“Now, I want to have a chance to tell the story about my friend Ady Barkan,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) began her answer to a question about health care at the latest Democratic debate. “Ady is 35 years old. He has a wife, Rachael, he has a cute little boy named Carl. He also has ALS, and it’s killing him. Ady has health insurance, good health insurance, and it’s not nearly enough.”
Warren used Ady’s desperate situation to memorably encapsulate her support for Medicare-for-all, and for those who agree with her already or are persuadable in that direction, it was undoubtedly a compelling strategy. Ady can be understood as emblematic of a larger problem, his suffering a microcosm of the deep dysfunction of American health care.
But for viewers with substantially different prescriptions for our health-care woes, Warren’s story won’t be so obviously archetypal. No one need doubt the facts to reject the meaning Warren assigns them. As The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat observed in his last weekend column of July, “the heart of polarization [in America today] is often not a disagreement about the facts of a particular narrative, but about whether that story is somehow representative — or whether it’s just one tale among many in our teeming society, and doesn’t stand for anything larger than itself.” Much of our political debate runs on story, and we have a dangerous habit of inflating anecdote into argument.
The impulse to use a story like Warren did is understandable. A personal account helps readers or, for Warren, voters who may be unfamiliar with a complex topic engage at a human scale. It forges an initial connection, often through empathy, that triggers a more sustained interest in the wonkier details to follow. […]