My nine-year-old daughter and I have a game we play during car rides where we pretend to host a radio talk show. I do the voices of Frank and Joe and sometimes Wanda–don’t ask. My daughter does the voice of Julie.
During the last campaign season, Julie ran for president against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we had a lot of fun discussing various issues. After Election Day, Julie declared herself the winner and we’ve been rolling with it ever since.
One of President Julie’s first acts was to bury the Treasury Department underground and mark the spot with a giant X, because that’s what you do to keep your treasures safe. Her most current infrastructure project is a subway system that will connect to every house in the country so that people can get to work or school without worrying about traffic.
President Julie has named Joe, her fellow talk show host, as her Ambassador to Mexico. To make sure Joe doesn’t mess up our foreign relations too badly, she’s built a structure called “White House Junior” next to the embassy so she can keep an eye on things. Julie is learning Spanish in school, so she not only has lots of good advice for Joe but can help him with the lingo. In the interest of boosting morale among the embassy staff, President Julie recently moved both the embassy and White House Junior to a beach on the Mexican Riviera.
Meanwhile, Frank has had a series of unsuccessful postings in a variety of government agencies but hasn’t yet found a place where he can make a positive contribution. And Wanda is just Wanda–don’t ask.
Julie’s administration is working out well so far, although Julie sometimes worries that being President of the United States will interfere with her other career as a rock star.
As I listen to the political news from back in the real world, the question I find myself asking is, “What would President Julie do?”
To my ears, “Bury our most valuable building underground to keep it safe from pirates” makes about as much policy sense as “Build a wall to protect our coal industry from immigrants.” But then, as a spokesman for the Julie administration, I’m a little biased.
The second question I find myself asking is, “What does politics have to do with the stories we share with our children?”
The answer I’ve come up with is a personal theory that politics is actually a genre of storytelling. Where many classic stories begin with “Once upon a time…” political stories begin with “Imagine a world…” This would make politics a sister genre to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, all under the banner of speculative fiction.
A wandering storyteller comes to town. He takes to the stage. People gather around to listen. The storyteller smiles to form a connection with his audience. He waves his arms and hands for emphasis and speaks in a calculated cadence, repeating key phrases to punctuate his story. “Imagine a world where all the solar farms have been torn down and your children are working in a coal mine! It will be so amazing. So amazing. So amazing.”
This particular town’s economy was built by the coal industry. All the third-generation coal miners and their families applaud and nod approvingly. The storyteller has earned their five-star Amazon rating as well as their vote.
Then the wandering storyteller packs up his wares and moves on to the next town, over in farm country, where he tells that audience to imagine a world where international trade is negotiated by a real estate mogul.
Politics is storytelling because raw story is a form of raw power.
With the right stories, told to the right people, in states with the right number of electoral votes, a good storyteller can rise all the way to the top, becoming our Storyteller in Chief, a title we should totally be using to describe the awesome responsibilities of the presidency. A single story from our president can start a war or prevent it, plunge the economy into a recession or save it, provide hope in a time of need and solace in a time of tragedy–while an alternate story can cultivate hate and fear. A single story can reshape the world.
But politicians aren’t the only ones who can harness the power of story.
In the next town over from me is a boy, about the same age as President Julie, who is worried about his grandparents. The boy’s grandparents live in Iran, and the boy worries that he might never see them again, because a powerful storyteller has been telling a story in which people who share the same nationality and religion as the boy’s grandparents are scary and threatening.
The boy’s stories are true to life, told in the honest voice of a child, based on his lived experience. In the boy’s stories, his grandparents would only ever threaten to provide hugs, kisses, and home-baked cookies. I like the boy’s story better, and so does President Julie.
People who hear the boy’s story won’t be so easily sold on the politician’s story, and here’s why:
All genres develop conventions and shorthand over time. In the genre of science fiction, we no longer have to spend several pages explaining how a starship can travel faster than the speed of light–the reader just accepts it and we can move on. In the genre of political stories, “Imagine a world…” has become our modern shorthand for the original version, “Imagine a world, exactly like our own world, but in a hypothetical future where some aspect of government policy has changed…”
As the consumers of these stories, it’s important for us to push back when they cross into alternate genres. If a purportedly-political statement instead starts with a world that differs from ours in an important way, we’ve moved into the genre of fantasy. If the government policy relies on an alternate science than we one we know, we’ve moved into the genre of science fiction.
In the genre of political stories, the ones that will have a positive impact are the ones that start with the world as it is and lead us through a practical and pragmatic plotline to a better place that our world can become. Filling that genre with more voices and more stories, especially the stories of young people, can only make the entire genre better and stronger.
In this case, the boy’s story rebuts and undermines the story coming from our Storyteller in Chief. The one story contains a truth that reveals the flawed foundation upon which the other story has been built.
When we help the boy tell his story and get it out into the world, we can give the storyteller’s audiences a new perspective from which to “Imagine a world…”
And if we give our children a better connection to story today, we won’t have to keep wondering what President Julie would do. Hopefully someday we will find out for real.