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Gary Pearce: What can UK’s Boris Johnson teach American Democrats?

By Gary Pearce

To many Americans, especially Democrats, Boris Johnson is a clownish British version of former President Trump. But Democrats might take a page from Johnson, especially on how to talk to people.

The party is going through self-analysis now. Yes, President Biden beat Trump and Democrats won a 50-50 split in the Senate. But they’d hoped to do much better; they want to get to the bottom of why the bottom fell out on their high hopes.

Democrats being Democrats, they think they need a stronger economic-policy message and the right set of policy proposals.

Not so fast. There’s a reason most people avoid economics classes in school. Economics is boring. Economic policy proposals are boring.

Americans want specifics, but they yearn for hope and optimism. They’re listening more for tone: confidence, strength and persistence. They want to hear music, not just read lyrics.

Boris Johnson gets it. He says his goal as prime minister of the United Kingdom is “to recapture some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have.”

Democrats could use more energy and optimism — and less hectoring and lecturing.

Johnson’s style is analyzed in a new article in The Atlantic, “The Minister of Chaos: Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing,” by Tom McTague. He wrote of Johnson, “To him, the point of politics—and life—is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in.”

Johnson led the Brexit “Leave” campaign in 2016, just before Trump won the presidency. McTague notes that the “two campaigns looked similar on the surface—populist, nationalist, anti-establishment.”

But Johnson’s story isn’t the same as Trump’s “American carnage.” Johnson says the UK, contrary to “claims of impending disaster…is a great and remarkable and interesting country in its own right’.”

Johnson is a former journalist. He knows the power of words. He says, “People live by narrative. Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”

The article added:

“Johnson understands the art of politics better than his critics and rivals do. He is right that his is a battle to write the national story, and that this requires offering people hope and agency, a sense of optimism and pride in place. He has shown that he is a master at finding the story voters want to hear.”

Writing the national story is the challenge Democrats face. Studying the UK makes sense; we share a mother tongue.

At this month’s G7 meeting in Cornwall, England, there was much talk about the “special relationship” between the US and the UK. There also has been, over the last 40 years, a rhythmic relationship between the two nation’s politics.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both conservatives, came to power at the same time. So did New Democrat Bill Clinton and New Labour Tony Blair. Then came Trump and Johnson. Now Biden and Johnson.

Despite their parallels, Johnson isn’t a Trump clone. At the G7 meetings, he and President Biden agreed on climate change, women’s rights, sanctions against Russia and a middle-class economic agenda. Johnson’s compared Biden’s infrastructure bill to his promise of “leveling up” the economically struggling north of England with the more prosperous south.

He said, “When it comes to building back better, we’re totally on the same page. It’s been very interesting and very refreshing.”

As Democrats struggle to tell their story in today’s divided America, they might study how Johnson tells his. Sometimes he might be a clown. But sometimes clowns are on to something. And given today’s angry politics, it wouldn’t hurt to laugh and lighten up a bit.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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