Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 8, 2011

Drew Westen’s article, “What Happened to Obama” is roiling the commentariat today:

But on most domestic policy matters, it’s important to understand that the president can only be as progressive or conservative as Congress. That’s the story liberals need to keep telling themselves, because until they really have it memorized, every liberal president who gets elected is going to turn out to be a profound disappointment. They should worry less about telling stories and more about winning elections. —Adam Serwer

The issue with Serwer’s account is that “telling stories” and “winning elections” are not unrelated, at least over the long term. Congress is not immune either. Republican intransigence on revenues is itself the product of a story about taxes and growth, a story that’s debatable in the best of times and irrelevant if not dangerous in the current moment. And yet that narrative has captured enough of the Republican Party that the Speaker of the House can make a credible threat to allow the United States to default unless their demands are met.

Serwer is correct to point out that there’s little reason to believe that eloquence would’ve moved Republican legislators, whose electoral foundation is laid among those who prefer resolve to compromise. But that preference is itself a frame, the product of a story about the role of resolve in politics and the returns that accrue as a result. And it’s a story that looks increasingly true each time Republicans are able to pry concessions from Democrats through legislative hostage taking.

As a critique of Obama, Westen’s editorial is a little incoherent. As I’ve said before, narratives are an essential part of politics in a democracy, and while they may not swing a given election or congressman they are part of an ongoing process that defines the boundaries of American politics. Westen’s powerful cri de coeur–with a tinge of “If I Ran The Zoo”-ishness–makes the fundamental error of ascribing this messaging failure to President Obama. Whether he realizes it or not, Westen’s piece is about the weakness of progressive and liberal institutions, which have become arbiters rather than advocates. It’s the bodies that aren’t tied to the election cycle that have the greatest responsibility for the sort of full-throated advocacy that Westen craves, not President Obama.

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  1. Narcissism « Meta-Commentary said, on July 21, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    […] of Jericho would come tumbling down. Apparently, this rather anti-democratic sentiment is the key to saving Democrats, liberalism, and democracy […]

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