Tell me a story, Bernie: Sanders in Sioux City


In my years of science communication, sometimes contentious, there was one thing everyone agreed on: tell a story. Data dumps don’t work. Use a narrative hook, get the audience engaged, lead them through the whys and hows and leave them with some resolution, a conclusion, and maybe something to leave them asking for more. Every successful communicator knows this through and through.

(You can also go too far this way, though: many TED talks are terrible because they’re all narrative fluff and not enough plausible, substantive content.)

So. Yesterday my wife and I drive off to Sioux City, Iowa to a Bernie Sanders rally. We got in with a crowd of enthusiastic supporters, we got good seats up front, we got handed our Bernie signs. We listened to the band, we listened to the warm-up speakers (they were all fine), and then the main act, Bernie Sanders, appeared to wild applause.

He was good. I agreed with his position on every danged thing. But…

There was no story here. None at all. We got shotgunned with blipverts. It was a positive, receptive crowd, so it worked: chains of short soundbites evoked lots of applause, and it was clear that this was a well-honed stump speech that said all the right things to Bernie supporters.

“Medicare for all!” <cheers> “Support LGBTQ rights!” <cheers> “…Women’s right to choose!” <cheers> “Civil rights!” <cheers> You get the idea. Good stuff, I’m tempted to cheer and wave my sign, too, but I’m also feeling some dismay. Where’s the hook? Where’s the story? Where’s the focus? What’s the point? If I go home after this and meet some Biden supporter, how do I explain why Medicare for all matters, what’s the case for it as good policy, how do I justify it over some alternative? What are the alternatives? What are their weaknesses?

Worse, what if I’m arguing with a Warren supporter? How do I differentiate the two? He did make the case that a lot of the radical ideas he brought up decades ago, and a few years ago in the last presidential election, are now mostly mainstream in the Democratic field (with exceptions, obviously). What might make the difference is if Sanders had an emotional case that engaged his listeners with an intellectual punch that followed through. That rally was for people who already supported him, which was fine and valuable and part of the campaign, but where’s the part that reaches out and compels non-Bernie backers to pay attention? That’s needed to grow his support.

You might wonder what it will take to rally the Trumpkins to his cause. Nothing. Screw ’em. They’re a lost cause. There were two people who had the gall to show up in Trump hats, and they were politely escorted out, which is an appropriate response, I think. They were only going to disrupt the event and we might as well recognize that they’re unreachable, and talking to racists isn’t a viable strategy.

But talking to moderate conservatives or conservative Democrats is still on the table, as well as drawing together progressives. Bernie has to work on the persuasion game a bit more. And that means introducing a question or problem, building some empathy for people suffering under the current state of affairs, offering a solution, making a case for how it will work, giving us a compelling explanation that we can take home and share with friends and family.

Soundbites are fine, and needed to hammer blurbs home to a dumbass media. But they need to be imbedded in a constructive framework.

He needs to give us a story.

They all do.

Comments

  1. hoku says

    I think the main differentiating factor between Sanders and Warren is foreign policy at this point. And it’s really close. I prefer Bernie because he’s been on the right side of almost every issue for a very long time, while Warren is a more recent convert.

    That said, I think those two are far and away the best options. What’s going to be most important about the next administration is their appointees, and I trust those two to pick the best people. Everyone else I have serious issues with, and don’t think they’d really buck the trend of Goldman Sachs style appointees.

    At this point, I think I’m probably voting Bernie. But in reality, I’ll probably support whichever of those two is doing better by the time my state gets to vote.

  2. petesh says

    Well put, PZ. The “story” concept is not frivolous at all, it’s part of the need to set a mostly-shared national agenda, a way to see the country moving forward. The fascists try to bludgeon their opposition and scare them into silence, meanwhile rallying supporters against some, usually foreign, enemy. That really won’t work for us, but nor do campfire singalongs. Warren is certainly trying to paint a picture of radically reformed government for the benefit of the vast majority of us; but maybe she doesn’t have the charisma to pull it off, and if that’s down to misogyny (and it probably is), maybe we — collectively — just don’t deserve her. Yeah, we live in “interesting” times, as the old curse goes.

  3. consciousness razor says

    If I go home after this and meet some Biden supporter, how do I explain why Medicare for all matters, what’s the case for it as good policy, how do I justify it over some alternative?

