It's Bob Reich's story, and he's sticking to it
The Berkeley professor, former Cabinet member, and sometime playwright outlined 'four narratives of American public life' in last week's Townsend Center appearance
| 28 February 2007
Once upon a time, says Robert Reich, a central theme of American life was the struggle against "the rot at the top." From the days of King George III, this was a tale of "malevolent influences in high places" - usually the government or the corporate boardroom - abusing their power to run roughshod over the citizenry.
In the current, Bush-era version of the story, however, the villain has been recast, Reich told a standing-room-only crowd last Wednesday evening (Feb. 21) in Wheeler Hall's Maude Fife Room. Now, he said, "The rot at the top, ladies and gentlemen, is" - long, dramatic pause - "you."
(Peg Skorpinski photo)
As evidence, Reich, a Berkeley professor of public policy and former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, recounted a political commercial aired during the runup to the 2004 presidential campaign that, while not an official White House spot, was "certainly coordinated with the Bush administration." The spot, he said, described "this new rot" as a "tax-hiking, government-spending, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."
"I stand today with you," he announced to appreciative laughter, "at the center of this rot."
Reich, who has written 10 books and is seen and heard regularly as a commentator on ABC and NPR, recently added playwriting to his CV with the political farce Public Exposure, which was produced on Cape Cod in 2005. (Following its premiere, one local critic praised it as "a campy departure from his usual books and articles.") Speaking as part of the Townsend Center's ongoing "Humanities and the Public World" forum, he said he'd been "fascinated for years" with the ways that stories - in the form of narratives, biographies, and political rhetoric - interact with "our social and political life together."
"Almost all cultures are defined and explained and transmitted through the device of stories," Reich said. And anyone seeking to understand American culture, he suggested, could do worse than to pick through Frank Capra films and the texts of presidential inaugural addresses.
Both genres, said Reich, tend to include all four of what he views as the dominant "narratives of American public life." The first, that of "the triumphant individual," is the well-known "rags to riches" trope first popularized by Horatio Alger and Benjamin Franklin and updated in such movies as Rocky. The second, which Reich dubbed "the benevolent community," has its origins in the Puritan leader John Winthrop's vision of the New World as a "city upon a hill" - an image that would be recycled 350 years later by Ronald Reagan - and is immortalized in the New England town meetings painted by Norman Rockwell, and as Bedford Falls, the neighborly setting for Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.
"Listen to any - I challenge you, any - major political speech . and you will hear the triumphant individual and the benevolent community again and again," Reich said.
These, he explained, are the "stories of hope." There is also, however, "a dark side," embodied by two complementary narratives.
Pronouns are key
Mr. Potter, the banker who seeks to unravel Jimmy Stewart and his tight-knit community in It's a Wonderful Life, may be an archetype for "the rot at the top," Reich said, but this sinister theme crops up "in almost every major piece of American literature." A second "story of fear," which Reich calls "the mob at the gates," has been a means to define Americans by what they are not - that is, "us" versus "them."
"Pronouns," said Reich, "are the most important words in politics."
In fact, he said, all four stories - which often serve as threads in a larger, overarching narrative, a la Capra - vary according to how the blanks are filled in, as with the GOP-driven morphing of "the rot at the top" from corporate trusts and government in the early part of the 20th century to today's so-called "cultural elite" in places like Berkeley and Boston.
Republicans, argued Reich, have largely reached a consensus on their versions of all four narratives, identifying the "triumphant individual," for example, as an entrepreneur, the benevolent community as "faith-based voluntarism," and the "mob at the gates" as terrorism.
Democrats, by contrast, have been far more tentative in casting the villains in their own political storytelling. As a case in point, Reich cited Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic convention - which, with Mario Cuomo's 1988 keynote, he considers one of the "two most powerful Democratic speeches" to encompass all four narrative threads. Obama's address, noted Reich, included "no attack on the corporate elite" and "not a single word" about the "misuse and abuse of power by the Bush administration."
"The thing that strikes me is how thin the gruel is" in the Democrats' telling, Reich said. "So the question is . how do we want our political leaders to responsibly talk about 'the rot at the top' or 'the mob at the gates'?"
History professor Robin Einhorn, in a brief "commentary" on Reich's presentation, argued that Reich's four stories "leave out an essential piece of the American imagination," suggesting that they subordinate the country's diversity and democratic traditions to "fantasies of mass friendship and struggles against mutual enemies."
"The narratives that Professor Reich has described can all be used to defend government for the people," she said. "But there is rather less room in his scheme for true popular sovereignty - that is, a government of the people and a government by the people, the democratic ideal of self-government that until recently seemed to deserve at least lip service in statements of the American national creed."
She declared her preference for a different Capra film, Meet John Doe, which she described as "the story of a fascist program to co-opt the benevolent community" that's defeated when the townsfolk realize they've been manipulated. The movie ends, Einhorn recalled, when "Gary Cooper turns to the fascist-in-chief and says, 'There you are, Norton - the people. Try and lick that.'
"If this message is no longer stirring," she said, "then I'm not entirely sure it matters how we package our narratives."
Reich, for his part, declined an opportunity to respond, saying that "in political terms" he agreed with Einhorn's analysis. Their differences, he suggested, had to do with whether his four narratives are viewed as prescriptive or merely descriptive.
These American themes, as he'd said earlier in the evening, are "dangerous stories, every one of them. Because when we understand our culture and our future in terms of simplified - simplified - stories, we turn our fates over, potentially, to demagogues."