Homeland Security

One reason the travel ban provoked outrage? The victims’ stories.

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It has been two weeks since Inauguration Day, and at this point it is not at all clear what, if anything, will stop the torrent of new decrees coming from the White House. Right now, however, it appears that the biggest misstep has been, of course, the new immigration restrictions.

Whether through incompetence or a deliberate effort to, in President Trump’s words, catch some “bad dudes,” the implementation of the new travel restrictions blocked many green-card holders from returning to the United States and placed a variety of innocent travelers and refugees in limbo or detention.

Within a day, protest rallies had sprung up in many American cities and in airports around the country.

Why did the travel restrictions provoke such a response, especially when Trump announced during his campaign that he was going to do this? The answer, apart from the possibility that this was just a bigger deal than some of his other actions, is that the immigration restrictions yielded many stories about people who had been hurt by it.

And Trump, better than anyone, should understand the power of stories to drive policy.

Israeli political scientist David Ricci has written two excellent books comparing the political arguments of conservatives and liberals in America. Conservatives tend to win, he argues, because they tell good stories.

{mosads}Since the early 1960s, conservatives have worked to develop a story about what conservatism is, and this story has often included anecdotes about individual citizens done wrong by big government or by politically correct left-wing politicians.


Liberals, Ricci argues, tend to provide social scientific evidence. Even when the social science is true, it loses out to the stories, even when the stories are false.

Furthermore, argues Ricci, liberals tend to eat their own. Consider the case of Tom Frank, whose book “What’s the Matter with Kansas” became a surprise best-seller in 2004. Kansas told the story of working-class Americans who had, in Frank’s telling, been duped by Republicans who promised they would fight against abortion and gay rights, but instead delivered deregulatory policies that hurt the working class.

It was a good story, replete with anecdotes. The only problem was that political scientists concluded that its main argument was not true, and they effectively sought to exile Frank from serious discussions of policy for the next few years.

Conservative stories, on the other hand, tend to be immune to this sort of thing. Consider one of Trump’s best stories: his recounting of the murder, by an undocumented immigrant, of a woman named Katie Steinle. Trump told this story repeatedly on the campaign trail, using the story, as Paul Bloom writes in “Against Empathy,” to make a much more effective story about the consequences of illegal immigration than any set of statistics could.

Ricci argues that this sort of dichotomy is inevitable. Conservatives tell stories, liberals provide data.

Yet the past week has been different. Perhaps because so many people are skeptical of social scientists these days — we did, after all, get so much wrong this year — stories may have more resonance.

Hence, we have heard in the past few days about the Iraqi refugees to Maine whose daughter has been stopped from joining them; the doctor at the Cleveland Clinic who left the country to visit her family in Saudi Arabia and now is blocked from returning; the 5-year-old Iranian boy separated from his parents for questioning; the two University of Massachusetts professors detained on their way back to work; and the Iraqi immigrant who had worked for years as a contractor for the U.S. military but was detained for hours at JFK airport before American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers enabled him to enter the country.

Trump’s executive order supplied his opponents with many stories such as these, and that is why it provoked such opposition. It showed many Americans how many people from the seven affected countries live the same sorts of lives we do, and it may have had the ironic effect of humanizing them for many Americans.

Writers like Ricci and Bloom are skeptical about whether we should make policy based on stories. Bloom, in particular, cautions that stories like these make us feel empathy where perhaps we shouldn’t, and can cloud our rational judgment.

But in a contest like this one, where we’re forced to choose between stories about sinister “bad dudes” or people with the same sorts of immigrant stories that millions of Americans have been told about their own families, this seems less a matter of policy than a national gut-check.

Which stories do we want to believe about ourselves?

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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