    The reason why we should support many progressive proposals generally boils down to something as simple as supporting human rights. Not “rights” for some restricted group, not benefits for those who are rich, white, male, straight, Christian, etc. — not even those granted only to citizens. They’re simply rights that a country should support for any human being. That is what it means for something to be a human right, and opposition to it should be thought of and spoken of plainly and in those terms.
    I think that is more persuasive than statistics, anecdotes, etc. And that constitutes a genuine and comprehensible moral justification. I look at the outline from his Issues page, and it’s hard to find a single one of those broad categories that isn’t predicated on it in one way or another. This isn’t to say that’s how these topics are usually discussed (by Sanders or others). In debates and speeches, they do often go into great detail and discuss the specific problems of certain policies and institutions that we currently have.
    Anyway, it’s not clear how it would be productive to put these things into the form of a “story.” Something like that isn’t a moral justification. You want an easily-digestible, unifying framework, not a bunch of disparate factoids, which does the sort of thing you wanted it to do? You got it. It’s not a narrative framework like Star Wars (or as SW attempts to be), but it really ties the room together, like the Dude’s rug before that guy pissed all over it.

  4. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I was watching one of the commentary shows on MSNBC last week, and the commentator pointed out that Warren has been rising in the polls, and that she seemed to be doing so by being able to relate policy issues to real life. Like her mother, who had never worked before, needing to find a job to support the family after her father had a heart attack, which lead to medical bills, loss of his income, and the family car was repossessed. The minimum wage job her mother obtained was enough to keep the roof over their heads and food on the table. Not the case nowadays. That’s how to get people emotionally involved in the need for a minimum wage that is actually a living wage.

  5. says

    I think part of the point of a rally like that is to amp people up to volunteer for the campaign, and the clearer policy stuff comes through other kinds of events, interviews, and so on.

  6. davidnangle says

    consciousness razor, I think I’ve boiled down the central difference between Left and Right, and you think the same way. The Left wants rights. The Right won’t stop talking about rights, but what they really mean is privileges. Rights are for everyone, and that’s why the Right hates rights. It always has to be something to hoard for themselves and deny others.

    I hope I’m describing Republicans and the 1% here, but I may be describing all conservatives.

  7. dianne says

    I’m still disappointed in Bernie because the speech I saw him give started with a promise to data dump and then he failed to data dump. Just went in for a couple of sound bites with misleading numbers and some broad, unfulfillable promises. Dude can’t autism.

  8. snuffcurry says

    He did make the case that a lot of the radical ideas he brought up decades ago, and a few years ago in the last presidential election, are now mostly mainstream in the Democratic field (with exceptions, obviously)

    Agree to disagree whether he owns, much less introduced, any of these large, amorphous slogans, but he certainly never put forward workable nor successful legislation in support of them*. He didn’t in 2016. His policy proposals were soft, thin, and unsound. Same again this election cycle, so far. He strikes me as one brand of ideal VP material: shallow and a bit lazy when it comes to realizing policy, but good at selling some of it. He could help Warren or Harris get to the finish line, maybe. But VPs can act like whips, too, and while we’ll need plenty of that if the Senate’s composition remains the same, he has no background in cooperation and collaboration of that sort, although his bond fides might prove useful to / for our more progressive legislators, so long as he yields to or cultivates their ambitions rather than thwarts them because they’re too much invested in “identity.” In any case, our future safety lies with them.

    *cf, say, HRC pondering and trying to work up some numbers for a nation-wide universal basic income scheme along the lines of the Alaska model, but feared introducing the idea without being able to substantiate the road to get there

  9. mrquotidian says

    Didn’t see this speech so can’t say for sure what PZ experienced, but I thought Bernie’s Fox town hall closing statement was pretty damn good. I would bet that he even had an impact on a number of Fox viewers.

    I won’t write off all Trump supporters, just how I wont write off all xians. Yes, the majority of Trump voters are indeed “deplorables,” but some are just confused, naive, and angry at the status quo. There is always the possibility for conversion when someone speaks to them (and doesn’t just write them off).

    I get that having a story is good from a tactical perspective (hell, I work in marketing… and I do mean “hell”), but for so long in American national politics, we’ve only had a story. Remember “Hope”? Anyone? What was Hillary’s story? “Now it’s her turn?”

    I don’t mean to paint a false dichotomy because obviously if Bernie is lacking a story, having one would be a plus. He could have both good positions, and a great narrative. But in some ways, he is the story. His narrative is his explosion into the the national consciousness. It’s having gone from being a small town mayor with a cable access tv show, to being a US Senator, all while being a vocal socialist. He will gladly talk to anyone with unprepared remarks and is consistent in his beliefs. That’s amazing! And if you want the tin-foil hat story, you can talk about the Dem’s suppression of his candidacy in 2016 and the the lack MSM’s meaningful coverage or attempts to claim he’s a Russian agent. There are stories galore!

