Storytelling and Politics + Consequences on the Built Environment

This interesting article published by the BBC outlines two men and the books they have written arguing that storytelling influences voters far more than facts or logic. I think that these are quite poignant observations given our evolutionary bias to storytelling as well as the increasing absurdity of American politics. The authors propose that voters may even vote against their own interests because they have such strong attachments to stories surrounding the issues, regardless of logic or facts that may counter the storylines.

Cover of "The Political Brain: The Role o...

Cover via Amazon

Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, views American politics from the following perspective. Politicians on the Left generally rely on facts and what they deem to be sound arguments to attract voters. Politicians on the Right rely on the trend that voters do not like things explained to them and do not like politicians who portray themselves as know the right answers or knowing what is best for the populace. It is not a matter of which side is right or wrong, it is a difference of strategy. While politicians on the Left continue to struggle using facts to attract voters, politicians on the Right have found success with storytelling. By creating a convincing story that appeals to emotion rather than reason, opposing candidates can easily fall out of favor with the voters, even if the stories hold little or no truth. Thomas Frank, author of What’s The Matter with Kansas, believes that the modern voter prefers emotional argument over reasonable argument.

“For Mr. Westen, stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win”

“As Mr. Frank sees it, authenticity has replaced economics as the driving force of modern politics. The authentic politicians are the ones who sound like they are speaking from the gut, not the cerebral cortex. Of course, they might be faking it, but it is no joke to say that in contemporary politics, if you can fake sincerity, you have got it made.”

Another example that is relevant is the campaign slogans that John McCain and Barack Obama used during the 2008 election. The McCain campaign used the image of a Maverick to endorse the candidate, while the Obama campaign used the slogan Change We Can Believe In. Both candidates wanted to cast themselves as a departure from the status quo, as something new in Washington. However, to be successful in Washington it is unlikely that one can be too different. But the reality does not matter, because voters, in addition to favoring policy, will emotionally identify with the image and story of the candidate they prefer.

So what does any of this have to do with the built environment?

Imagine an election that will determine city taxes, future developments, zoning issues or transportation options. The result of the election could lead to policy, or a budget, that could significantly alter the built environment, for better or for worse.

A concrete example of this is a November 2009 election in Colorado Springs, CO. Facing a severely tight budget, the city was looking for ways to save money. The leading proposal was to cut fire fighter jobs and stop maintenance on city parks, close public swimming pools and cut youth sports. Not great options for most citizens of the city. As an alternative, a tax was proposed to alleviate the financial strain and avert a reduction of city services. The tax would have cost families approximately $120 per year over 10 years. However, facts were quickly overwhelmed by contradicting stories that passing the measure would increase taxes by 300%, as well as stories that citizens should not have to pay more taxes and outrage at the failure of the city counsel (not necessarily unjustified).

As background, Colorado Springs has some of the lowest property taxes in the state and nation, and the population largely supports small-government and anti-tax politics.

Despite facts supporting passage of the bill with tangible urban benefits at stake, stories appealing to the emotions of voters won out. The measure was defeated by nearly 2 to 1. As a result, unless private money comes through, or some other unforeseen solution develops, many of the more than 140 parks throughout the city will go without water or maintenance during the summer. No public swimming pools will open and many youth sports programs will be eliminated, and community centers closed. In addition, 1/3 of the cities streetlights will be turned off in an effort to save more money. It seems as though the city, backed by the voters, have chosen to generate their own urban blight and reduce the value of cities and neighborhoods. This decision does not seem to be in anyone’s best interest, and yet the voters were sold on the stories.

To recap, in elections and politics, facts and tangibles can be outweighed by stories, no matter if they are true or false. If the political decisions impact city resources, or civic and transportation projects, then these stories can impact the built environment. As voters and designers, we need to be aware of how stories can influence our decision making, as well as how stories can lay the groundwork for amazing and positive urban and architectural developments.

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