President Joe Biden responded to the court verdict clearing Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges with the statement “I stand by what the jury has to say. The jury system works.” While Biden was certainly right that the criminal legal system is working as it was intended—to dole out punishment based on the color of one’s skin—his statement signaled a surrender to the right’s co-optation of the uprisings in Kenosha.
For months, conservatives had painted Rittenhouse as the only thing standing between law and order and chaos in the Wisconsin city. They created from whole cloth the image of Rittenhouse as a cultural hero, a symbol of Second Amendment virtue and the preservation of a long-standing racial hierarchy. No doubt Biden feared alienating a base of voters who viewed Rittenhouse’s actions as more or less justified. So he did what Democrats often do when the narrative thread slips away from them: wave the white flag.
The right’s ability to seize on cultural flashpoints, hold them up as examples of social justice run amok, and exploit them for political gain has become their calling card. They have a robust and obsensely well-funded media machine to amplify their message, and an eager base of reactionaries foaming at the mouth for fresh material to stoke their anger. Time and time again, Democrats are caught on their back heels, and instead of presenting an alternate message or narrative they trap themselves in a cage of their own making: engaging with the right in circular debates over critical race theory, woke culture, and other fabricated third-rails.
What’s clear is that while Democrats are in power at a federal level, Republicans are still setting the terms of the debate. And if last month’s demoralizing loss in the Virginia gubernatorial election is a harbinger of things to come, Democrats are in for a world of hurt in the midterms if they can’t shift the narrative terrain.
The deadly attacks on the Capitol on January 6th were unprecedented in modern American history and should have served as a rallying cry to fight back against the specter of fascism and a democracy in rapid decline. The insurrection should have been used as the impetus for advancing key democratic reforms, gun safety measures, and beating back right-wing extremism. If the left had been responsible for an attack on the Capitol, you can be sure that Republican candidates would be campaigning on this fact up and down the ballot. But Democrats failed to set the stakes and develop a coherent narrative around the attempted coup. An April Reuters/Ipsos poll found that a majority of Republicans bought into false narratives about the insurrection and its genesis. Between January 2021 and July 2021, disapproval of the riots notably weakened among GOP voters, according to a CBS-YouGov poll. And after just a few months, many voters on both sides of the aisle were ready to move on. Republicans had stymied the bipartisan commission, sanctions on elected accomplices, and falsely shifted the blame to anti-fascist groups. Without their own clear narrative around the attacks and what they symbolized, Democrats offered little resistance to the GOP’s misinformation campaign.
If the current moment is any indication, the prevailing Democratic wisdom heading into the midterms is a rigid adherence to measured language in the face of ever-heightening rhetoric and normalized threats of violence against political figures. Biden and Democratic leaders cling to the naive hope that Americans will come to their senses and facts will win the day. But relying on facts and data absent of story is a losing proposition. Right now they may as well be carrying a calculator into a gun fight.
Author Ari Berman drew contrast between the Rittenhouse verdict and the case of Crystal Mason, a Black mother sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot. Mason, who was unaware that she was barred from voting due to a past conviction, has spent the past several years fighting her case in Texas courts. The story serves as an illustration of the extreme lengths that Republicans will go to take away people’s basic rights and freedoms, particularly those of Black and brown Americans. Why did Democrats not raise hell about Crystal Mason the way the Republicans did about Kyle Rittenhouse? Why was her case not create a moral urgency around the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and a stop to Jim Crow-era voter suppression laws? Instead, Mason’s name barely registers in the American consciousness, more states have passed suppression laws, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act remains in indefinite limbo.
Stories are the way we make sense of the world. The elements of a compelling story include easily identifiable heroes and villains, a central conflict, and stakes. And as any communicator can tell you, narrative storytelling will always be more persuasive than any data set. Republicans understand this well. Storytelling is part-and-parcel to their political strategy. If Democrats don’t figure out the same thing soon, they’ll lose more than just a messaging battle.