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March 21, 2005

Reich's Four Stories
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Robert Reich has an interesting piece in this week's New Republic where he talks about the need for progressives to reclaim the four basic narratives that have defined American politics:  The two hopeful variants are the Triumphant Individual (a la Horatio Alger and Erin Brockovich) and the Benevolent Community (barn raisers and It's a Wonderful Life).  The flip-side are two fearsome parables:  The Mob at the Gates (everything from Nazi Germany to Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and the Rot at the Top (from the robber barons to the latest accounting scandals).

Reich uses some foreign policy examples to explain how conservatives have managed to capture these mythologies to advance their policy objectives, but overlooks others.  In fact, the Bush Administration's foreign policy relies heavily on all four classic tales.  Writ international, the Triumphant Individuals are not individuals but nations - namely Afghanistan and Iraq, both beating the odds to become fledgling democracies.  The Benevolent Community is the U.S.'s fearless coalition of the dwindling, most famous for its role in the reconstruction of Iraq (proud members include Micronesia and the Solomon Islands).  The Mob at the Gates, as Reich notes, is Osama Bin Laden and the Axis of Evil.  And the Rot at the Top, of course, is the UN, arrogant, wasteful and corrupt.

So how do progressives invoke these narratives to reclaim the upper hand?  The story of the Triumphant Individual should include not just countries where the U.S. has intervened (Horatio Alger's wasn't the tale of a winning contestant on Donald Trump's Apprentice), but nations who have pulled themselves out of despair - like Uganda by attacking AIDS or Malawi which has invested heavily in health and education.  The Bush Administration promised these countries a helping hand through the Millennium Challenge Account, a program that has yet to disburse a dime.  The Benevolent Community should be a community of democracies - countries that share enough common ground to be willing to attempt to plow through their differences and truly collaborate on quarantining dictators and dangerous weapons, and trying to expand the sphere of freedom.  Progressives recognize that the Mob at the Gates is broader than just terrorism, and includes disease, environmental degradation, and the chaos wrought by poverty.  The Rot at the Top is the hypocrisy of an Administration that points a finger at the UN for the oil for food scandal, while covering up its very own audit of Halliburton's excesses and overcharges for - guess what - oil for Iraq.

Reich argues that progressive political strategists ought to think in terms of reviving these narratives.  It might not hurt for foreign policy wonks to do the same.


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