Two people couldn’t be more dissimilar than Barrack Obama and Sarah Palin. Besides their huge political, racial and cultural differences, one is cerebral, buttoned up and calm, the other is fast-talking, emotional and seemingly spontaneous. One hot, one cold. But if you look closer, you might find some important similarities in their impact – which tell us a lot about why people are drawn to them as politicians.
Their interesting personal stories create the context for any message they may deliver as candidates, illustrating why stories that mesh with an audience’s experiences or desires are what is remembered and embraced. Call it the Oprah Factor, because she knows how to bring out the stories of other people – from kings to the homeless – in ways that resonate for all of us.
On the surface, Obama’s and Palin’s similarities suggest the typical rags-to-riches success that all Americans like. They both come from humble backgrounds. Check. They both overcame significant obstacles to achieve success. Check. And they were viewed as outsiders to the inner circle of national politics. Check. We love that.
But dig deeper, and we can see something of our own aspirations in these individuals. Obama – struggling with his identity as a young man from a broken home, living with his “greatest generation” grandparents, working his way to an elite college, then giving up lucrative career paths to work in the streets of Chicago as a community organizer and eventually raising a lovely family with a wife whose father was a sanitation worker. Is there a sense of nobility in Obama? Yes. But a huge number of African Americans and white middle class voters saw in him their better selves or a romanticism in his triumph over humble roots, whether they directly identified with his experience or not.
Palin, of course, epitomizes stable, middle-class, frontier values – from her working class neighborhood to her cheerleading in high school, to her moose hunting and fishing, to her family dynamics. Even the pregnancy of her teenage daughter is excusable by her fans, because we see these problems everyday, even in our own families. She’s one of us. Her hard-charging confidence and snubbing of the “elites” is just another version of the little guy frustrating the powerful. Who doesn’t like that?
The point: We strongly identify with a message when we can see something of ourselves in the story. In fact, the story is the message. From two remarkably different personalities, like Obama and Palin, to the newly slim celebrities featured in WeightWatcher’s commercials, the deeper truth we hold onto is not in the stars but in ourselves.