The Stories We Tell

As a memoir writer, I’m keenly aware that the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives are the anchors of identity and belief — and the driver of the actions that follow. The same is true on a national level. A fundamental part of the American story is the Horatio Alger tale of upward mobility. If the driver of upward mobility is personal grit and determination — a fundamental misreading of the actual Alger story, but no matter — then social supports for those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder do more harm than good. If you follow political policy statements, you’ll recognize that very sentiment from Republican conservatives in Congress.

What if the upward mobility story isn’t particularly true, and hasn’t been for a long time?

Turns out the truthfulness of the story, for most of us, has little bearing on how hard we cling to it.

Today, Alger’s plight illustrates a deeper truth about politics: The stories we tell are often more important than the underlying facts. In part, our misunderstandings about Alger’s work, like our misunderstandings about the true levels of intergenerational mobility, stem from a belief that the United States is a nation where opportunity exists for all.

In truth, upward mobility in our country is far less than in many European countries, like France, which we deride as being “socialist”.

This discontinuity between fact and reality isn’t even about fake news — it’s about the stubborn persistence of blind belief even when reality smacks us in the face every day.

I’m not sure where to go with this on a policy level — or indeed on a personal one, other than to try to push for a more reality-based story in my own life. But on a national level, as long as we persist in our chosen myths, we aren’t likely to “come together” under any national leader. If democracy counts on a bi-partisan center, that doesn’t bode well, does it?

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