The allure of the phony Republican anecdote

Surf and Turf, a staple of food stamp recipients' diets according to GOP.

Surf and Turf, a staple of food stamp recipients’ diets according to GOP.

Humans are a storytelling species. Thus, it’s no surprise that narratives — essentially, ongoing story lines — are an important part of successful political communication. In Messaging Maxim #4: Feed the Narrative, we mentioned that it is valuable to:

craft a true but negative story about your opponents’ ideas, actions or positions, and then look for statements or actions by them that you can point to as furthering that narrative.

Republicans are very good at constructing narratives (for example, “Scary Brown People”); however, many Republican narratives are false. That’s why you will see the GOP using anecdotes, i.e., possibly false or possibly true stories involving as few as one person, to further their phony narratives, rather than citing any meaningful facts, evidence or accurate math.

One such Republican anecdote made famous by Ronald Reagan was the so-called “Welfare Queen” who drove around in a Cadillac. This anecdote, while true to an extent as to one person, allowed Reagan and other Republicans to further some of their favorite narratives explicitly or implicitly — Government assistance is bad; blacks are moochers who seek government handouts instead of working hard — in order to then push for GOP policies such as reducing government assistance programs.

An updated version of Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” anecdote occurred in 2013, when Fox News found “a surfer and rocker who is living the self-described ‘rat life’ in California,” and who reportedly used his $200 per month SNAP (f/k/a “food stamps”) credits to buy sushi and lobster. Why did Fox bother reporting on this one-off story, which seems absurd since $200 for food would hardly last a month for this person or anyone else given such purchases? A clue to the answer may be found in its original online story title, still preserved in the URL of the article: “will-we-be-adults-or-children-ugly-truth-about-americas-spending.” In other words, this anecdote again furthered the Republican narrative that SNAP and other government assistance isn’t crucial for many Americans’ survival, but rather, some luxury entitlement that’s being widely abused and which can therefore be cut in order to give more tax cuts to wealthy Americans.

Two years later, a Missouri Republican state representative similarly used an anecdote — this time, the unproven “I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards” — to push for legislation which severely limits what food stamp recipients can buy.

It’s important to challenge these Republican anecdotes, and the false narratives that underlie them. Among the ways to do this are:

  • Ask “how do you know that?” as to the anecdote itself.
  • Ask “what is the point you’re trying to illustrate?” as to the anecdote. You may get the person to reveal their underlying narrative, e.g., “government assistance is bad” or “Muslim immigrants are terrorists.” Then you can ….
  • Go back to your first question, “how do you know that?” as to the narrative itself. Chances are the person won’t have any real facts to back up their narrative. If that is the case ….
  • You can point out that the person seems caught in an endless, fact-free loop.
  • You can then provide some facts on the issue, which are often widely available for your research.
  • But keep in mind that facts alone will simply bounce off the other person if such facts don’t fit their existing frame. In that case ….
  • Develop or restate compelling, true counter-narratives, some of which are discussed here at Messaging Matters, such as our Good Government” category, and use true, visceral anecdotes to support them.

Photo by jeffreyw, used under Creative Commons license.

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