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Political Storytelling and the State of the Union

An examination of the role and limits of storytelling in American political life

With the government shutdown at an end, at least for the next few weeks, President Trump and Speaker Pelosi quickly agreed to hold the State of the Union on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

Of course, some commentators have openly wondered how much the address still matters, especially in an age of constantly shifting news coverage and strained public attention.

Indeed, at first blush, it might be tempting to agree with Chief Justice John Roberts, who once dismissed the event as a “political pep rally” (although he still regularly attends). But the speech is a major media event (the most watched speech of the year), and historically it has been the occasion for the President to signal his upcoming policy agenda — before the exaggerated applause (and exaggerated scowls) of the assembled members of the U.S. Congress.

And perhaps most importantly, the State of the Union address is a prompt for the President to become the nation’s most prominent storyteller — both in sharing tales of individuals (an important tradition since the 1980s) but also in making the case about who we are as a people and where we are going.

In this way, the State of the Union reinforces our long history of political storytelling — stretching from the Declaration’s narrative of a free people fighting for “their future security” against a “long train of abuses” to President Trump’s own promise to “Make America Great Again.”

What explains the relentless tug of storytelling as a way to package political information and agendas? In our recent book, we examine the connection between great political questions (how do we balance individualism and community? What makes a human life worth living?) and great short stories, like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.

We identify four reasons why stories dominate the American political arena and why tales of both triumph and loss are certain to appear in the 2019 State of the Union — whenever it occurs.

Stories Help Our Lazy Brains

The neuroscientist Gregory Berns has said that the human brain is a “lazy piece of meat.” We look for shortcuts to help our sluggish minds sift through an often overwhelming world. In politics, for example, we use cognitive cues (sometimes called “heuristics”) like party labels, physical appearance, and a politician’s confusion about how grocery stores work to make judgments about whether we want them to represent us.

A political story is also a shortcut. Told well, it provides a sufficiently comfortable and familiar framework punctuated with a memorable, evocative, and novel way of looking at the world. This marriage of content and form reassures listeners while helping them focus on and retain specific information.

President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address singled out “Mother Hale of Harlem” who “cares for infants born of mothers who are heroin addicts.” Reagan invited the audience “to go to her house some night, and maybe you’ll see her silhouette against the window as she walks the floor talking softly, soothing a child in her arms.”

With his sketch of “Mother Hale,” President Reagan primed the public to consider both the scourge of drug abuse and the work of volunteers (rather than government) to solve a public health problem. His story reinforced his policy agenda and provided a memorable real-life character to support his initiatives.

Stories Use Emotions

Closely related, stories — whether spun in the course of political speeches or fiction — let authors express elements of our humanity (passion, sensualism, anger) that might be otherwise elusive or even forbidden.

After all, since the nation’s founding, we’ve had a conflicted understanding of the role of emotion in public life. Alexander Hamilton famously insisted that our republic was focused on “establishing good government from reflection and choice” rather than accident and force. At the same time, he conceded that irrationality and passion were “sown in the nature of man.”

Short political narratives help our leaders overcome the tension between reason and passion by gesturing to sentiment without explicitly admitting that the basis for decision-making may be emotion. In a January 2016 speech on gun control delivered from the White House, a visibly emotional President Obama referenced “love” and “loved ones” eight separate times, culminating with his account of a “beloved” high school sophomore, Zaevion Dobson, who gave his life to save three classmates during the 2015 Fulton High School shooting in Knoxville, TN.

And in his first inaugural address, President Trump sketched a picture of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” as the backdrop for his pledge to support the “dreams” and “courage” and “love” of the American people.

The poet William Wordsworth argued that creative writers have an exceptional ability to “feel without immediate external excitement.” They can uniquely imagine and describe the sweep of emotions without personally experiencing joy and tragedy. But for Wordsworth, expressing these sentiments was a way for poets to connect with the rest of humanity which shares these same “general passions and thoughts and feelings.”

