Weaving a new liberal narrative

Why liberals need new institutions to tell a compelling political story

As we’ve written before here at The Liberal Patriot, the center-left needs a new intellectual infrastructure to better disseminate its core principles and resist illiberal politics from all quarters. An important part of that effort involves building new sources of support that can yoke practical policies to broader principles. In other words, liberals need a new set of institutions, programs, and individuals that can tell a compelling story about their principles, politics, and policies.

Right now, however, this narrative infrastructure doesn’t exist – and it shows. The Biden administration has gotten off to a strong start on a number of fronts, from pandemic relief and economic rebuilding to pragmatic foreign policy decisions. But it’s struggled to tie its actions together in a coherent story that it can tell the American people and the world. 

“Build back better” and “a foreign policy for the middle class” are slogans for a very ambitious and possibly historic policy agenda – one that could transform the country for the better.  But don’t be mistaken: these headlines and the policy components don’t yet constitute a narrative, a story that connects with ordinary Americans and instills a sense of national purpose.  As things stand, they remain skeletal notions, and the Biden domestic and foreign policy teams have yet to flesh them out in many ways.

Take two recent speeches by Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken – both lay out a number of good policy ideas but don’t go the extra mile and connect them to a persuasive political narrative. In her remarks on international economic policy, for instance, Yellen made important points about the need to help low-income nations vaccinate themselves and enact a global minimum corporate tax rate. But much of her speech remained standard technocratic boilerplate that could have been delivered at any point over the past thirty years without much alteration. That’s a missed opportunity on the narrative front given the historic, transformative times we’re living in right now.

Similarly, Secretary of State Blinken’s remarks on appointing former USAID director Gayle Smith as international COVID response czar put forward a number of compelling arguments. In language reminiscent of airline pre-flight safety notices to secure one’s own oxygen mask before helping others, Blinken noted that the United States rightly focused on beating COVID-19 at home before helping others do the same. But he also made the case that Americans wouldn’t be safe from COVID-19 or recover economically until the pandemic was beaten worldwide.

Blinken’s speech was cogent and competent, which in and of itself a marked improvement from most of what America saw on the foreign policy front during the previous administration. But like Yellen’s speech, it was not connected to a persuasive political narrative – one that helps move to the coming post-COVID recovery phase. The main challenge is that the story told is incomplete – it’s like a baseball pitcher on the mound who winds up and throws but doesn’t follow through completely.  The ball is less likely to hit the glove in the strike zone.

This lack of a convincing center-left story results from a variety of causes, but it’s fundamentally rooted in the much broader collapse of liberal intellectual infrastructure in recent decades.

This collapse has 4 components:

1.     Outsourcing narrative-building to academics, activists, and political journalists.  

After the tumult of the 1960s, liberals in and around the Democratic Party outsourced the vital task of narrative-building to a random assortment of activists, academics, and political journalists. Anti-war activists, for instance, issue empty calls to “end endless wars,” while unpopular and unwise proposals to defund the police originated with small, unrepresentative far-left activist groups. When these parties are interested in constructing narratives, they’re likely to tell bleak and pessimistic stories about America itself – such as the factually-challenged 1619 Project published and heavily promoted by the New York Times. For their part, many politically-minded academics have spent the past many decades conjuring up what the late philosopher Richard Rorty called “dreams not of political reforms but of inexplicable, magical transformations” of a fundamentally corrupt society in thrall to mystical “preternatural forces.” To be clear, voices from a diverse range of experts and activists should be part of the mix when it comes to building an inclusive nationalism. But to succeed in building a narrative, the North Star should be about painting a hopeful vision of the future, rather than getting stuck in the current moment or wallowing in the past.

2.    Positioning through polling rather than staking out clear positions based on ideas and values linked to a story.  

Starting in the 1970s, moreover, politicians themselves turned to political consultants and pollsters rather than intellectuals and wordsmiths to shape and guide their policies. Since its advent, modern polling has always been an important factor in politics and policy. But the ever-increasing contemporary reliance on consultants have left liberals with plenty of messaging but not a whole lot of actual message.  As a result, the narrative infrastructure on the left is more about positioning – reacting to the political winds that blow – rather than generating a new breeze in a narrative that stakes out principled positions based on values and advancing those positions. 

