Watching the returns come in as the Democrats lose the governor’s race in Virginia, a state that went Democratic by ten points in the 2020 election, I feel compelled to shout into the void about one consistent way in which the Democrats blow elections: they suck at story-telling.
Yes, there are many factors, like odd-year elections and Trumpism and the wisdom of dredging up a retread corporate Clinton Democrat who’d already been governor before as their candidate. But it’s that inability to tell a story, especially in response to your opponent’s story, that so often dooms Democrats in races they should win.
This election came down to “education,” I’m told. That’s the subject, but the story being told about that subject by Republicans was the frightening tale of Critical Race Theory (boo!). This terrible Critical Race Theory, you see, was being inflicted on our young children’s impressionable minds by Democrats, convincing them that minorities are always oppressed by the evil, evil white people! Boo!
In response to that, Democrats immediately engaged the Republicans on the subject of Critical Race Theory. They violated Lakoff’s First Rule: Don’t Think of an Elephant!
George Lakoff is a professor who wrote a book with that title. He’s an expert in framing, which is basically the mental landscape in which our ideas live. For instance, “elephant” isn’t just a noun that refers to a big land mammal with a trunk. It also evokes memory (“an elephant never forgets”), Republicans (their logo), Africa (where elephants live), the circus, Tarzan movies, and so on.
In Don’t Think of an Elephant, Prof. Lakoff explains that negating a frame evokes that frame. If I say, “don’t think of an elephant,” guess what your mind just did? It thought of an elephant. You can’t not think of an elephant without forming the idea of the elephant in your mind to not think of. (Whoa.)
When Republicans start yammering on about Critical Race Theory, what was the Democratic response? Critical Race Theory is not taught in K–12 schools. Critical Race Theory is an academic venture in some law and sociology classes in college. Critical Race Theory isn’t found in a single textbook and none of our teachers are teaching Critical Race Theory. Whatever you do, don’t think of elephants or Critical Race Theory!
Then, as school board meetings started heating up about Critical Race Theory and the inevitable push toward banning things Republicans decided were Critical Race Theory, Democrats jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. There’s a terrible thing being inflicted on our kids and there’s Democrats saying that parents shouldn’t be dictating what their kids should be taught.
One of the takes I’ve seen on this loss is that Democrats don’t know how to deal with the Republicans’ outrageous lies. It’s close to understanding the story-telling problem I’m getting at, without understanding that the story itself being lies is irrelevant to whether it’s a good story.
The way the Democrats should respond to outrageous lies that are resonating with voters is by not playing within the frame of the lies; instead reframing the story with outrageous truth that forces them to play in their frame.
Every utterance of the phrase “Critical Race Theory” should be responded to with “you mean, America’s Racial History?”
Part of what makes Critical Race Theory so successful as a scary story are those three words. Critical is something nobody likes to be around, whether it’s “mission critical” or a “critical deadline” or a “critical inspection” or just plain old “critique.” Nobody likes being criticized. Race, oh no, this is gonna be about Black people and white people. Theory, oh it’s just conjecture, it’s not really a fact. Mix ‘em all together and you get a nice vague gumbo of things that scare whitey.
But America’s Racial History? Well, we all love America (in this story). Racial is still scary, but it’s an adjective, not a noun. I might be white, but I don’t have to be racial. History, those are facts about the past. Mix those all together and you have a heroes’ story to promote instead of a scary theory to oppose.
“I don’t know what this CRT nonsense is about,” my imaginary Democrat says, “but yes, absolutely, our schools teach at age-appropriate levels about America’s Racial History. We teach our kids that America was founded and built on slavery, but also that we fought a war to end slavery and we fight to this day to ensure that yes, all men and women are created equal. We teach our kids that a compromise was written into our constitution that declared an enslaved African was 3/5ths of a man, but that through belief in that constitution’s promise of equality we’ve reached a point where an African-American man has been elected president. And we teach our kids about genocide of the Native peoples, exploitation and exclusion of the Chinese, internment of the Japanese, treatment of Latin immigrants, and many other facets of America’s Racial History because that is a vital part of American history. To not teach our kids America’s Racial History would be to doom them to repeat the horrific mistakes of the past and to diminish the enormous progress we have made toward a more perfect union, with liberty and justice for all Americans.”
In that frame, you’ve just put Republicans on the side of being against the success of America in battling racism. You’ve defined clearly what it is their scary story is about: banning kids from learning the truth about our nation. You’ve cast them as people who don’t want to evolve past racism or worse, wish to devolve to more of it.
This has been another installment of “What If Democrats Forcefully Advocated for the Things They Believe as Vigorously and Successfully as Republicans Do?” We now return you to your regularly scheduled electoral disaster, already in progress.