Alex Frankel
Progessives failing to tell the Big Story

One of the great challenges for progressive social movements is telling the Big Story. After decades of conservative political ascendancy, progressives are yet to offer a simple counter-narrative that critiques neoliberal values and tells people their vision for society.

This lack of strategy around story and discourse is surprising given how much time has been devoted to post-structuralist idolatry in universities over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, basic ideas about narrative as the conduit for social power and shaping reality are only now starting to find focus in progressive political parties, unions and non-government organisations.

This slow change is the result of a combination of factors. Often the topic is written about in ways nobody without a postgrad degree in cultural studies can understand. Then there is the “common sense” or rationalist campaign approach that has become the norm. Many progressives focus on a model that presumes debates can be won when you “argue the facts” with conviction and “fight” for truth. Too often, this misses the power of narrative and brands, and therefore does not systematically contest the Big Story. Meanwhile, the key conservative strategists may not be reading Foucault in the Qantas Club, but they do get it, and their multinationals and political parties are all over it.

Progressives and conservatives alike can recite the conservative story of who and what is authentically Australian and who and what is not authentic. This is part of the conservative Big Story.

As the American cognitive linguist George Lakoff pointed out, conservatives are capitalising on their investment in the media apparatus that tells the stories and shapes public discourse. It’s just as well so many people have worked so hard to create the new media. Progressives need it now more than ever.

So where is the progressive Big Story?

Progressives were once great storytellers. Their social movements created narratives as a matter of course – peace movements, union movements, civil rights movements, women’s suffrage and feminist movements, and freedom movements that overcame seemingly insurmountable power, such as apartheid and colonial power.

The key things progressives don’t understand about narrative today are, first, that they tend to think persuasion operates through reason. In reality persuasion, thought, feeling and most human communication and common sense are shaped through stories rather than facts.

Second, there is a lack of co-operation in telling the progressive Big Story and contesting the conservative Big Story, the one that says we need to keep removing social support for young mums while we give money to big polluters because that’s what this mystical entity called “the economy” demands.

Underpinning this Big Story crisis is a misunderstanding about power and how stories or discourse shape how we act, shop, invest, divest, vote, organise, and so on.

This is the big insight that is post-structuralism. The short version is that people identify themselves as part of the story and their imagination and will are strongly influenced by what they see as the parameters of the story. Kind of like The Matrix. So if you own the Big Story, it is a very powerful thing indeed. And that is why we call it public discourse, because we want to keep that Big Story publicly owned and transparent.

Weirdly, despite progressives falling behind, the progressive story about society is easier to tell than we think. The Australian public hold many progressive values and are hungry for a renewed vision for society. What is necessary is a more rigorous, coherent and outward-looking approach from progressive organisations in engaging the public.

Nowhere has the absence of progressive strategy been more obvious than in the narrative disaster we call climate change, and nowhere with more dire consequences. Just look at how Abbott disarmed the country and renamed the Clean Energy Act the “carbon tax”. In the process, he buried the story about big polluters strangling the social, economic and political drive towards clean energy, and confected a story about Julia Gillard’s “lie” and the imposition on the people of a “tax on everything”. It was a very precise exercise in the control of public discourse.

While today’s conservatives are not perfect in the storytelling department, the defeat of the Clean Energy Act was only possible because they are heavily invested in controlling public narratives. As is often the case, especially around budget time, the story then was about “battlers”, the cost of living, who was authentic, who was wearing an orange vest, and who was on their side. Crucially, these are elements of a story that people recognise and can relate to as a coherent and moral tale, whether they agree or not. The contrast with the progressive narrative on the moral challenge of “climate change” couldn’t be more marked.

More than a decade ago, conservative strategist Frank Luntz pointed out that because the very expression “climate change” was scientifically focused, ambiguous and had no obvious story or villain, it could be manipulated by polluters. It’s a strategy that has worked far too well. Progressives will argue the facts of climate change and tell stories to elaborate on the reality of climate change until they are blue in the face. What most do not realise is that conservative strategists see perfectly clearly that a science-based narrative need not and has not yet resulted in a political imperative to stop big polluters. Big polluters are buying time by contesting the very narrative of climate change and proposing policy responses that work only to extend the lives of polluting businesses.

