WHEN BARACK OBAMA gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, a speech that set him on the path to the White House, he laid out the challenges facing America and urged voters to support John Kerry, the party’s candidate. But first, he offered an account of his life. He spoke of his father, born and brought up in Kenya, who “went to school in a tin-roof shack”, and his mother, born in Kansas, and their “improbable love” and shared, “abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation”. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story,” Mr Obama said, his hands stretching out towards the crowd and the camera, “that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
The repetition was no accident: storytelling and politics are deeply entwined. Candidates use narratives to explain who they are, what obstacles they’ve overcome and why they are the right person for the job. Leaders deploy the stories of ordinary people to illuminate policy and make intangible ideas more real. Populists offer a selective history of the country and imagine a glorious future. Even political figures who eschew lofty rhetoric, such as Donald Trump, use anecdotes to galvanise listeners. On January 6th, when he stood in front of a crowd near the Capitol, he (falsely) told a tale of a stolen election.
The link between storytelling and politics is particularly strong in America, where actors and reality-television stars have assumed the nation’s highest office. Ronald Reagan had starred in Westerns, war films and comedies before making the move from Los Angeles to Washington; he was known as the “Great Communicator” on account of his preference for plain language and ease of speaking in front of a crowd.
Cabinet members have been hired from Hollywood, too. Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary under Mr Trump, has worked in film financing and is credited as an executive producer on blockbusters including “The Lego Movie”, “Edge of Tomorrow” and “American Sniper”. Steve Bannon considered himself a mover and shaker in the film industry before he became Mr Trump’s campaign chief and foremost strategist. He has 21 film and video credits on IMDb, a database for the entertainment industry, as an executive producer, writer or director. In 2010 Mr Bannon said his aim was to “weaponise film” with provocative projects.
More recently, the direction of travel has been reversed, as politicians enter the entertainment business. In 2018 Mr Obama and Michella Obama set up Higher Ground, a production company. In partnership with Netflix, Higher Ground has made several documentaries (including “American Factory”, about a Chinese firm’s factory in Ohio, which won an Academy Award), “Waffles + Mochi” (pictured), a children’s show which encourages curiosity about fresh food and cooking, and “Worth”, a film drama about the 9/11 compensation fund. “Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others,” Mrs Obama said in a statement announcing the Netflix agreement.
In 2020 Mr Kerry, who served as Mr Obama’s secretary of state, joined Fingerprint Content, a production company, as a senior adviser and executive producer. Complementing his role as Joe Biden’s presidential climate envoy, a number of projects on the company’s slate are about the environment, including an “eco-crime detective series” and “an ambitious cli-fi conspiracy thriller television series”. “I’ve been in the business of communicating my whole life,” Mr Kerry has said in interviews. If you “tell a story the right way, it has enormous impact.”
Hillary Clinton has also set up her own venture, HiddenLight Productions, which released its first series, “If I Could Tell You Just One Thing”, on YouTube this week. Much as Mrs Clinton’s campaign in the 2016 election emphasised her feminist credentials, HiddenLight puts female stories at the forefront. The YouTube series features women in conversation about their lives; meanwhile, “Gutsy Women”, coming to Apple TV+, is adapted from Mrs Clinton’s book of profiles, co-written with her daughter, Chelsea (also involved in HiddenLight). “The Daughters of Kobani”, another forthcoming television series, is adapted from a book that follows an all-female Kurdish militia who fought Islamic State in Syria. Johnny Webb, HiddenLight’s chief executive, says the company seeks to create poignant, socially engaged work and benefits from Mrs Clinton’s experience and contacts: “It’s such a joy and privilege to have access to extraordinary stories and people.”
It seems to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Film-makers are more likely to get funding for their work when it is associated with a well-known figure; Mrs Clinton, Mr Kerry and the Obamas are “deploying not only their political authority but also their political celebrity as they move on to become media producers,” says Geoffrey Craig of the Auckland University of Technology, who has written books on political communication. By producing documentaries, television series and films, public figures can continue to champion the causes they care about after they have left office. Streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV+ offer them an opportunity to air such messages on a global platform; in return the broadcasters receive publicity, viewers and perhaps new subscribers—from one side of the aisle, anyway.