Election 2012 and the clash of narratives
By Robert Bidinotto
web posted October 8, 2012
"Why Let the Rich Hoard All the Toys?"
So asks New York Times's columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an op-ed that constitutes a perfect, and revealing, distillation of the progressive Narrative—the Narrative that has become the central, if unacknowledged, issue of the 2012 presidential election.
Imagine a kindergarten with 100 students, lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys.
Yet you gasp: one avaricious little boy is jealously guarding a mountain of toys for himself. A handful of other children are quietly playing with a few toys each, while 90 of the children are looking on forlornly—empty-handed.
The one greedy boy has hoarded more toys than all those 90 children put together!
“What’s going on?” you ask. “Let’s learn to share! One child shouldn’t hog everything for himself!”
The greedy little boy looks at you, indignant. “Do you believe in redistribution?” he asks suspiciously, his lips curling in contempt. “I don’t want to share. This is America!”
And then he summons his private security firm and has you dragged off the premises. Well, maybe not, but you get the point.
That kindergarten distribution is precisely what America looks like. Our wealth has become so skewed that the top 1 percent possesses a greater collective worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
This is America—according to the Narrative accepted and advanced by progressives like Kristof. It is the Narrative that has guided Barack Obama throughout his entire career.
And it is the reigning social Narrative that should be challenged during the waning days of this election campaign.
The progressive's Narrative is erected on a zero-sum, tribal socio-economic model. In this model, the tribe's wealth ("national income," "Gross National Product," etc.) is collectively owned, and exists in a limited quantity. Those premises are illustrated in standard economics texts by means of "pie charts" indicating various "shares" and "distributions" of "national" wealth.
Given these premises, it follows that any one tribal member's "excessive" accumulation of personal riches could not have been individually produced ("You didn't build that!"), but was instead swiped from the tribal pot of wealth, and thus acquired at the expense of everyone else. It further follows that the moral task of the tribal leaders (the President, Congress, regulators, etc.) must be to tax away that "excess" (stolen) wealth and pour it back into the collective pot, so that everyone in the tribe will have access to his equal "fair share."
It is appropriate that Kristof chose a parable of children in a kindergarten to illustrate the progressive worldview. For progressivism is not a mature, adult philosophy, but a juvenile story—an immature, childish Narrative about how the market economy supposedly works. More specifically, it is a primitive Narrative, one rooted far back in mankind's distant tribal past. This timeless Narrative has been resurrected and propagated endlessly in classic myths, allegories, and parables, such as Robin Hood, the Sermon on the Mount, Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," and Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." It remains the central plotline of endless novels and films in which rapacious (more recently, carcinogenic) corporate tycoons crush the souls, jobs, and lives of hapless, hard-working "little people." Arguably, it goes back to the Prometheus myth in ancient Greece: After all, Prometheus didn't create fire as his gift to man, but stole it from the gods (Zeus: "Prometheus, about that fire—you didn't build that!")
Here, we see this same primitive, childish mythology put forth on the op-ed page of the New York Times, by an educated, pampered, and (hypocritically) wealthy member of the elite progressive media. In his parable of a schoolboy "hoarding" all "the" toys, the unstated premises are: All the toys are collectively owned by the kindergarten; they exist to be shared equally and in common; and this one greedy kid's "hoarding" of contents taken from the collective toy box imposes losses on all the other kids.
Kristof's juvenile myth reveals, by implication, another tacit premise of the "progressive" Narrative. Observe that in this zero-sum social world, the kid hoarding the "toys" had nothing to do with the toys' production, or with their presence in the kindergarten. ("Kid—you didn't build them!") Yet, somehow, the "toys" are just there. The kindergarten has been magically, mysteriously, but "lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys."
Supplied...how? and by whom?
From before the days of Marx, the left's zero-sum Narrative evades those questions and their answers. It evades the issue of production and those who make it possible: individual producers. In the progressive Narrative, they simply do not exist. Goods and services are simply here, like the fruit that appears each year on apple trees. As liberal pseudo-economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote decades ago in The Affluent Society, "the problem of production has been solved"; the real problem now, he said, was "fair" distribution of what was produced. Likewise, to Barack Obama, since business people "didn't create that" wealth, the goal now is to "spread the wealth around." (Note: "the" wealth, not somebody's wealth.)
