Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Go back to basics; tell a story

A buddy of mine and I happened to be watching old wrestling videos from the early 80's. A match came on pitting Ric Flair against Harley Race. It was a great, more exciting that what we often see today. And yet the moves were tame given today's hardcore style.

We were gripping the edge of our seat. Our hearts pounded as Race struggled to keep Flair in a headlock. And Flair was selling it. His face was red, wide-eyed, and shaking like a Richard Simmons's latest workout video. We thought his head would explode from a simple headlock.

"It's about selling moves," said my buddy, who also happens to be a university professor. "Wrestlers today can't sell moves."

Today, wrestlers take chair shot after chair shot to the head. Ten seconds later they act as if nothing happened, they've fully recovered. Which is why today's wrestlers have a lower shelf-life, and which is why today's matches seem boring in comparison. There is little internal cohesion to maintain suspension of disbelief. In short, these young wrestlers have taken high spots to a new level, but at the expense of other basic mat skills with which every old school wrestler was familiar. Attention spans wane among fans who find themselves over-saturated with high spots to cover other inadequacies. Yesterday's wrestlers told stories, whereas today's wrestlers are stunt men.

So eventually everything crashes when fans reach their 'high spot' saturation point. And the old guys like Flair are brought back, even though they cannot give or take high spots, to teach the young up-and-comers how to tell a good story. For example, check out this video from the 80's of Ric Flair initiating a feud to elevate (then) up-and-comer Ricky Morton:

This is exactly what happened with Republicans during the last election. The neocons mastered the high spot - that is, they knew how to attack. But they had lost the art of political story-telling and, once told, selling the story to the average viewer/voter. Additionally, the Republicans had lost the internal coherence that made their story compelling.

Here's some examples off the top of my head:

- Was Obama a Muslim or a member of Rev. Wright's radical Christian sect?
- How can Republicans accuse Obama of socialism and increasing government spending when they helped put through the financial bailout, a major act of corporate socialism and government spending?
- And what about the foreign threat? Which party failed to secure the border?
- Were McCain and Palin mavericks with a strong independent streak, or neo-cons?

The former, actually, but they were never allowed to tell their story during the campaign. Rather they were thrust into carrying out highly-partisan high spots that did not suit their political personality. It worked for Palin's acceptance speech in Minnesota, which was carefully scripted. Beyond that, when she was required to ad-lib for the media, she went over like Steve Austin's 'Ringmaster' when he first came to the WWE.

Lost was the opportunity to re-tell the story of a Vietnam war hero who often took issue with his own party. Likewise of a small-town mayor who took down a sitting governor of her own party when questions arose about nepotism. These are compelling narratives.

Which is why Obama won. He told a compelling story which happened to be a variation of the "every child can grow up to be President" archtype. This allowed voters to suspend their disbelief that an African-American without any clear policies (or hometown) could dismantle the Clinton machine within the Democrat Party, survive the neocon attack machine within the Republican Party, and win the White House. Of course Obama slipped in his own high spots, first against the Clintons (like branding Bill a racist) and then against McCain (linking him to Bush among independents). But he used them sparingly to accentuate his political narrative, rather than rely on them exclusively to put him over.

This is what the Republicans must once again learn if they want to rebuild for the 2010 mid-terms. How to sell a story rather than present a series of high spots with little coherent narrative in between.

To do this, Republicans must also return to basics: lower spending, smaller government, and representing the average voter on cultural issues.

1 comment:

PunditFight said...

If we're talking about "selling" and "Story", you can't go past the selling of George W Bush as a 'cowboy and Southerner, considering his roots. The centerpiece to the angle being his Crawford Ranch

McCain as a War Hero, and Palin being the folksy outsider were certainly more convincing. Maybe it wasn't the selling, the voters just didn't want to buy it.