The story was simple, almost deceptively so. An 11-year-old girl, accompanied by her mom, took the podium at the Democratic National Convention Monday night and brought the country inside her world.
She is an American, Las Vegas born. Her parents are undocumented immigrants working unspecified jobs in Karla's hometown. Every day as Karla makes her way to school she's filled with a specific fear. That is the fear one or both of her parents may simply be gone, picked up by federal immigration officials and put on the path to deportation. She fears that she will come home and find it empty. She fears her parents won't be around to help her find rare rocks in the Las Vegas desert. Karla wants to become a lawyer to help families like her own.
Implied but not said: This is the daily burden shouldered by millions of people who entered the country illegally from countries where the proverbial legal "immigration line," requires a wait of 20-plus years. That is especially true for those from nearby countries. These parents who go to work each day and their American-born children are the very people who Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump aims to deport, en masse. That's his fix. Soon to be Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton thinks the country needs a more nuanced set of immigration reforms.
Out in the convention hall and the living rooms of America where Karla's story was heard there were, no doubt, a variety of responses. But, most fall into one of two broad categories.
They are goosebumps or some less visible variation thereof and aversion, be it rejection and a channel change or seething anger paired with continued viewing. Both broad responses are at their core,emotional and telling. They are the kind of reactions any therapist with an available 50 minute-hour would deem worthy of examination. We react as we do to effective political storytelling for reasons that reveal volumes about the human mind, American politics and how, in a democracy, political victories are won.
Here's the thing: little Karla Ortiz came out and told a story. In the process, she accomplished what many a great-on-paper political candidate, long-suffering activist and dinner-table political commentator has not. She activated the parts of the human brain that help to make us unusual as a species and put us at the top of the food chain.
Healthy human brains come equipped to take in facts and process information via logic and different forms of reasoning. But how we interpret and then act on these facts is also shaped by what we feel, and what those feelings lead us to believe to be real. It's the combination of thought and feeling that shapes politics and the effectiveness of all political activity, said Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of government.
"When most people think of politics they think of arguments or argumentative speechmaking," said Ganz. "But, what we know is that it's stories, stories told in a particular way, that are much more effective. The capacity to instruct the heart, not just the head is what that gives storytelling such power. It's through them -- when told the right way -- that then we experience moral or emotional insight into the lives of others."
Ganz knows about which he speaks. A life-long, left-leaning organizer and activist, Ganz helped coordinate the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation and its protest actions at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The group challenged the Democratic Party's nearly all out resistance to the Civil Rights cause. It exposed the fact that black Americans in the South were not only almost universally unable to vote, but unable to participate in party politics. And they spoke of how this arrangement helped to sustain and support the many indignities and injustices nonwhite Americans experienced in the Jim Crow South.
That year the Republican presidential candidate opposed Civil Rights reforms. That candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), became the first Republican to claim so many white votes in the South that he became the first Republican to claim any of the region's electoral college votes since Reconstruction. Note that this was not part of the Republican Party's story on race that got a single mention at the convention last week.
In 2007, Ganz developed the storytelling and political mobilization workshops known as Camp Obama. At them, thousands of Americans learned how to tell their life stories in the form of key moments that listeners can then almost experience with the speaker. Then Ganz taught them the essential step to make those stories politically potent. Storytellers have to connect their personal concerns and what they see as the necessary solutions to larger American political values everyone likes to claim, like justice, fairness and equality.
That work helped volunteers to register thousands of new voters and super-charge the slow transition in voting that continues to shape politics today. That, in turn, put an underdog candidate and the nation's first black president in the White House.
In 2009, Ganz began working with young undocumented immigrant activists determined to push for immigration reform. When legislative efforts failed in Congress, these activists started telling their personal stories in public forums, effectively outing themselves in public as undocumented immigrants. And, in the end, they forced Obama to sign an executive order that granted some of them deportation relief.
This storytelling stuff can work.
Every fall, Ganz teaches a course at Harvard in which about 130 students from the United States and several other countries around the world -- some of them elected officials or aspiring ones, some of them activists -- try to enroll. Here's why.
