The Politico’s Ben Smith blogs that the effectiveness of the alternate narratives is hampered because they “contradict one another, and that, as far as Democrats are concerned, Obama retains a [sic] enormous power to shape his own story.” Smith goes on in this subsequent post to highlight another narrative coming from a Democrat perspective that the President is “a worryingly indistinct figure. One whose pragmatic sensibility is crystal clear but bedrock convictions are still blurry.”
While it might make interesting fodder to get into the nitty-gritty of the various competing narratives surrounding the President, I want to explore the whole concept of politics as an implementation of the art of storytelling. Harris begins his article by saying:
“Presidential politics is about storytelling. Presented with a vivid storyline, voters naturally tend to fit every new event or piece of information into a picture that is already neatly framed in their minds.”Harris goes on to say that the President won the election last year “in part because [he and his team] were better storytellers than the opposition.” He writes:
“The pro-Obama narrative featured an almost mystically talented young idealist who stood for change in a disciplined and thoughtful way. This easily outpowered the anti-Obama narrative, featuring an opportunistic Chicago pol with dubious relationships who was more liberal than he was letting on.”It seems that our nation has a deep tradition of giving significant weight to storied caricatures of presidential candidates in formulating voting decisions. More accurate knowledge of a candidate’s character and policies (the real ones, not the stated ones) is harder to come by. So most of us satisfy ourselves with settling on the narrative that seems most convincing to us.
We do this in hindsight as well. While there are volumes of scholarly works dedicated to the complex nature of each of our nation’s presidents, most Americans know only what has become the mainstream storyline about a small number of these men. They know little or nothing about the rest.
Harris cites the storytelling concept as if everyone knows that this is what really goes on. It’s not about reality; it’s about which storyline can win in the marketplace of public sentiment. Perhaps political wonks know this. Maybe average Americans even think it somewhere in the backs of their minds. But they act otherwise.
Is this narrative game unique to presidential politics, or does it pervade other political spheres as well? I think it pretty much covers the whole political spectrum, from the closest local official to the highest levels of international politics.
The broader the audience, the greater the variation in narratives. It seems obvious that different narratives can be deeply held by different target groups, so that various people can have sharply divergent views about a given politician or political matter.
Of course, the narratives about a politician are not the only things that govern public support. Other narratives may completely overshadow a given individual in a way that may be either beneficial or detrimental to that person’s political career. For example, in light of the Watergate scandal, even a Republican with the most compelling narrative probably could not have won the 1976 election.
Since we are not omniscient, we necessarily approach political matters with imperfect and limited information. Since we all have other priorities in life, most approach politics in a relatively less informed manner. We rely heavily upon more or less deliberately skewed narratives. The more enlightened among us perhaps hope that the narrative that wins in the public marketplace of ideas will end up being the least detrimental.
Is this the way it should be? If not, what truly realistic alternative is there?