So what, exactly, is "the problem of production"? What was the "solution"? Who solved it? Don't they deserve to be compensated handsomely for solving it? And by what moral right does the tribe—which did not solve the problem of production—come in and seize the fruits of those who did?
None of these questions are raised or answered by progressives. Liberalism, socialism, "progressivism," Marxism, fascism—i.e., collectivism of any variant—all begin with the unexplained presence of wealth in the world; those who actually created it are causally irrelevant. After all, if "the" wealth is here causelessly, then those who have acquired a lot of it must be takers, not makers.
Morally, so-called "social justice" represents a negation of justice plain and simple. More fundamentally, it constitutes a war on causality. It is an effort to seize effects (goods and wealth) while denying their cause (individual producers). Of course, it never occurs to "redistributors" that when you do that, you remove all incentive for those unacknowledged producers to continue producing—and that you will create a society with an overall shrinking "pie" of wealth. In short: a society such as the one we are experiencing today.
But to those mired in this Narrative, facts do not matter. Real-world consequences to real people do not matter. The only thing that matters is affirming, advancing, and protecting the Narrative.
Now, it was understandable that our primitive ancestors would accept a zero-sum, tribal Narrative about wealth. In their hunter-gatherer world, basic needs were filled mainly by scavenging from nature, not by producing goods. Facing myriad threats, vulnerable individuals grouped together in tribes as a matter of survival. Threats also came from other tribes, which were competing for access to the same natural resources. It was a brutal, zero-sum world of privation, of a limited "pie" of wealth—fostering an ethos of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.
It was not until the Agricultural Revolution that men began to break free of the zero-sum existence of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. For the first time, production allowed men to increase the food supply—to expand the size of the "pie." No longer did one person's gain entail another person's deprivation. With the gradual increase of production under a division of labor, and with free trade among those producing specialized goods, the "pie" of wealth began to grow rapidly. With the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, living standards, which had remained at subsistence levels since the dawn of man's presence on Earth, suddenly began to soar, and so did life expectancy.
But while the zero-sum social world was disappearing, the zero-sum Narrative did not vanish from the minds of men. People still tried to fit the events and changes around them into a familiar explanatory matrix, and to populate the morality play in their heads with new casts of heroes and villains. As centuries passed, tribalism morphed into feudalism, then nationalism, then various forms of ideological collectivism: socialism, communism, fascism, racism, Nazism, not to mention collectivism's religious-based variants. Whatever their differences, all still clung to the basic plot of the story: of a brute conflict among individuals and classes for limited wealth in a zero-sum world, and of the need for the tribe to suppress individual greed, for the common good.
Capitalism—which rests on individual productivity and voluntary, "win-win" trading—clashed with the zero-sum, "win-lose" Narrative in every key respect. Capitalism also represented a dire threat to those whose values, thinking, institutions, and lifestyles remained mired in the zero-sum morality tale. So, they tried to interpret capitalism and capitalists within the framework of that Narrative. Not grasping that wealth made by production and trade did not come at someone else's expense, they bitterly clung to the notion that wealthy entrepreneurs must be like the ruthless "robber barons" of the feudal period, and that having wealth was in itself proof of grand-scale theft from the tribe—a worldview summarized by 19th Century muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd in the title of his book Wealth Against Commonwealth. ***
And so it remains, even now. Despite the fact that the capitalist system of individual freedom, private property, and free trade has led to the greatest explosion and broadest distribution of wealth in history, it clashes with the interpretive story that gives many people a profound sense of meaning and worth, and with the multitude of social institutions in which that worldview is deeply embedded.
In this, the Twenty-First Century, it is ironic that a Narrative drawn from mankind's primitive, brutal, tribal past is labeled "progressive."
And it is a sad commentary on the current state of philosophy and politics that individuals who bitterly cling to this childish, atavistic Narrative occupy editorial offices of our major newspapers, positions of leadership in our cultural institutions, and, of all places, the Oval Office of the White House.
Which brings us now to the presidential election of 2012.
That this election race is even close is appalling. An abundance of dismal facts and ominous economic statistics ought to weigh decisively in voters’ minds against rehiring Barack Obama. But the Romney campaign, for the most part, simply recites and repeatsthose facts and statistics as if they “speak for themselves.”
