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Reich's American Narratives


Disciplines > Storytelling > Plots > Reich's American Narratives

Triumphant individual | Benevolent Community | Mob at the Gates | Rot at the Top | See also


Robert Reich has identified four common social narratives that appear within the American sphere (and maybe also wider). Two are about hope and two about fear. His principle is that if politicians recognize these and speak to these hopes and fears, then they will resonate with their audience and hence gain trust and votes.

The four narratives can be shown on a matrix as follows:


Reich's narratives

Hope Fear



The Triumphant Individual


The Rot at the Top

The Benevolent Community


The Mob at the Gates


The Triumphant Individual

The Triumphant Individual is the classic American dream of:

...the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor.

The tale of the underdog who succeeds, whilst also of note elsewhere in the world, is a critical part of the American brand to which many immigrants aspire and which motivates them to work in sometimes poor conditions and for lower wages. It is the hope of success that Hollywood sells so well that has helped make America a industrial powerhouse for many years.

The Benevolent Community

In counterpoint to the individualism of the previous narrative, the American archetypical person is also social and collaborative in the story of:

...neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good.

Whilst social collaboration is common through the world, this story in the American context reassures fears of anarchy and paints a folksy picture of small-town America, where crime is minimal and neighbors help one another without question.

This narrative also includes the dream of equality in all forms and has been the fuel of many normalizing social forces, from racial to gender and age.

The Mob at the Gates

Whilst the narratives of individual and community provide the pull of hope, the Mob at the Gates invokes the push of fear. The 'Mob at the Gates' is thus the story where:

...the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces.

Thus there is a basic assumption that 'we are the good guys'. Whilst all countries think this, America has often acted on this in recent history, going out into the world to 'put things right', sometimes diplomatically but backed up with significant might. Hollywood again reinforces this with endless movies of how Americans have conquered the bad guys and saved the world.

This pattern also keeps Americans very happy to be Americans. Cults use similar principles to keep people onside, for example in the black-and-white polarization of us vs. them.

The Rot at the Top

The final narrative is more individual and worrysome and shows where the Triumphant Individual can go wrong, particularly where the principles of the Benevolent Community are ignored. It is about:

..the malevolence of powerful elites. It's a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places--of conspiracy against the common citizen.

Rooted in the American war independence where the English rulers were portrayed as corrupt and uncaring, it has echoed down to a lack of trust in politicians that is sometimes true and maybe causes sometimes that which it accuses.

The principle is that power corrupts and none more so than where there is absolute power and is embodied in the saying 'The fish rots from the head'.

This distrust of power can well be valid and can hence be a communitarian force that warns leaders and mobilizes the population against apparent dictatorship.

See also

Pull principle, Push principle, Power, Conversion, American values

Reich, R. (2005). The Lost Art Of Democratic Narrative. The New Republic, March 21, 2005



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