President Ronald Reagan was a master politician. He created a conservative narrative about government that resonates with conservatives to this day. The problem with Democrats, according to Drew Westen in his book, “The Political Brain”, is that they have no competing narrative; in fact, they have no narrative at all.
By examining Reagan’s masterful narrative, we can come to understand its power and its fallacies.
The Reagan narrative is set in the context of the Vietnam War and of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. According to Westen, a Democrat, the Vietnam War with its failures was placed squarely on the shoulders of the left. Many conservatives saw the burning of the flag as unpatriotic and downright treasonous. The sponsoring of Civil Rights by Democrats in the 1960s turned many southern Democrats against their party and into the arms of the Republicans where they have resided ever since.
The coming of the birth control pill in 1960 also upended traditional American moral values and pushed many religious Americans to the right.
When Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, according to Westen, he created and articulated a set of principles that have resonated for more than 30 years.
Reagan’s narrative was that his opponents were “tax-and-spend” Democrats. Taxation was equated with “confiscation” and liberal politicians with raising taxes and taking away American freedom through restrictive government regulations.
Democrats were, according to Westen’s view of the Reagan narrative, “pessimistic, irresponsible, self-satisfied liberals who never saw a tax they didn’t want to levy, a social program they didn’t want (to) fund, or a flag they didn’t want to burn.”
Westen goes on to point out that this narrative should be defined by, “What it neglects to mention as by what it mentions.” He then goes on to list four arguments against Reagan’s narrative:
• “The failure to explain the intent of the villain (the Democrats)”: The reasons for these social programs and taxes were to help American citizens.
• The failure of unregulated capitalism: The Democrats tinkered with the free market because unregulated capitalism had caused the Great Depression and had sustained slavery for more than two hundred years and left 20 percent of the American population in poverty by 1960, according to Westen.
• The Republican view that liberals launched an assault on God: From the liberal perspective, the goal was the defense of the First Amendment right of freedom of religion.
• States rights portrayed as freedom from federal regulation: “In reality, it was an encouragement to continued oppression of the African-Americans that had occurred since the end of the Civil War in 1865.”
By failing to note the opposite side of each of these coins, conservatives created an effective narrative that Republicans use to this day to push their agenda.
The problem with the Democrats is that they have never created a coherent counter narrative to combat the half-truths. The reason for this silence, according to Westen, is a “failure of nerve, a fear of aggression that remains one of the genuine Achilles’ heals of the left.” Democrats, hating conflict, have hidden “behind the compassion, empathy, and tolerance that are central features of the morality of the left.”
So, we have come full circle. Where once the narrative of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal was the narrative that saved America from rampant and greedy capitalists, Ronald Reagan’s 1980s narrative became the theme that has resonated among the conservatives.
Now that the economic gap between the super-wealthy 0.1 percent has become so glaring, Reagan’s narrative no longer resonates so well with thinking Americans. With the rise of an apparent new Civil Rights movement —“Black Lives Matter”, a Democratic counter argument is emerging.
It’s time we Americans knew the full story of the weaknesses of both sides of the political spectrum. This is an election year and we need to fill in the gaps that neither party is either willing or able to tell us.