However, facts never speak for themselves. Facts always must be put into some context—some interpretive framework.
Team Romney has amassed—and in my opinion, has been squandering—millions of advertising dollars hammering away at the terrible economic statistics…statistics that every voter already knows. Meanwhile, Team Obama has been spending its money telling a story about those statistics, providing voters a matrixfor interpreting them. In this competition, the supposed Romney cash advantage over Obama is irrelevant. As pollsters Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen warned Team Romney a few weeks ago, “Message beats money every time.”
And in a war of messaging, a story beats statistics every time.
This election is all about Narrative. By "Narrative," I mean more than a campaign theme, or even a guiding abstract philosophy. I mean a story that concretizes and communicates that theme or philosophy in a compelling, personal way. To reach the minds and touch the souls of those who do not think in terms of statistical and ideological abstractions—and even to motivate those who do—campaign messages must be personalized and dramatized.
A campaign Narrativepersonalizes and dramatizes facts, statistics, events—and philosophic principles. A good Narrative also helps a candidate seem credible and relatable; hence, it makes his message and policy prescriptions more believable. (Think of Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator,” and his stories.) This is especially true if the personal history and character of a candidate are tied to the overarching Narrative: if he becomes an exemplar and hero of the story.
The 2012 election ought to offer a clear choice between two campaign Narratives. But for too long, Team Romney has abdicated on the responsibility of presenting its own Narrative, and passively let itself play the villain role in Team Obama's Narrative.
As soon as it became obvious that Romney would be the Republican standard-bearer, the Democrats launched an incessant campaign to “position” his image in the minds of voters, so as to render him unelectable. As Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote in their marketing classic, Positioning: “The easy way to get into a person’s mind [i.e., to establish an impression, or “position”] is to be first.” And: “If you didn’t get into the mind of your prospect first (personally, politically, or corporately), then you have a positioning problem.”
The Democrats were first to “position” Romney’s image with swing voters, by advancing a fabricated-but-toxic personal Narrative about the candidate—and by tying him to a broader-but-equally-toxic philosophical Narrative about the Republican Party. A Reader’s Digest–style condensation of that storyline would go something like this:
Barack Obama is not responsible for today’s horrible state of affairs. The Republicans, led by George W. Bush, created the terrible economy that's making you suffer. You are poor because the Greedy Rich, which the GOP champions, are stealing from you by not paying their "fair share" of taxes and by outsourcing your jobs to China. And Mitt Romney is the poster boy for all of this evil: He’s a cold-blooded rich guy whose Bain Capital outsourced jobs, and who thus made obscene wealth at your expense. We must repudiate Romney and his greedy Republicans, and compel the thieving rich to pay their “fair share”—by re-electing Barack Obama and endorsing his policies of “fairness.”
There is the leftist “social justice” morality play, complete with heroes and villains—a philosophical Narrative also tied to personal Narratives about Romney and Obama. Of course it is a ludicrous distortion of reality. But thanks to the default of the Republicans, it has been the only explanatory Narrative out there for voters to consider.***
Month after month, the Democrats unleashed an unending barrage of attacks on Romney’s personal character, on his days at Bain Capital, on insinuations of tax-avoidance and secret off-shore accounts. The aim was to paint a portrait of a rich swell who made money off the suffering of Little People—a callous, greedy, rapacious bastard without a hint of compassion.
The smears have largely worked, because of how deeply ingrained the zero-sum mindset has become. It provides millions with a simplistic explanation of the world. Those who hold that outlook, especially those ideologues who purvey it, cannot conceive of "win-win" economic relationships. The plot structure of their economic Narrative demands that each cast member play an assigned role either as rapacious villain or exploited victim. Independent creators? Peaceful traders? They are not part of the class-conflict morality play.
And in response to all of these smears, the Romney camp did…exactly nothing. One year ago, most Americans knew little if anything of Mitt Romney; in their minds, he was an empty suit. Yet Team Romney sat idly by as the Democrats filled that suit with the image of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Sadly, the Romney camp still has not responded aggressively to this Narrative with one of its own. The zero-sum Narrative has been allowed to dominate the national conversation, unchallenged. And in the absence of a counter-Narrative, it continues to win by default. That is because you can't beat something, even a childishly absurd "something," with nothing.
