GOP needs better storytellers
It’s no secret that the right is going through what some call a healthful debate and what others see as an identity crisis.
For some, the solution to what ails conservatism requires a sudden philosophical shift leftward to win back the last Rockefeller Republicans.
Others argue that Republicans must shake off the heresies of moderation and compromise and accept the unalloyed true faith of 100 percent conservatism.
I’ve long argued that regardless of what policies Republicans should offer or what philosophical North Star they might follow, one thing the GOP could definitely use is better politicians.
Ronald Reagan’s cult of personality remains strong and deep on the right, and I count myself a member of it. But what often gets lost in all the talk of the Gipper’s adamantine convictions and timeless principles is the simple fact that he was also a really good politician. Barry Goldwater was every bit as principled as Reagan, but Reagan was by far a better politician. That’s at least partly why Goldwater lost in a stunning landslide in 1964 and why Reagan was a two-term political juggernaut.
To listen to many conservative activists today, we need a candidate as principled as Reagan to save the country, but you rarely hear of the need for a politician as good as Reagan.
Unfortunately, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go into elections with the politicians you have, not the politicians you want. So the question isn’t how to find better leaders but how to make the leaders we have better.
One answer is really remarkably simple: Tell better stories.
In July, Rod Dreher, author of the memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” wrote a deeply insightful essay for The American Conservative on how the right has largely lost the ability to tell stories. Worse, many of the stories we continue to tell “are exhausted and have taken on the characteristics of brittle dogma.”
For roughly 99.9 percent of human history, nearly all of human wisdom was passed on in stories. We are a species that understands things — i.e. morality, politics, even religion — in terms of tales of heroism, sacrifice and adversity. Whatever the optimal policy might be, if you can’t talk to people in human terms they can relate to, you can’t sell any policy.
Consider immigration. There are reasonable arguments on every side of the issue. But what is unquestionably and lamentably disastrous for Republicans is the way they’ve allowed themselves to get on the wrong side of this story. That is a tale most Americans love, even the ones who want to slow or stop any further immigration, legal or illegal.
Go back and watch the video of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., telling his family’s story at the 2012 GOP convention. The same rank-and-file activists who oppose amnesty swelled with pride and affection at what this country means for the immigrant and what immigrants mean for the country.
Many historians will tell you that the secret of Reagan’s political success was his gift for storytelling. By all means, Republicans, be more like Reagan — but don’t tell his stories. Tell your own.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.