When stories -- personal stories -- are told in the right way, they can trigger what scientists have labeled our "mirror neurons." These are the structures in the brain that allow most of us to come quite close to hearing, smelling, actually feeling what others have. Think of this as the physical architecture that supports human empathy. Once that happens, the emotions kick in. Some already in the speaker's corner will be further convinced that they are in the right. Some in the middle will be moved in that direction. Some will be repulsed.
Wait, repulsed? Yes, repulsed.
That may sound like the opposite of what one needs to do in politics. But Ganz, the man behind all those movements mentioned above has plenty of evidence to make his point. And, then, there is this.
There are "people in between who will support you if connected, and those who will never support you no matter what you do. If you take the latter as your standard, you’re done [defeated] before you’ve even begun."
Unconvinced? Consider this.
In 2004, then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had a life story in which most politicians would sense an easy path to victory. He, a son of privilege, had volunteered for the Vietnam War, fought and demonstrated valor that was formally recognized, returned and then became one of the nation's most outspoken anti-war activists with a rare sort of moral authority. Yet, even as Kerry stated the facts connected to this portion of his life, it was the story told about moments on the midst of war by the Swift Boat Veterans that many people believed.
Now think about the difference between Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Monday night speech and Michelle Obama's.
Warren argued that we have ample evidence -- facts about Trump University, Trump's business dealings, Trump's language on the campaign trail -- that in her view signal that Trump is not fit for office. Michelle Obama took America's parents inside the moment where she, as a mother, watched her children head off to school accompanied by large men with guns. She told America she thought, "What have we done?" She realized that what she and her husband did in the next four to eight years would shape who these girls became. And, when you think about it, Obama all but said, isn't that true of the relationship between every administration and the American public?
Obama and Warren made the same argument. Do you see the difference in how that was done?
Obama actually did the effective political storytelling thing more than once Monday night. Think of that moment where she mentioned that she wakes up daily in a house built by slaves and watches her daughters play with their dog on the White House Lawn. And in those moments and others it is clear to this black woman just a few generations out of slavery, her own daughters take for granted that a woman can be president. Their father, a black man, already has.
Boom. Did that make you angry? Did you turn the channel or tweet something nasty about Obama? Or, did you get chills?
Now, back to little Karla Ortiz. In standing up and taking Americans inside what she thinks and feels every day, Karla also expressed a deep kind of faith in the country's commitment to a certain kind of decency, compassion. She all but raised the question, does the United States remain committed to those ideas carved on that tablet held in the Statue of Liberty's arms, or not?
This is one of those questions about which almost Americans have thoughts.
Sadly, we don't have the benefit of those nifty hand-held dials that could have generated in-the moment-voter responses to Karla's speech today. But what we do have is solid polling data that tells us a lot about how different groups of Americans likely feel about elements of Karla's speech and its delivery.
A March 2016 Pew Research Center analysis found significant differences along party lines in the way that Americans think about the very presence of immigrants For a huge majority of Republicans -- an overwhelmingly white group -- immigration is a bad thing.
We also know that an April Public Religion Research Institute poll found that Trump supporters, more than even other Republican voters, are troubled by contact with non-English speaking immigrants, at The Fix's Philip Bump detailed for readers just yesterday.
For those convinced that the "average" voter or "working class Americans," would not like what they heard, The Fix must offer these disruptive facts. Left-leaning voters of color and politically-similar whites today make up 51 percent of the eligible voter population. That's a very small majority, but a majority that exists right now. As for the working class, nearly 40 percent of that group is black or Latino, right now. Use your cursor to view where that workforce figure is headed.
So, there you have it. Some Republicans who supported another candidate in the primary and the 35 percent of Democrats who told Pew's researchers immigration is a bad thing, might have been persuadable last night. But "might" is really the key term.
Karla made her pitch. These voters can take it into their mirror neurons or reject it as they see fit. That's politics. Karla need not convince us all.