In the same way, telling stories can help Presidents become emoters-in-chief, setting the tone for public sentiment and political discourse, and highlighting their personal empathy.

Stories Help Leaders Connect with a Distrustful Public

These elements of storytelling help our leaders with another challenge: overcoming widespread political distrust. As communications scholar Roderick Hart points out, the size and diversity of our society, the mystery of our complex political system, the “distance between leaders and followers,” and the division between rich and poor produces distrust in every era. But over the past half century, our belief in leaders and government has dramatically cratered. As the Pew Research Center documents, in the 1960s, three out of four U.S. citizens trusted government to do what’s “right” most of the time. Today that figure is at 18%.

For today’s politicians who need to increase their connection with skeptical constituents, turning to brief stories can help overcome this trust gap by humanizing and grounding the leader as well as her policy proposals. As President Reagan’s reference to Mother Hale suggests, presidents over the past few decades have regularly used the State of the Union to share tales of specific citizens who embody some virtue or accomplishment that casts reflected glory or at least legitimacy on the chief executive.

In his 2007 State of the Union, for example, President George W. Bush spoke of Tommy Rieman “a teenager pumping gas in Independence, Kentucky” who enlisted in the U.S. Army after 9/11. During combat operations in Iraq, Sergeant Rieman “used his body as a shield to protect his gunner,” a demonstration of “courage and compassion” that earned him the Silver Star military decoration and the “respect and gratitude of our entire country.”

With this anecdote, the President simultaneously showcased his own compassion and unique power to speak for the nation as a whole. He also invited his audience of millions to join the story in their own way: either by sharing the President’s grief or by identifying with Rieman’s civic virtue.

Stories as Moral Leadership

Finally, storytelling can help presidents with perhaps their most treacherous but important job: serving as moral leaders. Going back to Ancient Greece, politicians have been concerned with the character of the people and teaching citizens how to behave to ensure the success of the state and society. In the words of presidential adviser David Gergen, our chief executives continue this tradition today, and must set an example and encourage the people “to remember their highest values.”

But given our deep distrust of politicians, and doubts about their ethical stature, this is a tall order in twenty-first century America.

Sharing stories takes some of the edge off this challenge by showing rather than telling us what to believe, giving different audiences freedom to interpret the tales for themselves. As presidential scholar Erwin Hargrove explained, the “statesmen does not invoke moral absolutes to cowed or deferential citizens,” but instead must carefully “evoke those values and beliefs that citizens implicitly hold.”

Put differently, political stories help teach morality because they are indirect and open. The tale of Sergeant Rieman’s heroism can be interpreted by countless listeners as an example of patriotism or valor in combat or selflessness. Each citizen interprets the story in a way that is meaningful for him or her, thereby becoming an active participant in the tale, and an accomplice in the President’s agenda.

The Limits of Narrative

Despite the enduring reach and power of political storytelling, our current political climate sets the limits of this strategy.

In last year’s State of the Union, for example, the President talked about the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, the “legend from Louisiana,” who was attacked at a charity baseball game in 2017. The president invoked “that terrible shooting” and the national sympathy it sparked, as a sign of our ability “to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”

While President Trump’s explicit purpose was to unify, polling conducted after the speech indicated that one of the few ideas people shared was a belief that the country is “mainly” or “totally” divided.

Like fiction, political speeches, and the stories within them, are carefully crafted. They are designed to calm or agitate, unite or divide. The right anecdote can move the nation to tears or laughter, and inspire us to action. In these stories, we can see ourselves, our political hopes, and our expectations for the future.

But because these stories mirror who we are, they rarely change us. They cannot cool the fires of partisanship or calm a roiling nation.

Erin A. Dolgoy is an assistant professor of political science at Rhodes College. Kimberly Hurd Hale is an assistant professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University. Bruce Peabody is a professor of government and law at Fairleigh Dickinson University. They are the authors and editors of Short Stories and Political Philosophy (Lexington Books, 2019).

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Erin A. Dolgoy

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