All politics is local, as you may have heard.

It’s a piece of wisdom we’ve received from former House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, a reliable source of hard-headed insights into the world’s inner workings. O’Neill may not have invented the phrase, but he was the one who cast it in bronze and bolted to the skull of everybody who tries analyze politics.

Like James Carville’s 1990s mantra “It’s the economy, stupid,” O’Neill’s maxim has been used to remind elected representatives that most voters don’t care about ideology and will back the leaders who best look out for the narrow interests of the folks back home. If you get too deep into the world of ideas, you’ll be labeled “out of touch” and ultimately out of a job. It would be reassuring to think simple rules like that still apply, but O’Neill’s words don’t explain much about politics during the age of Trump.

If we want to understand what’s happening now, we need to listen to movie mogul Sam Goldwyn, who once said, “Let’s have some new cliches.”

Here’s my candidate: All politics is cultural.

You could see it in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, when groups of avowed racists and anti-Semites from across the country came to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue from a park that they had no reason to visit other than to provoke violent confrontations with anti-racism counterprotesters and police. Before it was over, one woman was dead and 19 were injured because a Nazi sympathizer decided to use his muscle car as a battering ram.

That level of violence is still rare, but the same kind of passionate us-against-them battle over symbols characterizes most of our debates, without much sign of O’Neill’s rational actors.

Housing, welfare and health care are treated as simple math problems in most countries, but here they turn into moral arguments over who deserves help and who doesn’t. Something as boring as the compensation formula for power produced by solar panels has become a class war in Maine, with Gov. LePage and the electric utilities taking the side of the little guy against greedy environmentalists.(Can you guess who’s winning?)

And if all politics really were local, would anyone in Maine spend their days terrified of immigration, considering that: A) we don’t have much of it and B) most employers here wish we had a bigger workforce? But many Mainers do care. They care a lot.

Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing political activist and media innovator, put it this way, “Politics is downstream from culture,” or political change follows social change, not the other way around.

The idea was further developed in an influential 2011 article by Lawrence Meyers on the Breitbart News website:

“Our lives – indeed, our very species – has storytelling wound into our DNA. From the earliest cave drawings, man has expressed himself in terms of story. Ancient civilizations understood that stories are vital to understanding our place in the world, so much so that they codified storytelling and found base rules that form it. Oral histories are a part of every culture across the globe.

“Stories instill moral and ethical values. They place joy and tragedy in context. They preserve cultures. At their best, they deliver the secrets and meanings of life.”

Meyers advised conservative candidates not only to tell their own stories, but to try to define the opposition’s as well. “He who controls the narrative wins.”

In this kind of politics, your story is your policy. There’s a reason Barack Obama’s career started after he wrote his autobiography. In Maine, Gov. LePage uses his personal history as a weapon.

Anti-war liberals could overlook Obama’s drone attacks because they “knew” he was a compassionate guy. Low-income rural Mainers could still back LePage after he cut their health care and school funding because they recognized that he was “one of us.” In identity politics, what you are is more important than what you do.

Angela Nagle, who has written about the online culture wars that set the stage for the 2016 election, says many new political habits were formed on the internet, where you rarely have to win anyone over to your way of thinking or talk to someone with whom you disagree. When alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos toured college campuses last year, his liberal opponents wanted to shut down his appearances, Nagle said, because they were so insulated in their ideological bubbles that they didn’t know how to argue anymore.

And that cultural fragmentation is probably a bigger threat to our democracy than those pathetic would-be Nazis marching around Charlottesville.

So who’s going to control the narrative now?

If someone can’t come up with a new story of America that’s big enough to include our whole complicated and diverse culture soon, we’re going to be in big trouble.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich