08 November 2010

Time for a New Narrative?

A letter in the latest Nation caught my eye this morning. Tracy Kosman wrote:

President Obama has failed to use his silver tongue to the advantage of his program and his party. He should have started, on January 21, 2009, to weave a Democratic narrative; who we are, what we've done in the past, what we stand for. If he had done that, framed the issues to our advantage, it would have been much more difficult for the other side to get credence for its distortions. Now the Republicans are telling the stories, and their versions are prevailing.

This is by no means a novel observation. We've been hearing it from Democrats since at least 1994, when the latest Republican narrative was first tried out successfully. The perpetuity of complaint over an apparent "narrative gap" between the two parties should have compelled some liberal loyalists to start accounting for the gap instead of wishing it away. The narrative gap is persistent, the instances of Democrats overcoming it exceptional. It may be based in the differing narratives within each major party and its base.

Since Bill Clinton's election as President, Republicans have recognized the need to construct a narrative to convert voters to their point of view. They felt the need because their own internal narrative told them that the public, despite electing Republicans in three consecutive presidential elections, was in some way brainwashed by the "liberal bias" Republicans perceived in the mainstream news media. That bias and the resulting brainwashing of the electorate explained why Democrats held Congress despite GOP success in presidential races. It provoked Republicans and the rising voices of the radio to construct a critical narrative that challenged a supposed liberal consensus while disputing the authority and objectivity of the mainstream media.

By contrast, while Democrats and liberals are happy to make conservative media the scapegoat for every electoral setback, I suspect that they lack the same urgent sense that the public has been brainwashed. You might find some liberals who will make that claim, but they most likely believe that whatever conditioning has been accomplished by right-wing propaganda is essentially shallow. My hunch is that liberals believe man to be essentially good, and that at heart, or by instinct, most Americans think (or feel) as liberals do. By comparison, many conservatives come from traditions that emphasize innate human depravity and the need for a "born again" conversion experience in order for someone to be a good person. If so, then a critical narrative of the sort that shakes or breaks a consensus may come more easily to conservatives than it does to liberals, who are less likely to feel that anyone is damned who disagrees with them.

At the same time, liberals are limited in their ability to construct a critical narrative -- assuming that that's the sort of narrative they need now -- by their investment in the Democratic party and its investment in the corporate establishment that is the necessary target of any meaningful critical narrative. Any critical narrative designed to engage the "left" ought to be more sweeping than the Democrats' desired demonization of media meanies and select corporate scapegoats, but performing such a narrative could compromise the Democrats' fundraising capacity. Democrats may feel that they can get away with a purely affirmative narrative, a liberal equivalent of Reagan's "morning in America" rhetoric, but they'll be kidding themselves if they think they can go further now without forcefully telling people that they're wrong and they've been duped. Look at how Republican commentators have raged and sneered preemptively at any hint of such an approach -- they call it more proof of liberal elitist intellectual snobbery -- to measure its potential.

It's not only the Democratic party that needs a new narrative. Its need is almost beside the point. The nation (and not just The Nation) needs a new narrative that looks beyond the Republicans and doesn't mistake them for the sole sufficient and necessary cause of our national troubles. That's probably more of a critical narrative than the Democrats need, and that's why we don't need a new narrative from Democrats alone. Tracy Kosman seems to think that the President can still turn things around with oratory, when his loquaciousness is already something of a national joke. But she closes by quoting an earlier letter-writer who said, "We must fight the right by shouting out what the left has won for us all." I like the emphasis on "we" rather than dependence on Obama's silver tongue, but Kosman is still wrong. She should leave "left" and "right" out of it and shout out what the real elite is doing to us now on a bipartisan basis, and what we should do about it.

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