We need to get a better Villain.

By Ashley Bean Thornton

You know how you never notice silver Nissans until you buy a silver Nissan, then you start noticing all the silver Nissans out there?   I am having that experience with the idea of “enemy.”

I wrote a blog post a little while back about my “enemy” and now I have started noticing that word/idea come up in all kinds of places.   I had a terrific Whataburger lunch with the fabulous Jillian Ohriner of We Grow the Co this week, and the idea of “enemy” came up.

Actually, the word she used was “villain.”  We Grow the Co is a marketing company, and Jillian is a fan of marketing guru Donald Miller.  Donald Miller is famous for developing the “Storybrand” method of marketing which recommends that businesses refer to the archetypal elements of “story” to improve their marketing results.  One of those elements is the idea of a “villain.”  Every story needs a good villain – that’s what catalyzes the hero to take action.

This discussion of villainy came up in the context of talking about how the Democratic Party could communicate more effectively.  I wish I had done a better job of writing down exactly what Jillian said, because I think it was profound.  The gist of it for me was that the villain is not the Republicans.  The villain is the problem we are trying to solve.  We need to find a better villain.  We need to focus on how people feel about that villain, instead of how people feel about the Republicans.

I plan to read Miller’s book, Building a StoryBrand, to try to learn more about using his ideas to communicate more clearly, but in the meantime I’ve been noodling about the idea of “the villain/problem” in politics.  My first thought is that the villain/problem is a generalized anxiety, a sense that we don’t know what to do to just have a good life. We don’t know what to do to be OK.

For some people this anxiety is not a “sense.” It’s an everyday lived reality. You’re working hard to keep your balance like a lumberjack in a log rolling contest, then something inevitably happens that knocks you off the log.  Someone gets sick, you get laid off, your car breaks down, you get pregnant, etc. etc.  Or maybe you did what you thought was going to be a key part to making you OK – got a college degree – and now instead of being OK, you have a lifetime of debt.  Now you don’t feel like you can buy a house or have kids – the very things that you went to college to be able to do.  What are we supposed to do to be OK?

I/We need to do a lot more work making this definition of “the villain” more specific.  “We don’t know what to do to be OK” is too vague to be of much use when it comes to making a plan for communicating and taking action.  For me, it’s at least a starting point though.

It begs the question – What does it take to be OK?

I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs back in high school psychology.  I think it’s a little out of fashion now, but my thoughts on what it means to be OK follow along pretty well with that paradigm:

  • Air and water, protection from natural disasters.
  • Some degree of safety. You can walk down the street, go about your business, and sleep in your house without fear of being attacked and killed. Nobody’s dropping bombs on your head or waiting behind a bush to capture you and sell you into slavery.
  • A place to live and sleep. A reliable place to be warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot.
  • Food to eat. It doesn’t have to be great food or fancy food.  But, you shouldn’t have to worry about going hungry, about where your next meal is coming from.
  • Care when you are sick or in pain.
  • Relationships, connection – friends and family.
  • Freedom to think what you think, believe what you believe, love who you love, create the kind of family and life that suits you, as long as you are not impinging on someone else’s freedom.
  • Decent work.
  • Time to rest and play.
  • Self-respect, dignity.
  • A sense of purpose.
  • At least a little beauty.

Beyond “OK” it’s kind of a matter of ambition, desire, and choice: a nicer place to live, nicer clothes, nicer food, more exciting play, freedom and time for self-expression, creativity, more beauty…The possibilities are endless, but “OK” has to come first before we can even think about the rest.  A bedrock of “OK” is the foundation we need for our society to be able to build beyond OK.

I think we Democrats need to be wary of defining “Republicans” or “conservatives” or “capitalists” as the villain. It alienates us from people we need to be working alongside to defeat the real villain/problem – the threats to our ability to achieve a basic level of “OK-ness.”

I think Republicans need to be wary of defining “Democrats” or “liberals” or “socialism” as the villain.  That needlessly cuts us off from strategies and tools that could help us fend off the real villain/problem – the threats to the ability to achieve a basic level of “OK-ness.”

We need to get a better villain than each other, OK?

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  1. Debbie on September 2, 2023 at 11:09 am

    This was great ABT! You hit the nail right in the middle of the head on this one. So, I hope your next Dead Armadillo is a “how-to” do this. I look to you as an authority on understanding and compromise (I know you will disagree on that, but I am right on this one) and would like to see some of your ideas on working alongside one another in a better way – to defeat our villains. We don’t seem to be doing that very well right now. It is just so much easier to complain about what the other side is doing, not seeing anything they do as good or right and continue to sit stagnant in an “othering” mode – myself included.

  2. Erica on September 2, 2023 at 3:30 pm

    What a great post ABT!! Way to give it right to us. It’s almost biblical.

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