Democrats Need to Stand Up for Themselves

Humans are drawn to narratives, but too many politicians struggle to use storytelling to find common ground.

Mallory McMorrow speaking in the Michigan Senate
Michigan Senate; The Atlantic

Sign up for Molly’s newsletter, Wait, What?, here.

It’s unusual for a one-off political speech to make someone famous. This is especially the case in today’s toxic fog of disinformation and apathy. But last week a Democratic state senator named Mallory McMorrow from Royal Oak, Michigan, somehow broke through when she stood up on the floor of the Michigan Senate and defended herself against smears from another state senator, Lana Theis, who wrote in a fundraising email that Democrats like McMorrow “are outraged they can’t teach can’t groom and sexualize kindergartners or that 8-year-olds are responsible for slavery.”

McMorrow laid out the absurd charges against her, and she did so on personal terms—telling a story about her own childhood before describing the obligation she feels to call out the tactics of politicians like Theis. “I am a straight, white, Christian, married suburban mom … I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard, and supported, not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, white, and Christian. We cannot let hateful people tell you otherwise to scapegoat and deflect from the fact that they are not doing anything to fix the real issues that impact people’s lives. And I know that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”

McMorrow’s remarks were memorable because she was tenacious in her delivery, but also because Democrats tend not to defend themselves in this way. More often, they ignore scurrilous attacks. They take the high road, whatever that means, with very mixed results. Think of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which helped derail John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, or the conspiracy theories about the Benghazi embassy attack, which hurt Hillary Clinton’s popularity.

McMorrow did two stunning things: She defended herself, and she did so in a way that came across as wholly authentic. She wasn’t afraid to be emotional, or even enraged.

Over the past few weeks, Republicans have taken to accusing supporters of LGBTQ rights of being “groomers.” This hyperaggressive smear tactic is straight out of the QAnon playbook, but it can be traced to the early days of American politics. Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 of the “paranoid style” that  “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” In 1977, the singer Anita Bryant successfully drew a connection between homosexuality and child sexual predation with her demented “Save Our Children” campaign, which promoted harmful lies about gay people as a way to overturn a law that would ban discrimination against them. Everything old is new again, including, it turns out, allegations of pedophilia. Democrats have puzzled over how to deal with allegations so obviously false. Some argue that rebutting such absurdities amounts to stooping to the GOP’s level, and risks inadvertently elevating the claims. But McMorrow proved that rebuttal can be done effectively—and she succeeded because her rebuke rested on a personal narrative. This is a lesson that resonated with me immediately.

I learned it myself in 1997, in the Lily unit of Hazelden Rehab, in Center City, Minnesota. I was a 19-year-old drug addict trying to kick cocaine and alcohol and everything else. I showed up at Hazelden wearing heavy, dark eye makeup, my bag filled with controlled substances, convinced that no one had ever felt the way I felt. The next four weeks in Minnesota taught me the power of narrative, because the stories I heard from the other people there saved my life. Again and again, people told me their stories, and again and again, I related to their loss, their hardship, their loneliness. My counselor in rehab looked like a soccer mom but told me a hair-raising story of shooting smack and sleeping in alleyways. This was 24.5 years ago, and I still remember the feeling her story invoked in me. I remember thinking that if she could quit, so could I. It was these stories that convinced me that I could get sober too. And I did. I’m not sure I could have without the power of the first-person narrative, or, as we call it in Alcoholics Anonymous: experience, strength, and hope.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. What she meant, I think, was that we need stories to organize our understanding of the world, particularly when bad things happen. But perhaps, in the political realm, we’re not dependent enough on stories and the connections they can establish. Our human dependence on stories could save us from radicalization; they could rescue us from the cultural nihilism of Big Tech. I got sober because I saw someone else do it. I got clean because a girl from New Jersey told me about her teenage drinking and I realized I wasn’t damaged beyond recognition. If that girl from New Jersey with the long blond hair hadn’t told me her story, I might not be sober today. I might be living a life in and out of rehab. What I’m trying to say is thank God for stories. We need them.

When I called McMorrow over the weekend, she told me she had been inundated with phone calls. She’s famous now. The president of the United States called her. Everyone wants to know how she did it, how her words actually pierced through the malaise. “I tell people to write like you would talk to your friends in a bar. Use the same energy. Whatever your personal story is, tell it. Don’t lead with a long policy paper. People vote for people that they trust, and you have to build that trust first, and you don’t do that with a policy paper. You do that with a story about who you are and who they are and what you have in common.” What she didn’t say, but what is clear to me from decades of obsessively tracking American politics, is that Democrats need to hear this message far more than Republicans do.

Even the most charismatic Democrat tends to lead with policy. I remember interviewing a popular United States senator on my podcast and him promising me that policy would speak for itself, would win votes and hearts and minds. That would be a sweetly earnest assumption if it weren’t so deeply naive. And by the way, President Joe Biden’s polling shows otherwise. “People do not vote for technocrats; they vote for people,” Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat, told me recently. “If you can connect with a voter at a human level, you have a chance to change their mind.”

The Republicans who are most emboldened in spreading lies—about the character of their opponents or the outcome of an election—are banking on Democrats refusing to attack them back. Democrats would do well to remember that when the idea is to dehumanize one’s enemies, a personal narrative makes that goal significantly more difficult to achieve.

McMorrow met the allegations against her head-on: “So you dehumanize and marginalize me. You say I’m one of them. You say ‘She’s a groomer, she supports pedophilia, she wants children to believe they were responsible for slavery and to feel bad about themselves because they’re white.’”

She then went on to explain what people should know about her instead: McMorrow is a mother. She has a daughter. She grew up going to church. She worked in a soup kitchen. These concrete facts are a reminder that she is a person and not a faceless enemy. As she put it, she’s a “mom who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are white is absolute nonsense.”

I think about my own work with other alcoholics. “Attraction rather than promotion” is one of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous. It means we don’t proselytize. We don’t recruit. We aren’t door-to-door vacuum salespeople. We’re telling our stories, sharing our experience. We are people helping ourselves and, through that, one another. Democrats can use this narrative drive, this storytelling ethos, to connect with voters. These aren’t normal times. Republicans continue to harden against democracy. Autocracy is ever at the gates. But our stories unite us, and perhaps they will be the key to our survival.