(Neal Gabler is the author of "Life: The Movie: How
Entertainment Conquered Reality." The opinions expressed are his
By Neal Gabler
April 14 In America today, anecdotes have become
the new facts.
Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring
apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails
forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by
the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie
Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her
medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty
dramatic stuff - except that numerous fact-checkers found she
would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.
But what are you going to believe - a sob story or a raft of
statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up
and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?
Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives
have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have
had such cold winters - never mind the scientists who have
documented the Earth's rising temperature. But what are you
going to believe - the seasonal chill or the consensus of
thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly
support global warming?
Admittedly, anecdotes are an appealing way to dramatize
issues. But, as the Boonstra ad and the winter stories
demonstrate, there is a problem. However captivating they are,
anecdotes often undermine facts - and the truth. Yes, they
provide a story, but they seldom provide the whole story. What
we get is often misleading, sometimes downright deceptive.
We are especially afflicted in this country. Americans seem
to have a greater fondness for anecdotes than citizens of any
other nation. Newscasts invariably have human-interest segments;
every guest on late-night television must come armed with a
funny little story, and no recent State of the Union address is
complete without the president pointing up to the gallery and
telling the heart-rending stories of his guests there. You could
say that we live in Anecdotal America where, as the poet William
Carlos Williams said, there are "no ideas but in things."
Though many anecdotes are harmless, they can be worrisome
when it comes to public policy - where anecdotes now abound.
Republicans seem to rely on anecdotes almost in direct
proportion to their dismissal of science and fact. But in
fairness, anecdotes are one of the few things in America that
are truly bipartisan. Democrats use them too, and their
anecdotes are no more likely to capture the multiplicity of
effects of a policy than the Republicans'.
Both parties understandably want to put a "face" on policy.
Yet both Democrats and Republicans operate within the same
fallacy - that one small incident can serve as a telling example
for a far more complicated and broader issue. This may be good
politics. It is bad epistemology.
Though he certainly didn't invent it, President Ronald
Reagan was the virtuoso of fabulism - expert at damning the
facts and celebrating the story. He loved to talk about the
"welfare queen" who bought a brand-new Cadillac by defrauding
the government. That encapsulated - far better than any
statistics could - what everyone already knew was wrong with
welfare. Even if it bore little relation to the truth. The
welfare queen represented each and every welfare recipient - all
of whom, many Americans believed, were chiselers. Reagan just
gave the belief a story.
Reagan also loved to tell the one about the man who invented
a beer-can holder and, as a result, became a millionaire. I have
no idea if this man was another figment of the Great
Communicator's imagination, but the man was another stand-in -
this one for every American dreamer. At the time when social
mobility was declining, Reagan's anecdote asserted that anyone
who wanted to make it could make it.
Reagan virtually governed through these stories. As a
Hollywood actor, he understood that movie reality often usurped
"real" reality, and it had regularly proved true for him.
Reagan used to regale visitors with various tales he alleged to
be true, which then turned out to be lifted from the movies.
For example, when Reagan addressed Congressional Medal of
Honor winners in 1983, he told them the stirring story of a
wounded young gunner whose plane was going down and of the
commander who decided to go down with him - so the boy wouldn't
die alone. Though Reagan presented this as a true war story, it
wasn't. It was actually a scene from the movie "A Wing and a
Prayer." Even after his staff warned him not to relate this
movie narrative, Reagan kept using the anecdote. He couldn't
In presenting movies as reality, Reagan wasn't being
duplicitous - any more than he was being duplicitous when
talking about the welfare queen. As a longtime story-teller, he
may have so deeply internalized the fictional that it became
real to him. (Though a classical actor in Hollywood, he became a
Method actor in the White House.)
What is troubling is that many Americans internalize these
fictions too - which is why so many politicians wield anecdotes
instead of facts. Studies show that most Americans reject facts
when they are confronted with them if those facts don't
reinforce their prejudices. Stories are a lot more effective,
false or not, simplification or not.
That may be because, just as Reagan was in thrall to the
movies, so are most Americans. Movies are so vivid, so emotive,
so powerful that they not only make it easy for us to confuse
fiction and fact - they make us want to confuse them.
There are still Americans who believe John Wayne won World
War Two even though he was acting on a Hollywood soundstage
rather than fighting on the battlefield. In Anecdotal America,
when anecdotes and facts compete, the anecdotes usually wind up
winning. We are beholden to them.
And so there was the new Federal Reserve Board chairwoman,
Janet Yellen, during her first public address in that role,
telling anecdotes about three people affected by the economic
downturn. Her stories were effective and personal - yet another
attempt to put a human face on cold economics. It was, in truth,
effective. But was it an accurate depiction of working-class
These days we just don't know. To paraphrase the celebrated
line from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance": "When
the anecdote becomes fact, print the anecdote."