How “narrative” moved from literature to politics & what this means for covering candidates

February 20, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

On a public radio talk show recently, an expert discussed the “narrative” that had been developing around the candidacy of Mitt Romney during the Republican presidential primaries. The moral of this particular “narrative,” he said, was that Romney’s statements about money and the poor reveal him to be just another rich Republican business plutocrat, out of touch with working people.

After candidate Rick Santorum beat Romney in three primaries, it became clear that Santorum would emphasize his own working class immigrant roots, as a way of differentiating himself from Mr. $10,000-bet, I-don’t-care-about-the- poor Romney. In response, Romney told the story of what it meant to come from a family of carpenters, builders, and fixer-uppers. He recalled how his father could take on a project holding a hammer in his hand to work a mouthful of nails.

This essay is not designed to add or subtract from the practical truth of these narratives, but to look at the word narrative and its ascendancy from the world of literature to that of politics. It turns out that truth squad services such as PolitiFact are necessary but insufficient to promote the depth of public understanding that leads to productive action in the voting booth.

We need something quite different, something I will call a professional Narrative Watcher. I am not talking about the political equivalent of Hemingway’s famous “bullshit detector” because narratives are too serious to be dismissed with cynicism. A Narrative Watcher would reveal how political parties and others seeking power use verifiable facts, half-truths, and misinformation to tell stories designed to promote their own interests.

How narrative moved beyond literary analysis

John Lanchester offers a brief take on this phenomenon in the London Review of Books:

“Back when I was at university, the only people who ever used the word ‘narrative’ were literature students with an interest in critical theory. Everyone else made do with ‘story’ and ‘plot’.  Since then, the n-word has been on a long journey towards the spotlight – especially the political spotlight. Everybody in politics now seems to talk about narratives all the time; even political spin-doctors describe their job as being ‘to craft narratives.’ We no longer have debates, we have conflicting narratives. It’s hard to know whether this represents an increase in PR sophistication and self-awareness, or a decrease in the general level of discourse.”

In 1947 it was another Brit, George Orwell, who posited a direct relationship between political corruption and the misuse of language. But Orwell’s attention was fixed on language at the level of words and phrases: the use of euphemism to veil unspeakable horrors; empty slogans meant as a substitute for critical thinking; pretentious jargon designed to lend authority to special interests. While Orwell wrote many powerful narratives – fiction and nonfiction – he showed little interest in theories of political narratives in the way Lanchester describes.

The use of narrative for political purposes was not invented in this century or even the last. It is a standard lesson of Shakespeare scholarship that the Bard’s history plays, such as the Richard and Henry plays, tilted the historical record in favor of the Tudor dynasty (the family that gave England Queen Elizabeth I), an act of political dramaturgy that provided the playwright cover and, no doubt, financial rewards.

The long journey of narrative described by Lanchester took many professional stops before it arrived so conspicuously in the barrio of spin-doctors, speech writers, and other political handlers. For decades now, narrative theory has wended its way through the worlds of medicine, law, and business management, just to name the most obvious arenas.

Take psychiatry, for example, and medicine in general. In his book “The Call of Stories,” Robert Coles famously described his training under two psychiatrists. The first taught Coles to look for symptoms in a patient and to affix to those symptoms a label, such as “schizophrenia” or “paranoia.”

The second doctor asked Coles questions about a patient’s “story.” This mentor wanted Coles to listen to the narrative that described and often sustained the patient’s illness. Therapy would include leading the patient to a story that would help make or keep him healthy. Panels on the diagnostic and therapeutic applications of patient and doctor narratives are common. (Think of the story you probably last told your doctor when you thought you had chest pains or a tingling sensation in your feet.)

Richard Bockman, a great enterprise and story editor for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) resigned from the paper to take a job with one of Tampa’s largest law firms. What could a story doctor do for a law firm?  Think of how many narratives play out in a courtroom. Begin with the competing narratives of what might have happened in a house in which a dead body was found (in popular literature and television dramas, of course, this is the standard stuff of Perry Mason). It turns out, courtroom lawyers are narrators. They begin a trial with a kind of movie trailer, what the evidence will show. Each examination of a witness introduces a new character into the narrative, each of whom will narrate scenes and pieces of dialogue.

Narrative watchers do abound in the form of satirists and comedians. In 2004, Stephen Colbert, as a fake candidate for the presidency, bragged that he had risen from humble roots. He was the descendant of a family of “goat turd farmers in France.” It is only a short journey from there to Obama’s being the child of a single mom, to Santorum’s rising from a neighborhood of poor immigrants, and, yes, to Romney’s father spitting carpenter nails.

In the next post in Narrative Watcher, we’ll look more closely at the Log Cabin narrative, of the value and power of humble roots, and of the need to find them if you want to be elected, especially if you now live in multi-million-dollar mansions, as most candidates inevitably do.

Send me the narratives you see that emerge from debates, speeches, campaign ads, profiles, and news coverage.

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