Politics and the Clash of Economic Stories

by Alan F. Zundel

Politics in the U.S. has always been organized primary around competing stories about the economy. These stories help people make sense of what’s going on in the larger society, what it is that threatens them, and what the government should do about it.

The stories typically start with a “once upon a time” beginning, go on to explain how a problem arose, identify heroes and villains, and end with a call to action. In the last Presidential election four stories were in play, and they are still in play today. Which story someone accepts defines their political orientation and shapes their political actions, most importantly how they vote.

The New Deal Progressive Story

The New Deal Progressive Story was most famously framed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and became the organizing story of the Democratic Party for about a half a century. It goes like this:

Once upon a time America was a land of economic opportunity for ordinary people, but then big corporations, greedy for power and profits, took over the economy and led us into a horrible depression. Roosevelt brought people together to restrain the economic elite by putting limits on the actions of big corporations and creating a social safety net for people in times of need.

The story dominated U.S. politics for several decades but began to lose its hold on the Democratic Party by the 1980s. It has returned to prominence with the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and is also popular among progressive Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren. The new version goes like this:

Once upon a time FDR’s New Deal policies resulted in 25 years of prosperity and rising incomes for all, but then big business leaders conspired with extreme conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and undid our progress. Now we have to rebuild and extend Roosevelt’s coalition to defend and extend the social safety net and again regulate the actions of big business.

The Libertarian Conservative Story

The reason the New Deal Progressive Story lost ground, however, is not addressed by its new story tellers. Ronald Reagan was not just a creature of big business, he was a widely popular President because he told a compelling story that explained the economic problems of the 1970s. His story was the Libertarian Conservative Story, and it goes like this:

Once upon a time we had economic freedom and opportunity in this country, but then ambitious politicians created big government programs that promised too much to too many people in the 1960s and ruined the economy in the 1970s. President Reagan brought people back to traditional values and revived the economy by lowering taxes and freeing the economy from excessive regulation.

This has been the defining story of the Republican Party since the Reagan administration, and was told by virtually all of the 2016 Presidential candidates except Donald Trump.

The Neo-Liberal New Democrat Story

When leaders of the Democratic Party found themselves losing voters to the Republicans’ Libertarian Conservative Story, some of them came up with a new story, the Neo-Liberal New Democrat Story. It goes like this:

Once upon a time the Democrats’ New Deal led us into rising prosperity for all, but then the economy changed and we didn’t change with it. As a result we lost voters to the Reagan Republicans, who led people in the wrong direction. President Bill Clinton saw that we needed to adapt to the globalization of the economy with new trade agreements and provide education and training to bring workers into the new economy. We need to fight for this against the forces of the Reagan Republicans.

This has been the story told by most Democratic politicians since the Clinton administration, and was best represented in the 2016 Presidential election by Hillary Clinton. (Of course!) But because the Clinton era policies did not bring their promised benefits to working people, the New Democrats were challenged by Bernie Sanders’ revival of the party’s New Deal Progressive wing. The two wings are now fighting over the future of the Democratic Party and which story will represent it.

The Alien Undermining Story

The Alien Undermining Story is an old one, but did not have as much influence as the other three stories until it was picked up by Donald Trump in his 2016 Presidential campaign. It goes like this:

Once upon a time we were a united people and things were good, but then we were betrayed by a political elite pandering to alien forces who don’t accept our values. We need a strong leader to sweep this elite from power and drive out or suppress these alien forces.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I have to point out that the historic precedent for this story is that it was told during the Great Depression by fascists like Adolph Hitler. The Alien Undermining Story has its greatest power in times of confusion in which multiple stories clash and none seem to be able to pull people together well enough to move the country forward. People then look to a strong leader to unify us against the alleged perpetrators of our chaotic situation.

What Now?

Our political stories unite us with those who share them, but divide us from those who adopt divergent stories. When no story is capable of gaining majority support, there are only two paths open to us. One is persistent divisiveness that allows the rise of fascist forces and ultimately leads to greater chaos. The other is to find a new story capable of winning majority acceptance.

This new story might be a variation of one of the old stories that allows it to incorporate the persuasive elements of a competing story, or it might be something radically different from any of the older stories.

But to persist in clinging to one of the old stories without identifying why many people find it unpersuasive, or without finding a way to adapt it so as to bring two stories together into a better story, is a recipe for disaster.