Populism, a modern American fable, says We the People should be the real leaders in our country. Like many fables, there’s some wisdom in populism. And like many fables, there’s also some wishful thinking.

We the People can influence our leaders and our country’s course. But we can’t quite control them. (More.)

Leaders and Stories, Part III – Influence and Control (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considered leadership narratives, stories told by and about leaders. Thursday we explored stories leaders tell about themselves, and how those stories reflect their frames more than facts. Yesterday we saw that the same is true of the stories we tell about leaders; our stories reflect our frames more than facts. Today we’ll consider whether and how our leadership narratives influence other frames, sometimes in surprising ways.

The stories we tell about leaders and leadership reflect deep frames within which we build our experience of the world. They shape how we perceive events, whether we’re more prone to be or cynical, and how we talk about events with each other. As JanF noted in Wednesday’s Morning Feature, the November midterms will hinge on voter enthusiasm. If we progressive Democrats vote – and work to turn out Democratic and moderate Independent voters – predictions of a Tea Party GOP resurgence are likely to be wrong. If we neglect that work, or do it poorly, those predictions may be horrifyingly right.

Does that mean We the People are in control, as the modern fable of populism suggests? As we so often say on Non-Cynical Saturday: not exactly….

An Older Fable of Control

Aesop, a Greek storyteller believed to have lived in 7th century BCE, is credited with a fable about influence and control, titled “The North Wind and the Sun.”

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.

(Note: My thanks to DBunn and etbnc for their discussion in Caractacus’ Tuesday Morning Feature, which introduced me to this fable.)

The surface lesson of this fable is neither surprising nor profound: you’re more likely to take off your coat if you’re warm than if you’re cold. The deeper lesson is about influence and control. The North Wind tried to blow the traveler’s cloak off, while the Sun persuaded the traveler to take his cloak off. In terms of control and influence, the North Wind tried to “make it happen,” while the Sun tried to “make it more likely” by making that choice more attractive.

The Zen of Politics

There’s a Zen saying that “you can’t grip water in a closed fist.” The saying sometimes uses a bird, a raw egg, or sand, but the essential lesson is the same. Cupping water in an open hand doesn’t guarantee none will spill, but we “make it more likely.” But when we try to “make it happen” – the metaphorical closed fist – we often get the opposite result. The same is often true in politics, because people like to make choices. Even if our choices are reached by unconscious reasoning and driven by cultural frames, we’d rather take off our own cloak than have it torn off. Most of us don’t mind being influenced, but few of us like to be controlled.

The Tea Party GOP tried to seize on that near the end of the health care debate by framing the legislative process as “ramming it through.” That frame didn’t stick, as most Americans realized health care had been at the center of our national debate for a year and “start over with a blank page” was seen as yet another attempt to stall the process. While the year-long public debate on health care was bitter and had some costs for Democrats, in the end most of us felt we’d at least been part of that debate. No one person or group could control the final bill, but many people and groups influenced it … even the Tea Party GOP who insisted they had nothing to do with it, then rushed to claim credit for provisions they thought would be popular.

Are “We the People” the Real Leaders?

The fable of populism says “We the People” should be the real leaders of our country. It’s such a deep frame in American politics that even conservatism, at its core an authoritarian movement based on the Strict Father model of leadership, tries to describe itself in populist terms such as “liberty” and “freedom.” The conservative notion of liberty is grounded in property: the freedom of business owners to run their businesses without interference from government or workers, the freedom of those with money to spend it as they please. Their version of populism works for the owners and the wealthy, but not so much for the rest of us.

That’s an important critique of populism, as when we say “We the People,” we rarely mean All Of Us. We usually mean ourselves or those like us, and when we ask if “We the People” are the real leaders in our country we’re really asking if we and those like us have control and can “make it happen” the way we want. By definition the answer is “No,” and in that sense populism is beyond fable and into wishful thinking. There lies the road to cynicism. The wisdom in the American fable of populism exists only when we seek and exercise influence, trying to “make it more likely” that events we want will happen, and their lies the road to engagement.

And in that engagement, as the Zen saying suggests, we succeed more often with an open hand with a closed fist. That’s true when we talk to each other, and it’s especially true when we talk to Fred, our archetypal median voter. If we want to bring on a Progressive Spring and Summer, we should think and speak more like the warming Sun and less like the cold North Wind.


Happy Saturday!