  10. snuffcurry says

    My other fear of a Sanders administration is that in his attempt to fill his appointments with non-party operatives, partly for the sake of appearance, he’ll include some real saboteurs or well-meaning but utterly unsuitable administrators. I don’t want a pro-charter Devos-equivalent in Education, for example. No deregulation or privatization warriors. Ideally, our candidate will demonstrate the paucity of good faith on the part of people who claim a Democrat’s never had a good idea in their life (conveniently ignoring our last Dem POTUS + Reid and Pelosi), and in addition to their own legacy plan will incorporate / consult Booker on legal and prison reform, Gillibrand on early education and childcare, and a shitload of everybody else on the enormous task of overhauling and enforcing environmental regulation and reforming management / maintenance of natural resources (perhaps by geographically decentralizing their administration?). If McConnell is to be believed and trusted, we’ll require somebody who can make broad executive policy stick. That will require sticklers and wonks by their side. And somebody who can appoint keen judges by the bucketload. That will require sullying their hands by, gulp, associating with Democrats. Hope our POTUS is also willing to staunch their purity-spoiling nausea at the prospect of such tasks for the greater good, the lesser evil, if you will.

  11. dianne says

    Yes, the majority of Trump voters are indeed “deplorables,” but some are just confused, naive, and angry at the status quo. There is always the possibility for conversion when someone speaks to them (and doesn’t just write them off).

    And how does Bernie speak to them? By being white, male, and only “radical” in ways that help white men.

  12. mrquotidian says

    #13 snuffcurry

    I don’t want a pro-charter Devos-equivalent in Education, for example.

    I have concerns about the practical viability of a Sanders presidency (in some ways I fear it would set the progressive cause back), but worrying about a pro-charter school Education secretary is…. not a legitimate concern. Bernie is staunchly pro-union and in no way a deregulator or privatizer like the majority of the other mainstream Dem candidates… Not sure why you would expect that from a Sanders administration.. Remember he’s the one who wants to nationalize healthcare and get rid of most private health insurance companies!

  13. unclefrogy says

    mnuchin is a suck-ass like all the remaining admin people.
    uncle frogy

  14. dianne says

    Remember, we are electing a president, not a monarch. He or she will have to be able to get Congress to agree to whatever plan s/he puts forward. Honestly, much as I would like to see it happen, I think the chances of getting a single payor system through in the next decade is very close to nil. Love to be wrong, but not expecting to be.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    The next USA election is in about 18 months, right?
    I’m not convinced the USA will survive until then.

  16. dianne says

    Chigau @18: The US may not survive as an even semi-democratic regime that long, at the very least. Its rating as a democracy has been sinking in the Economist’s estimate (hardly a raving left wing source) for the last few years and its ranking in press freedom has gone down as well. It’s clearly on course to be a dictatorship in the next decade or two. I’d like to blame Trump, but frankly he’s probably more the effect than the cause.

  17. rpjohnston says

    Warren supporter here, for what it’s worth.

    I’m nodding along for almost all of this, but cautious on the last part. The thing is, you start talking “moderate conservatives” or “conservative Democrats”, and the people who are inclined to bring that up, are the people cautioning against going “too far to the left” and failing to get the “Obama voters who voted for Trump and are currently planning on voting for him again”. (That’s nearly word for word a quote from my dad, a Biden supporter).

  18. ck, the Irate Lump says

    When it comes to “moderate conservatives” or “moderate Republicans”, I get the feeling that most aren’t all that political and would probably be better described as cultural conservatives or cultural Republicans. They vote Republican because they’ve always voted Republican, and are therefore not a group you can actually appeal to.

  19. kome says

    I’m not sure there are enough “moderate conservatives” left in the US. But other than that, yea, I agree with your general points.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’m a Gabbard supporter for as long as she’s in the primary, but Sanders and Warren are so close that I’d be happy beyond words with any combination of the three on the general election ballot for Pres/VP. I think it’s time that the US has someone on the ballot who has made ending our state of perpetual warfare a central campaign issue, plus Gabbard has – in my opinion – the more fleshed out plan of action for addressing climate change.

  20. doubtthat says

    But talking to moderate conservatives or conservative Democrats is still on the table, as well as drawing together progressives. Bernie has to work on the persuasion game a bit more.

    It’s interesting that this is how he appeared in the speech. The single thing he’s done recently to sway me to his side (still more in favor of Warren), was his appearance on Fox where I think he did a tremendous job of explaining the value of progressive policy ideas to a conservative audience. Not having seen a campaign speech of his, I would have said his ability to advocate for his positions without conceding to right wing framing was a strength.
    Warren is also very good at this.

Leave a Reply