, Democrats were left having to defend a guy (and by extension his policies) they didn’t really like from Republicans that went too far in their political vendetta against him. Al Gore certainly didn’t do anything to change that and so Dems were left with the mantle of a moderate, centrist party while Republicans veered continually further to the right, ready to lash out at a moment’s notice for any hint of a liberal resurgence on the left.

        Needless to say, Democratic cowardice and, again, Bill Clinton’s stringent aversion from the label did nothing to help this. Barack Obama isn’t much better.

        Seriously, can anyone imagine ANY Democrat today talking like JFK when he said, and I quote: “If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.

        Profiles in courage, indeed, and something utterly lacking in today’s Democratic Party.

    3. >] “And yet… I think Dems really struggle because, unlike the majority of GOPers these days, they have a moral and intellectual commitment to telling *true* stories. This means they might exaggerate, but they can’t lie. They admit tradeoffs. They caveat and define terms and acknowledge doubt and respect alternative views. This is much of what people hated about Clinton, and while Obama pulled these same tendencies off better stylistically, they hurt him too.

      Whether Democrats tell true stories or not, they don’t tell better ones. Just think about it. When was the last time you were honestly eager to hear some lower-level Democrat talk? Aside from Bill Clinton and President Obama, I honestly can’t recall a single time that that was true, at least for me.

      And however much Obama was “hurt”, this was still a man who won two resounding electoral victories in ’08 and ’12. True, Democrats have been utterly decimated virtually everywhere else and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from that, but when you get down to it, in a real head-to-head, Republicans always lost against the guy.

      That’s arguably even truer for Bill Clinton. Say whatever you want about him, even if you despised what he was saying, you loved the way he said it. His was a once in a lifetime talent for political storytelling.

      We don’t see up-and-coming Democrats like that anymore. They’re always so defensive and letting Republicans take control of the narrative. Where’s our modern-era JFK? While not a masterful storyteller and certainly no match for his brother, RFK, the guy got out there and painted a strong, forward-looking vision for this country. Anyone who watched his first ’60 debate with Nixon knew what the guy stood for and where he wanted to take the country.

      When you think of the Democratic Party today, can you give an honest, simple answer as to what kind of country they want? If you can’t, or if you’re left having to defend them from Republican talking points, that’s the problem in a nutshell right there.

      1. I have no disagreement to offer to your criticism of Dems lack of rhetorical skill, but there are others who I look forward to listening to – Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama, John Lewis (now there’s a man who can tell a story!), MLK, Barbara Jordan – Interestingly, black politicians are more skilled at story telling. It is cultural and it is a necessary skill to communicate with their people. Ann Richards (Gov. TX)…Edward Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, and many, many more. The real question is: did they simply tell a good story or did/do they actually have something worthwhile to hear?

        On the right, you have Trump – who holds his audience’s attention by pulling every trick, telling every lie, repeating every rumor, bravado, etc. Who on the right can you offer that tells a good story? I think what the right does extremely well is organize. The Dems used to counter that with quality rhetoric, but I agree they aren’t as bold and passionate anymore, except for those I mentioned above.

      2. She’s an amazing speaker, no doubt, but Michelle Obama isn’t a politician and not particularly likely to run for office, so I don’t know how fair it is to include her in that list.

        That said and in all fairness, I did neglect to remember John Lewis, though his particular case raises the key point. No doubt that his voice and his actions on equality are tremendous and an asset to the Democratic Party, but what exactly is his story that he wants to tell of our country for the future? With respect to all that he represents to so many, what he does he tell of the broader Democratic narrative that wishes to reach out to all people?

        There is no broader Democratic narrative for him to tell, just effectively what Hillary Clinton did in the campaign, a series of proposals here and there meant to address such-and-such issue with no broader narrative to tie it all together.

      3. Oh, I disagree about John Lewis. His message at its core is about equality – across the board. His framework is his civil rights experience, but if ever there was a fine example of a man who continues to fight at every committee meeting for the injustices of people, it is Rep. Lewis. He has a great deal more to share and he is articulate, passionate (yea!) and informed. And, he has great follow through.

  10. EJ

    This is entirely true.

    I think there’s also an element of defiance inherent in this phenomenon: people actively enjoy inventing and believing their counter-factual Truths, because it feels like an act of rebellion against knowledgeable elites. I’ve witnessed the fierce satisfaction that people have when telling me that Pluto is not a planet, and I’ve met other academics who have heard the same sort of thing about evolution or postmodernism or electric fans. They create their own counterfactual Truth deliberately, in order to give us the metaphorical finger.

    Throughout most of human history, this has probably been a good thing. When the “elite” is a warlord telling you that the sky-god wants you to hand over your best crops and your prettiest daughter, then a streak of cussedness is what society needs. Unfortunately, when the “elite” is a doctor saying that you should immunise your children or an economist saying that protectionism is a bad thing, then that cussedness becomes a negative.

    I wonder if there’s a way around it, or if we just have to learn to live with it?

  11. I agree with this post, and despite being (I’m guessing) about a decade younger than you I vaguely recall hearing a similar barcode-related omen about the antichrist (only by the time I heard it I believe the antichrist was supposed to be Bill Gates, obviously). That narrative had legs.

    The idea of telling a better story/framing the narrative is one done rather smoothly by, believe it or not, the celebrity gossip world. The more you examine the tabloid/blog world, the more you can see the competing factions, the demographics the factions are appealing to, and the “media” outlets eager to align with the factions. It’s fascinating, really.

