Facts are no match for a compelling narrative, says Jonathan Green. Despite the efforts of left leaning bloggers, conservatives are winning arguments and elections because they have better stories.
Voters see themselves as struggling with an ever rising cost of living, the federal government mired in debt and the parliament paralysed by the lack of governing majority. According to Green, none of these things is true. But against a "conservative political machine happy to deal with well-calculated and skillfully deployed impressions", truth is no defence:
The blogosphere is filled with number crunchers, graph bloggers and fact checkers. The picture they provide is lucid, accurate, and challenging to many of the familiar political tropes.
But it is the tropes that leave the lasting public impression. The frustration for the left is the lingering impression that facts ought, in the best of all possible worlds, to get in the way of the story. Trouble is, the story is increasingly the story.
What works politically is in fact a compelling, ahem, narrative – whether it be manufactured from fact or fiction is not really to the point.
So here we are in chapter one of a gripping tale with heroic wonk bloggers battling against conservative spin merchants and the mainstream media they understand so well. Will our heroes be defeated? Will they embrace the tactics of their opponents and be lured over to the dark side? Or will they turn to the light side of the Force and use the power of narrative for good?
Who knows. It’s Green’s story so I’ll let him finish it.
Matt Cowgill’s take on the piece is that "wonk bloggers like me are largely wasting our time". Is that right?
There are at least two reasons not to get sucked into Green’s dramatised version of events. The first is that wonk blogging is about more than helping your team win the next election. It’s about influencing policy. The second is that Green’s peddling a false dichotomy. We don’t have to choose between dry facts and gripping narrative. Some of the most effective advocacy weaves facts and numbers into compelling stories.
A lot wonk blogging is about the design of government programs. For example, in a recent post Cowgill explains the unavoidable trade offs involved in reforming Australia’s income support system. Chances are, whoever is in power after the next election is going to want to tinker with the welfare system. If the people who are advising ministers are part of the conversation Cowgill started on his blog, his arguments may have some influence.
Most government programs don’t change just because the government changes. The Coalition didn’t abolish Medicare and Labor didn’t abolish the GST. The Coalition did abolish the Commonwealth Employment Service and replace it with a privatised Job Network, but once that was done, Labor tinkered with the policy rather than restoring things to how they’d been before Howard.
Wonks like to talk about how programs perform and how they tweaked or replaced with something better. Wonk bloggers can help shift policy by talking to the people who talk to ministers.
In the US some of the most influential writers have been those who weave statistics and facts into persuasive narratives. Charles Murray is a good example. Losing Ground, his first influential book, is stuffed with graphs and tables. But it also tells a story about how well intentioned liberal reformers created a welfare system that’s making things worse.
It’s interesting to contrast the style of Murray’s book with the approach David Brooks takes in Bobos in Paradise and his essay ‘One Nation Slightly Divisible‘. Rather than rely on statistics and analysis, Brooks reaches for the toolkit of the new journalism. His sketch of the lifestyle of America’s new bourgeois bohemians is an exercise in character and description. As Sasha Issenberg explains he brings "social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called ‘status detail,’ those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class."
Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, fuses the two approaches. He combines data with rich descriptions of how America’s elite and white working class live their lives and tells a story about where the nation is headed if things don’t change.
According to sociologist Tom Medvetz, writers like Murray occupy a niche somewhere between academic research, journalism, and government policy making. It’s a niche occupied by think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Brookings Institution.
I’m guessing that most of Australia’s wonk bloggers write about policy and politics because they find it fascinating and want to talk about with others. If it turned out they had no influence on what government does, they’d probably keep blogging anyway. But it’s a mistake to think that writing driven by data and analysis doesn’t influence the political world just because swinging voters in marginal electorates ignore it.