The relentless insistence on demonstrating climate reality in the face of this conservative climate strategy has the effect of normalising climate change, and frames it as an environmental problem or a truth – just part of life. This normalisation is precisely what big polluters are banking on.

Global warming is in fact an ecological consequence of a serious social problem. Organisations that want to engage with big polluters, and produce narratives that studiously avoid identifying the big polluter problem, reinforce this normalisation of global warming as something beyond social control. Progressives must engage big polluters, but not at the cost of attributing corporate social responsibility for their continuing expansion of coal exports in the face of the global pollution crisis.

Arguing the facts of climate science and climate reality framed in terms of “climate change”, “climate action”, a “climate movement” for “climate justice” has its roots in a global climate bureaucracy. This scientifically based narrative would be fine were we not living in a world where emotion and persuasion rule. It’s a progressive pollster’s worst nightmare and a big polluter’s publicity dream.

In 2008-10, I was running a Labor polling firm and we were asked by a group of NGOs to undertake a project to better understand how they should talk about global warming in the context of the global financial crisis.

The first finding was that we could respond to global warming by creating jobs. This transformation to clean energy would be great for health, create jobs, and help cut pollution and solve global warming. The second key finding was we could go to coal towns and capital cities and talk about pollution as a problem and clean energy as a solution. Don’t say “climate” and all is well.

So we reported that it was better to talk about industrial change than climate change, and to frame the conversation in terms of a big polluting villain and a clean energy solution. The plan began to work. Instead of the “Climate Action Act”, we had the Clean Energy Act.

The Big Story briefly moved towards pollution and clean energy, but Abbott won the day with his “carbon tax” story.

Instead of pushing back and contesting the Big Story, progressives capitulated. The term “carbon tax” become an accepted shorthand in progressive newspaper columns. Progressive political parties produced leaflets offering “the carbon tax explained”.  The phrase “carbon tax” entered the national lexicon uncontested and served to frame the whole debate – much to the benefit of conservatives and Abbott.

The turn of events under the current government – the repeal of the Clean Energy Act and the conflict over the clean energy target (or what bureaucrats call the renewable energy target) – meant that the debate shifted, fortuitously in our firm’s view, away from the weather or “climate” to energy.

We are in favour of pointing out that angry summers are a result of polluters’ greed and that we should move our money out of big-polluter-aligned banks and super funds to firms invested in clean energy. But this doesn’t necessitate framing the Big Story in terms of language such as “climate” and all the carbon techno babble that comes with it, and nor is it likely to be successful if we did. In fact, our experience suggests the opposite.

So let’s check in again with that Big Story. Global brands are very systematic about telling stories to support their interests. If we look at big polluters’ stories on the one hand, and firms selling solar panels and clean energy on the other, the findings go like this. Those selling the solar and wind tend not to talk about “climate” because it’s confusing and they know it’s a barrier to creating the social and economic shift to clean energy. Conversely, the big polluters are now very consistent in talking about “climate change” because they drew the same conclusion many years ago and have realised denial just looks like lies.

Meanwhile, the “climate movement” continues to talk in much the same language as the big polluters, because of the lack of focus on tackling the power of narrative and how “climate” narrative has become a barrier to the very change we must create.

A few years ago we would come out of focus groups knowing that this was the kind of strategic insight our clients would find hard to swallow. For many it still is. What has changed is that punters in the focus groups can now pick the conservative story strategy and have begun to offer unprompted advice on how to get around it. What they say is that if you want to tackle the global pollution crisis and create societies powered by clean energy, “climate change” is not required in your narrative. “Climate” talk is only going to alienate the neighbours or the relatives.

Instead, lead actors in the dramatic production of the greatest moral challenge of all time are likely to be actual people. Our Big Polluter villain has already won best actor. What remains to be seen is who in this Big Story will be the heroes, and whether progressives will ever find the plot.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2015 as "What's the story?".

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Alex Frankel is a director of research and communications firm Frankly. He has managed focus groups and polling for Labor and the Greens.

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