    What I am trying to say is that we may need some help from gossip experts on how to frame a narrative that the public (Middle-America, if you will) will accept without realizing it’s a framed narrative.

    Anne Helen Peterson of Buzzfeed wrote an article on it recently that I don’t completely agree with, but I think has some cogent observations.

    1. DS

      “I agree with this post, and despite being (I’m guessing) about a decade younger than you I vaguely recall hearing a similar barcode-related omen about the antichrist (only by the time I heard it I believe the antichrist was supposed to be Bill Gates, obviously). That narrative had legs.”

      I was never a church-goer, but I remember in middle school the rumor was that if you typed in the right stuff in the DOS prompt, you’d bring up a vision of hell with the names of the damned inscribed on the walls or somesuch…

    1. I look at it another way Bobo.

      There is always truth as long as we specify plainly and accurately the question. Provided the answer is presented in probabilities and percentages with outliers and exceptions noted. The truth sometimes must be presented with graphs and charts, along with supporting data.

      Then the competing version only has to say, this story is true. This side fits your faith based view of life.

    2. “There is no truth. There is only what we agree upon today.”

      Hmm, if one takes Ladd’s post literally, then facts can be truth but truth may not always be facts. (A simple analogy is this: all spaghetti is pasta, but not all pasta is spaghetti!) It’s not so much what is agreed upon as what one chooses to believe. When there is common agreement within a group as to truth, facts may become secondary. We see this again and again in the religious right, nationalists, bigots, climate deniers, hard right conservative beliefs, etc. Many believe Barach Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii even with the produced long form birth certificate, they “believe it could have been faked”. When facts routinely become secondary to beliefs (a term I prefer instead of the word truth…which for me has a higher meaning, grounded in fact whenever possible), there is simply no way to reach these people. Those who live by their own beliefs/truths in lieu of using a factual approach to decision making are more vulnerable to hyperbole and manipulation their “beliefs”are emotion-based.

      In this hyper-partisan environment, fact and truth have become irreconcilable, and that may be the greatest loss of all.

    3. We don’t look for truth in things that we can’t change.

      Sometimes the sky is light, sometimes it is dark. That can’t be changed. We don’t argue about it.

      We do, however, argue about daylight savings time because we can change that.

      I’m all for fact-based information. Data, I love data. But story is powerful. Can you make that data tell a story? I hope so. So far, the Dems have not. But they should.

      Can you position your story along side someone’s immutable truth and show how they may weave together? Not contrast, not win. Just show possible relationships. The 45th president may have done that. I hope he did that unconsciously. Not that it matters. He has advisors who get it.

  12. This is Off Topic but:

    I was just listening to the Diane Rheam show on NPR! It was about the Russian hacking. Turns out the FBI told the DNC in Spetember, 2015 they were being hacked. Obama knew also.

    And what did they all do, you ask? Nothing! Obama was concerned if they did something, the Russians would be upset! Not cooperate in negotiations concerning Syria! ( And how is that turning out? )
    And the Democrats are just incompetent! My word, not any on the panel discussing this.

    This entire enterprise by the Russians was to discredit Clinton to get republican elected!

    If you can listen to the discussion on the NPR web site, I suggest you do! But you will get just as pissed off as i am!

    1. DS

      To be fair, this CNN report suggests that by the time the administration came around to the position that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage Clinton, there were concerns about lending credence to Trump’s ‘rigged election’ claims:


      Response to state sponsored cyber-attacks is hard; no one really has a solid framework for how to do it without encouraging real world responses. I don’t necessarily blame the Obama Administration for their caution. That they were considering how airing the evidence on Russian hacking might interact with Trump’s election rigging claims is both astute and troubling. I think it illustrates just how dangerous his campaign was, and how much damage has been done to our institutions.

      As far as the DNC is concerned, cyber-security is easy; convincing everyone to do the things that need to be done to promote it is hard. Individual users rarely take their role in it seriously, even in the sorts of organizations for which it is paramount. It does not shock me that the DNC would have difficulty mounting an effective response to hacking. Everyone just rolls their eyes at new security measures, and then finds ways to circumvent them to make their lives easier.

    2. Yes, that has been reported, but what you are forgetting is that it was also reported that the Russians hacked into the RNC, yet they released none of the information they gained access to from the Republican email records.

      Hacking in and of itself is a danger, but more dangerous was the fact that Russia deliberately chose to use the data from the dNC hack to impact public opinion in an effort to influence our election.

      That is a major difference.

  13. This is something that is quite difficult to overcome, but not impossible. I suppose an analogy is say, the battle faced by citizens groups to environmental and political abuses. Putting together a workable strategy involves a lot of thinking, self education, time, organisation, hard work spent getting a thorough understanding of new realities and playing the long game. Much like ordinary people falling back on folklore and fake news, it’s much easier to blame the Man, the System, the NWO and lizard people then it is to put in the effort needed to achieve permanent change. A bit of point, but I suppose I’m trying to say that humans tend to cling to what gives them comfort

      1. “People respond politically to the stories that carry the most meaning for them.”

        That doesn’t make it right, Chris. The Swift Boat story and the story that Obama wasn’t born in the US, and that HR Clinton was evil…those in marketing clearly understand that if something is repeated often enough, it becomes belief….As an advanced civilization then, are we to become a nation whose politics is driven by who tells the best stories, with no regard for factual basis?

        That may be what happened in this election but I hope this isn’t how America will define its vision.

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