Now, ask yourself the following: Do you think the typical voter has any clue what Bain Capital is and actually does? Has Team Romney ever made an effort to explain it? Or has it tried instead to avoid—evade—any mention of Romney’s private investment company, thus lending credence to the suspicion that he has something to hide?
Yes, Team Romney has facts, events, and logic on its side. Team Obama, by contrast, has only a campaign Narrative: a scary personal Narrative that it concocted about Mitt Romney and his past, wedded to a broader philosophical Narrative that blames all our current woes on past Republican ideas and policies. And in the battle between Republican purveyors of facts, and Democrat purveyors of a Narrative, the storytellers have been winning.
What Team Romney should and must do is better articulate an optimistic, modern counter-Narrative that is rooted in our nation's unique values: the Narrative of American Individualism.
In this Narrative, prosperity comes, not as "fair shares" doled out from a zero-sum, collective tribal pot, but from individual creativity. The American individualist Narrative is one of personal productivity and free trade. It is an inspirational Narrative of private economic growth and expansion. It is an aspirational Narrative of seeking opportunity—not subsistence. It is a harmonious Narrative of peaceful, voluntary, win-win market exchanges—not of ruthless gang warfare over fixed chunks of wealth. It is an uplifting Narrative filled with the names of heroes: of Edison, Eli Whitney, James J. Hill, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Wright Brothers, and all the great inventors and achievers of today's Information Age.
Team Romney has yet to clearly articulate this vision, or to paint the alternatives in stark terms that will be clear to voters. To do that, they must challenge the basic premises that lie at the root of Team Obama's own Narrative: its primitivism, its tribalism, its zero-sum view of wealth-creation-and-distribution, and its ugly assumption of inherent, irreconcilable conflicts of interest among people fighting among themselves for subsistence shares from a limited store of wealth.
In addition, they must tie a personal Narrative about Mitt Romney to the philosophic Narrative. Ads and personal appearances should celebrate his life and his career at Bain Capital as an American success story. He must publicly, proudly declare that he has earned every penny of his wealth, through hard work and fair dealing—that Bain Capital succeeded by spreading success, not by exploiting and destroying others—and that unlike Barack Obama, all of his investments and charitable works have been done with his own money, not the taxpayers'.
This proud repudiation of guilt for his own wealth would completely deflate Team Obama's toxic personal Narrative about him. And without that Narrative—or the broader zero-sum, tribalist Narrative on which it rests—Obama would have absolutely nothing to say.
Properly articulated, the positive, upbeat Narrative of American Individualism could inspire voters to reject, decisively and perhaps permanently, the Narrative of Zero-Sum Progressivism. Consider: Voters consistently tell pollsters that they regard themselves as "conservative" over "liberal" by a two-to-one margin. Affirming the individualistic inclinations of the electorate, recent polling by Rasmussen confirms that only 31 percent of voters think the government should help troubled mortgage-holders; that only 20 percent of American adults believe it is possible for targeted government programs to help the housing market; that an overwhelming 64 percent of adult
s think there are too many Americans dependent on the government for financial aid; and that a whopping 83 percent favor a work requirement as a condition for receiving welfare aid.
Does that seem like an electorate philosophically primed or personally motivated to endorse the progressive, zero-sum Narrative and to rehire Barack Hussein Obama? Or rather, does it seem like an electorate ready for the inspirational appeal of a philosophical and personal Narrative rooted in American Individualism?
This election should not be merely a clash of politicians, but of basic cultural Narratives. For hundreds of centuries, the Zero-Sum, Tribalist Narrative gripped people in privation, conflict, and tyranny. It is the Narrative of primitivism and the past. By contrast, within the course of little more than two hundred years, the American Individualist Narrative established the greatest, freest, wealthiest nation in the history of the world. It is the Narrative of modernism and of the future.
We should, and we must, decide whether our country's future should be shaped by a Narrative appropriate to the centuries ahead, or by one from the darkest days of centuries past. That is what should be debated during the final month of the 2012 election campaign.
Now, it is up to Mitt Romney to seize this historic opportunity.
Robert Bidinotto is author of the #1 best-selling Kindle suspense thriller "HUNTER". He blogs at "The Vigilante Author". This essay is reprinted by permission.