Ira Chernus  

The Story Behind the Debate

The first Bush-Kerry debate made the Democrat's dilemma all too clear. Kerry wants to focus on pocketbook issues, promising every American a chance to achieve or retain a comfortable middle class standard of living. In a debate restricted to foreign policy, he could only criticize the President and say, "Somehow, I'll do better."

Bush was content to focus on foreign affairs, as long as he could stick to the big picture and avoid talking about realities on the Iraqi ground. With the economy still sputtering and Iraq engulfed in violence, he has little to offer except the big picture -- a grand story of America's global mission.

Among voters who decide mainly based on issues, Kerry has the lead in this election. Voters who decide mainly based on the candidates' "character" favor Bush, the story-teller. Right now, the contest is too close to call. Never underestimate the power of a grand story.

For most of human history, most people have lived in abject poverty. They survived, in part, on stories. They told stories to interpret their suffering or to distract themselves from their suffering, to participate vicariously in magnificent events and give meaning to an existence that might otherwise seem meaningless. In most cultures, the truly powerful stories -- myths, legends, or sacred narratives -- were religious ones.

In the United States, where we have no religious myths that we all share, the history of the nation has become our most powerful shared myth. Like all religious stories, the most popular versions of American history are a mixture of fact, fantasy, and wish-fulfillment. Judging from the first debate, it's not clear that Kerry and his campaign strategists understand the power of this potent brew. The Bush campaign understands it all too well.

Throughout the debate, Bush stuck doggedly to his script, re-telling the most popular American myths. Millions of us, watching his performance, were not sure whether to laugh or cry. But millions more undoubtedly took him absolutely seriously and cheered. For many, he has become the hero and the very embodiment of the meaning of America.

Issues fall by the wayside whenever Bush's heroic character takes center stage – which is just what the Republicans want. Former Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, writing in the British Guardian, sees Bush presenting himself as the Lone Ranger, "the rescuer and avenger, an isolate caught in a moral landscape between civilization and wilderness… an unassuming natural man, in touch with the primitive, who has lived among them, putting him beyond the rigid hierarchies of the town. Because of his intimate knowledge he can use the methods of the savages against them."

This is the Republicans' new version of old-fashioned isolationism. A real Western hero needs no allies. He doesn't ask permission from the UN, or a bunch of Europeans, or anyone else. Like the Lone Ranger, he knows evil when he sees it, and whenever he sees it he destroys it -- all by himself, and by any means necessary.

The frontier myth is all about saving the innocent. Bush is most adept at playing both the innocent one and the savior of the innocent, tapping into that ancient image of America as a place of pure innocence, a Garden of Eden, where everyone is Adam or Eve.

Any hint that we may have done anything to provoke anyone's hatred is met with howls of outrage. They hate us because they are so wholly evil and we are so wholly good. We must eradicate them because we have a God-given duty to save the innocent from the ravages of evil. End of story.

In post-9/11 America, it's easy to believe that evil just springs up on its own, like the spawn of the devil. It's just as easy to believe that the threat of evil will remain an inescapable fact of life. You don't have to be Christian to believe in a secular version of original sin. You just have to accept the common view that today's "terrorists" are but the latest in an endless line of evildoers, stretching back to the Communists, the Nazis, and beyond. We are doomed, it seems, to have the enemy always at the gates, intent on destroying our innocent land.

In the shadow of that fear, it may feel good to hear a Texan who walks with a swagger assure us he will gun down the evildoers. The desperation with which people cling to Bush's now threadbare and twice-told tale only betrays increasingly deep-seated American doubts that evildoers will ever be vanquished.

To help still those doubts, the story must be about more than just saving our own lives and fortunes. It must reassure us that we are not selfish in doing so, that our fight is motivated by nobler motives. Overlaid upon that myth of a savage west and a cowboy savior, we need another myth that fits better our global desires. We must believe that whatever we do abroad is all about protecting good people everywhere, protecting civilization itself.

