Monday, November 30, 2009

It's the Story That's Important

This Politico article by John F. Harris paints a worrisome picture for President Obama. (Digging up — or even creating — controversy sells news.) It outlines seven “stories” or narratives that are presenting a challenge to the official storyline from the administration/campaign.

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?


Charles D said...

The narratives designed by the Washington power elite come to us largely unfiltered in the mainstream media. While there are variations on each theme (Dems say, Repubs reply) they all rest on the same underlying assumptions about foreign policy, economics, and the political "realities" of Washington. When we dig deeply beneath the surface, there is little difference between the two parties. They exist to wrest power from the other for their own benefit.

Another reason we are so susceptible to these manufactured stories comes from the milieu in which we receive them. For example, in the last 2 days we have been led to believe that the President is about to make a momentous decision about the Afghan war. That information is disseminated in a media environment dominated by Tiger Wood's auto accident, the White House party crashers, Chelsea Clinton's engagement to the son of a convicted felon employee of Goldman Sachs, etc. Sending 30,000 more young Americans into harm's way is simply another hot story and receives less air time than the others because it just isn't sexy and won't sell more expensive Christmas stuff.

While you and I could both come up with ways to correct this problem (probably different ones), none of our ideas has any possibility of being realized. There is far too much money to be made and protected here. Informing the masses isn't good for business.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Very astute observations.