Political Narrative Revisited

In Plot Points, an article in the New York Times Magazine on Dec. 13, 2015 American political journalist Mark Leibovich reflected on the use of the word narrative in the current election campaign. He noted that it has become unhinged from its original literary meaning, discussed the narratives associated with various politicians, and observed the importance commentators now attribute to the notion of “controlling the narrative.” He ended on a note of paradoxical exasperation, suggesting “Maybe, in fact, the narrative is dead, which is why people keep invoking it all the time.”

I’ve heard all of this before, but it bears repeating. The original meaning of narrative focuses on the sequencing of events and the creation of meaning through their sequencing. The latest Wikipedia definition of narrative captures this: “any report of connected events, actual or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images.” But narrative has also become – as I point out in the first slide of my narrative course – a buzzword for rationale, explanation, anecdote, interpretation, and personal experience.

The candidates for president are constructing narratives about their personal experiences that prove their fitness for office: Chris Christie’s role as Governor wielding executive power in contrast to his opponents who are mere legislators, and Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina’s backgrounds as corporate executives. Fiorina has also emphasized overcoming the adversity of gender discrimination and bearing the pain of drug addiction (“I buried a child to drug addiction”) as evidence of her strength of character and humanity – both tropes intended to resonate with voters.

Narratives also involve interpretations of events, with claims by the various Republican candidates that the Affordable Care Act, military operations against ISIS, and fiscal policy are all failures. When the primaries are over, these Republican policy narratives will contend against the Democratic counter-narrative of policy successes. These policy narratives will be constructed from facts, factoids, urban myths, and ideologies that define expectations and assumptions. Political truthers – by that I mean fact and logic-checkers – will be kept busy overtime trying to determine how much truth is contained in these contending policy narratives.

The narratives we hearing in the election campaign are often influenced, or even derived from, more extensive narratives along the lines of the Wikipedia definition. Some candidate narratives channel those of experienced political leaders proving their capability for the presidency (both Roosevelts and Lincoln) while others channel those of leaders who have made their mark in other areas before entering politics (Eisenhower, Wilson, Schwarzenegger).

The candidates’ policy discussions will also be distilled from policy histories and analyses advanced by both independent scholars and ideologically-branded think tanks. Macroeconomic history as told by Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Lawrence Summers differs sharply from that told by Martin Feldstein, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Glenn Hubbard.

So bring on the narratives and the counter-narratives. As a narrative analyst, what I will be doing in the US campaign, as I did for the recent Canadian campaign, is to break them down into the sequential and logical steps and show why they more or less strongly influence the electorate.

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