In the American story, the essence of civilization is individual freedom. The hero kills the bad guys, not merely to preserve the freedom the innocent already have, but to push back the frontier -- to bring liberty to people who have never tasted its delicious fruits.

This is the story that Bush tells so successfully. Like all great stories, it is built on an utterly simple plot: Americans, propelled by fate into mortal conflict, are willing to endure every hardship to secure the inevitable triumph of the highest ideals. Innocent Americans, through no choice of their own, are regularly forced to go to war against savage enemies who would take away human liberty.

Kerry used the debate to keep hammering away at the immense disconnect between Iraqi fact and Bush fiction. But it may not be enough to turn the race around. Bush's storytelling succeeds so well precisely because he, his writers, and his campaign staff find it so easy to ignore that disconnect. They seem to be perfectly comfortable in a realm of pure fiction – which only makes their fiction all the more convincing, especially to the millions who are victimized by Bush-style policies but may vote for him nevertheless.

This is Kerry's dilemma. He must reach those millions and convince them to put their own practical interests ahead of the appeal of the great American story. But their practical interests have been betrayed so consistently, for so long, by so many politicians, that they have no reason to believe in the promise of middle-class comfort and security Kerry offers.

Besides, the American dream seems a rather paltry and selfish ideal when stripped from its larger context of national greatness. Kerry asks us all to step into the booth on Election Day as individuals, trying to make the best possible life for ourselves and our families. Bush asks us to step into that booth as citizens of God's chosen nation, with a mission to let freedom ring.

The two dreams -- comfort for each and liberty for all -- grew up together in this nation, intertwined. The link between them was free enterprise or, put another way, the liberty not only to vote but to make as much money as your talents and energies would allow. And that liberty, so the story says, is given to each of us by God. In return for that gift, we need only accept God's inscrutable charge to us, as Americans, to bring his liberty to every corner of the globe. John Kerry is offering only one slice of that story. George W. Bush is serving up the whole pie, uncut.

Bush is merely the latest in a long line of U.S. leaders who have told this story, but he may be the first who has turned it into official public policy. His National Security Strategy of 2002 asserts that representative democracy and a free enterprise economy are necessary for anyone anywhere to live a decent civilized life; and it dedicates the U.S. to making sure everyone everywhere can enjoy the God-given right to live in a democratic capitalist society. It states plainly that our nation will never be secure until that goal is reached.

Unfortunately, this story assumes that everyone who is not our ally is a threat and therefore an enemy. It commits the United States to violent efforts to defeat all those enemies, violent efforts that are sure to turn potential allies into real enemies of U.S. government policy. Sooner or later, that will surely turn more American citizens into targets for future rounds of attacks.

The great American myth says that we will be insecure until everyone is on our side. That belief, acted out in policy, is a sure recipe for tragedy as well as eternal insecurity because it traps us in an endless cycle of fear, war, more fear, and more war. Anyone who doubts this has not been watching the news from Iraq.

Nevertheless, millions of Americans who are poor, or sick, or out of work, or working two jobs to make ends meet instinctively respond to the irresistible appeal of their national myth. Many gave up long ago (even if only unconsciously) on the personal success and fulfillment that has, until recently, been the focus of Kerry's campaign. So they are drawn all the more to the vicarious success and fulfillment that Bush offers. He takes them out of themselves and their personal suffering. He makes them a permanent part of events fraught with eternal value and transcendent significance. He lets them believe that they have a central role in God's plan for all humankind.

If John F. Kerry wants to know how a Democrat can ride the great American story into the White House, he can look back to the last JFK from Massachusetts. John Kennedy understood that average Americans wanted to be part of a great story. They wanted to ask what they could do for their country. But Kennedy had the good luck to run for president at the height of a unique era of widespread prosperity.

Now, while millions still turn to the story's satisfactions, there are other millions who do not find enough solace in vicarious greatness. They want to know what their country can do for them. They put economic fact ahead of mythic fiction. That is why the race this year is so close and is likely to stay close through all three debates and to election night. The outcome may tell us a lot about the fate of the great American story in the 21st century.