The Sciences

Two Narratives

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAug 10, 2011 11:49 AM

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I think it's safe to say that Drew Westen, in his recent NYT essay, channels the disappointment and anger felt by many liberal democrats these days. He argues that President Obama should have given this speech on Inauguration Day in 2009:

"I know you're scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn't work out. And it didn't work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can't promise that we won't make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again." A story isn't a policy. But that simple narrative "” and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it "” would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands.

No doubt this is a seductive counterfactual for liberals. But they might also want to consider this argument by Yoni Applebaum at The Atlantic, who writes that progressives tend

to promise better policies and improved implementation, while rallying to the defense of government from its critics. It insists that government should do better, but not that we need a better government. Whatever its intellectual merits, this approach has a fatal political flaw: most Americans number themselves among government's critics. They don't think government works terribly well, and they are disinclined to support politicians who do. Voters are increasingly eager to hear accounts of our present crises that offer comprehensive explanations and systematic solutions. Conservatives contend that government itself is the problem, and that the solution is to slash its size and role. That appeals to voters who want narratives that seem scaled to the enormity of the challenges that we face. Progressives offer no equivalently broad diagnosis of government dysfunction, much less an equally compelling remedy.

These two narratives--from Westen and Applebaum--are tailored for progressives. Which one do you think has a better chance of succeeding?

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