The Left Will Not Be Left Behind

By Neil Goodman

This past year gave the American public a master class in epithets. Our politics proved capable of synthesizing all opinions, positive or negative, about a person, a type of person, or a people into two little words. Crooked Hilary. Bernie Bros. Special Snowflakes. You get the idea.

In the old days, political commentators had to contrive catchy turns of phrase in order to pull this kind of thing off (See: Tricky Dick Nixon). Now, the dynamics of defining have changed, and Democrats have to learn. If not, the Left will simply languish under their other-imposed labels and will be left behind.

It is not enough to simply identify against these epithets. If a Democrat says, “I am not a special snowflake, and here’s why,” there is a body of research (here, here, and here for starters) that shows that this argument doesn’t achieve the intended objective. In fact, it only reinforces the association between “Democrat” and “special snowflake” in the minds of those with a prior bias, dubbed: “the backfire effect.”  Nixon saying, “I am not a crook” only reassured us that he was a crook.

So what does one do to dispel this damaging stereotype? Myth-debunking literature has some answers. First and foremost, we have to offer a non-refuting, positive narrative. Think of people's opinions as water coursing down a river; in order to control the stream, we can’t just clog the river’s path in order to stop where the water’s going. The water will just increase in pressure (just as people’s opinions will gain in intensity when refuted) and push through the barrier. Instead, one must offer an alternative path (without alternative facts, please) through which the water can flow. To redirect opinions personally, we most offer a new narrative path.

Now let's take a look at two narrative paths: "Hope and Change" and "Make America Great Again." The two are strikingly similar and have two distinct parts. (1) Both imply a sentiment that things currently are not ideal, and (2) each phrase (vaguely) points to a way forward. Interestingly, I'd attribute the first aspect of these phrases as the main attraction for many displeased voters; if they don't like one aspect of their lives, these candidates will fix it.

The surprising number of people that voted for both Obama and Trump speaks to the similarity of these two narrative paths. These voters were able to support two incredibly opposite partisan issues such as Wall Street regulation ("the big banks are exploiting average Americans") and border security ("illegal criminals are taking work away from average Americans") because they both fell within the narrative path of "I don't like how things currently are, and I want them to be better."  Side note: "Forward," Hillary Clinton's proposed narrative path, differed from these two because it implied a continuation of past processes (aspects of which irritated many Americans).

Let's get back to my earlier claim about ineffective refutation. It seems that simply saying "America doesn't need to be made great again because it's already great," still reinforces the notion that America needs to be made great again in listeners' minds. Refuting seems to be unfortunately futile, but offering an unrelated alternative narrative path can be effective.

Readers, the next time a Fox New anchor calls you a special snowflake, shoot back with what you really are. Don't waste time refuting their claim. Focus on your passion, the issues your support, and why you think that your ideology will do the most good. Provide a narrative path to progress that will divert flow of opinion away from the opposition's.