Politics is About Storytelling, Not Debates
Fifty years ago, Nikita Krushchev spoke before the United Nations and famously stood at the podium, taking off his shoe and beating it in rhythm with his words as he declared that communism would bury the west. Every twentieth century textbook in American high schools has that image printed in the section towards the end of the year on the Cold War. JFK is usually giving a speech on the facing page. The fact is that Krushchev probably never did it. News organizations went back and looked, and there is no archived video of it happening. The sole picture of the event certainly shows the shoe in the air, but many of the eye witnesses at the event insist that a journalist stepped on Krushchev’s shoe as the leader made his made to the podium, the shoe slipped off, and Krushchev merely picked it up and dropped it on the podium rather than trying to wedge it back on as he spoke. Others there insist that the pounding happened. And there are a dozen variations on the details in either camp. Forget historians trying to piece together what happened centuries ago. We can’t even get a straight answer about a famous event with hundreds of living eye witnesses and a photograph.
No debate can ever resolve the facts of this. Every rationalization from one witness is countered by one from another one. One witness insists that Krushchev took his shoes off under the table and only managed to get one back on before he got up to speak. Another witness insists that would be impossible because Krushchev was too fat to reach under the table, and so she handed it too him. Another claims that both shoes were on when he went up, and the journalist stepped on his foot. Another claims he took the shoe off once he got to the podium explicitly to hammer it. No debate, no presentation of facts can settle this argument despite the fact that it must have an objective and simple answer. In the end, each witness falls back on “well, I know what I saw.”
And last night, America had its first presidential debate of the season. You can tell it was about time because thanks to the Supreme Court declaring that anyone can spend any amount of money they want to on advertising, every other ad on television has been telling you that one of two people is trying to destroy the country. My mailbox is so filled with glossy mailers from various concerned groups of voters that it’s difficult to find the Netflix envelope amidst the wreckage, which is what really matters anyway.
And as the debates arrive, the media hovers like vultures on the thermals, waiting to plunge down at the first sign of a gaffe. And how I hate that stupid and shallow word. It’s like one of those retroactively hilarious swear words from sixty years ago like “golly” or “gosh” except refering to a self-damaging mistake. The word gaffe doesn’t belong in politics, it belongs in descriptions of Three Stooges routines.
There’s something to be said for gaffes as revealing some underlying truth of the candidates’ motives or thought processes that has been covered up. The irony is that the more slickly packaged and pre-produced everything becomes, the more the coverage becomes about the surface appearance, the more hungrily we pay attention for someone to trip up. It’s always a smug chorus that raises up from the other side, “Ha! Now we’re seeing who he really is.” And the defense is either to insist that it was a misstatement or to go all in and bluster that of course that’s who he really is. We root for the other guy to slip up and tell the truth. But truth in half-glimpsed nuggets isn’t any better than listening to lies.
And more to the point, if everyone has already made up their minds, if nothing can convince us millions of eye witnesses of politics to see something different than what we see, what are we watching for anyway?
I read a great speech once, it was one that a certain Law School dean gave every single year to the incoming cohort. What he said that stuck with me was that not one person in the audience should ever argue with their friends and family again if they valued happiness. Because they would win, every single time, because they were being trained to be world class arguers. And that did not mean that they were right. Being able to win arguments and debates does not make you right. It might be more civilized than declaring that the guy who hits the hardest is right, but being the guy who can argue the best isn’t really any more of a measure of who is in the right.
And that’s why the debates don’t matter. Not because they’re slick and overproduced bullshit, but because even if they weren’t, even if they were about the issues, they wouldn’t be meaningful. The presidential candidates holding an honest and spirited debate about the future of health care in the country wouldn’t sway a single damned person more than the two of them trading barbs and oneliners for the same period of time.
But the reason isn’t because people are stupid or ignore facts. It’s that the facts in these matters cannot be agreed on any more than world leaders can remember what Krushchev did with his shoe. We are arguing about how we want the world to be, and while there are elements of that which we decide with our minds, most of that is a decision that we make with our hearts. Look at the polls today. Something like 80% of people say that Romney creamed Obama. I can tell you right now that Romney wouldn’t get 80% of the votes if the election were today. There’s a disconnect between winning the debate and winning the hearts.
It’s something that the left has been ironically very bad at getting through their collective stubbornness, with the insistence that Gore and Kerry smashed Bush in their various debates and bemoaning the lack of that translating into swaying undecided voters. Debates don’t fail to sway voters because voters are stupid, but because the voters are intelligent enough to get at least on a gut level that winning a debate doesn’t mean that you were right, anymore than winning a fight does.
Do you know why the right wing has such issues with Hollywood? It’s not the moral content of entertainment, not the guns and sex and swearing so vicious it makes your ears bleed. That might be the label they affix to it, screeching accusations of moral degeneracy. But it really has nothing to do with the morals. It has to do with the power of story.
This country has the most powerful entertainment industry in the history of the world. A thousand stories a day, blazing out onto the air waves and into the miles of cable. And the vast majority of them fall on the left side of the spectrum. Voters do not change their minds because of a thirty second ad, nor because of a thirty minute speech, but stories gradually change their hearts. Will and Grace normalized gays more than any amount of rational arguments could over the decades. And a dozen other causes followed the same trajectory.
I love the chess game of politics. I love the endless manuevering, the nitpicking of word choice, the subtle jabs and appeals to win a district at a time, to form an alliance if only for a day. I’m the political nerd who would have been happy with “West Wing” if Bartlett had never showed up in that first episode and Toby and Josh just played the game for seven seasons. The debates are supposed to be the holy grail of the political season for people like me. But it’s easy to become myopic, to get sucked down into the tactical view and not see the long game, to only see the balls and strikes and not feel the rhythm of the innings. The story, that’s the ball game.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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