3.    The rise of the technocratic and bureaucratic wonks.

In the 1990s, a new class of technocratic policy experts rose to dominate political and policy discussions on the center-left. Ensconced in universities and think tanks interspersed with a couple of years of government service, these policy wonks tend to focus narrowly on their areas of expertise and specialization. It’s assumed that technical proficiency of the sort possessed by economists and foreign country specialists scales up and allows a mastery of generalist subjects, but it’s not at all clear that that’s the case either in theory or in reality. Liberals have a cadre of highly-educated experts to manage government bureaucracies and execute complicated programs, but few have the skills to tell a compelling story about liberal politics and policies.  Some of the most agonizing meetings that take place in Washington are the ones involving foreign policy or economics specialists struggling to cobble together a convincing political narrative.  It’s like a cello player in an orchestra trying to tell the conductor how the overall piece of music should be put together: sometimes it works, but most times it is off-key.

4.    The quest for echo chambers.  

On top of these developments, transformations in the media landscape over the past fifty years – and especially over the past decade – have made it more difficult to inject a coherent narrative into the national political bloodstream. It’s not impossible, but the days when FDR or JFK could set the terms of the national debate with fireside chats or televised press conferences have been long gone for a while now. In their place, liberals belatedly and without much success attempted to replicate the echo chambers like Fox News that conservatives have deployed to great political effect. More recently, left and right have built echo chambers on social media platforms like Twitter that encourage the most extreme and Extremely Online voices. In recent years, some elements of the so-called “progressive” left have used these platforms more to beat others up on the left and fragment coalitions and relationships, rather than use them to build coalitions and relationship capital to achieve shared, common goals.

As a result, the broad center-left is not structured to tell a coherent story about its politics and policies. Their programs and messages amount to less than the sum of their parts. Administration communications gurus and activist networks organize pop-up echo chambers to push particular policies, but they don’t invest in the making of big-picture narratives that put these policies into perspective in ways that ordinary people can easily understand. Smart and dedicated people waste their time and energy on what remain fundamentally tactical issues – leaving wider strategic questions unattended and unanswered in the process.

To its credit, the Biden administration has avoided many of the worst mistakes made by present-day progressives. Biden and many of his key aides are terminally Offline, and his administration has wisely focused on bread-and-butter issues like the pandemic and economic recovery more than the culture war issues beloved by both the progressive left and conservative right. “Build back better” and “a foreign policy for the middle class” may not pop as slogans and remain ideas that need further development, but they’re a decent starting point. What the Biden administration needs moving forward aren’t echo chambers that repeat its talking points on, say, its infrastructure package or its Iran policy – it needs generalists that build on and expand the themes it’s sketched out in very rough terms and helps carry those narratives to the broader American public in a way that seeks to advance a more inclusive nationalism.

That’s easier said than done, as President Obama learned when his “New Foundation” formula failed to gain traction during his time in office. While his administration found its attention repeatedly diverted by crises and emerging challenges, it also lacked the sort of external intellectual support to reinforce and elaborate on the themes it tried to surface. Obama’s eight years resulted in many important accomplishments such as an effective response to the 2008 Great Recession, health care reform, and steps forward on climate change. But towards the end of two terms in office, the sum total of the foreign policy narrative was “don’t do stupid shit” and this left many Americans asking: what’s the big idea?

Think tanks once might have served this function, but too often they have become either waystations for mid-level technocrats going into and coming out of government or activist operations fueled by funding from elite foundations – and increasingly they’re both at the same time.

Instead, liberals need to invest in big-picture, meaning-making institutions and outlets outside government, academia, existing think tanks, and major media outlets. They cannot outsource their narratives to academics, activists, and political journalists, or rely on think tanks that exist to shelter technocrats and increasingly see unrepresentative activists chart their courses to do the job. Looking forward, a new breed of institution that can see and describe the whole picture from an outside perspective will be necessary to build new liberal political narratives that connect particular policies and programs with underlying principles in a compelling and easily comprehensible way.

These narratives can’t be reduced to mere messaging or communications, either. As the scholar Lawrence Freedman noted in the conclusion of his history of the subject, strategy is as much about stories as anything else. Accordingly, these new narrative-building institutions will have much to say about political strategy and big-picture policy questions. They’ll help tell liberals where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going – and, crucially, why. Moreover, they’ll provide a sanctuary for liberals who don’t see mid-tier government positions as their primary way to advance good ideas as well as academics who wish to constructively contribute to the common good.

It’s as good a place as any for liberals to start rebuilding their once-formidable intellectual infrastructure.