OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The triumph of narrative

The triumph of narrative

Though we may or may not have reached the end of the unexpected upsets and dramatic reversals of the primaries, much less the general election to come, there is no doubt that of all the people who ran for president this year, Obama has run the smartest and most skilled campaign. But of all the things he has done right, none may be more important than the fact that he has told far and away the best story.

This is a topic I addressed in two previous columns, and now that one nominee is chosen and the other will be soon (at least within a few months), it seemed appropriate to revisit the question of the narratives the candidates have built (the first installment is here, and the second is here). Those columns were written in July, but even before that—indeed, as long ago as his explosion into national consciousness at the Democratic convention in 2004—Obama has been telling a story perfectly keyed to the current moment in history.

As Obama tells it, the country is held hostage by a political class that sows partisan and cultural division, making solving problems ever more difficult, while the country yearns for a new day of unity. As the youngest candidate, the only post-boomer candidate, the only bi-racial candidate, and the one candidate with a preternatural ability to obtain the good will of those who disagree with him, he can bring all Americans together and lead us to a future built on hope.

Your own reaction to that story may be a quickening of the heartbeat, or a disgusted ‘”Give me a break.'” But there is no denying that many, many people are willing to sign on to it. And though he is careful not to say it himself, Obama”s story benefits greatly from how often other people say that he is a Man of Destiny. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — This has been the week where the cult meme really took off among the chattering classes — it’s a topic I hope to write about at greater length soon.

Either we’re now witnessing one of the biggest, fastest growing cults ever seen, as a wave of intemperate enthusiasm is compelling people to suspend their critical judgement. Or, the support Obama is getting — support that comes from vastly more people than attend his rallies — is actually an exercise in critical judgement that commentators prefer to diminish. What’s irrational about imagining that America would be well served by a president who can inspire enthusiasm and who in a divided country and a divided world has the power to bring people together? We’re at a fork in the road. One way leads to tribalism, fractured societies, and ultimately our demise. The other way hinges on the understanding that we share a collective fate.

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6 thoughts on “OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The triumph of narrative

  1. don

    Can it really, really, be this simple? Is it possible that when reading the intro. and editorial one might instead be left thinking of the age old narrative that stands out above all else? The struggle between good and evil?

    No, you might say, after all Obama is speaking of uniting rather than dividing. So this takes us to the next stage. Is it really, really possible that one man, even if he were to be president, capable of uniting as depicted? And is it really, really the case that our society’s divisions are simply the product of the “political class”? Or might these divisions go deeper, and thus might it also be that the change hoped for in Obama’s message, I mean narrative – it sounds so much more meaningful to say narrative – will fall far short of materializing because the problems facing this country are bigger than one man, even if he is president?

    If this turns out to be the case, then where will that leave the us in the next round? Perhaps all the more discouraged and deeply doubtful that our political system can make the kind of changes needed.

    Odd that when Bush has pushed for greater executive power that liberals (and radicals) decry the threat to the constitution, but when it comes to a liberal president, then all of a sudden the assumption that a president can have such power is not only assumed but wished for. In fact, it is this presumption of power on which rests the hope of Obama.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Thus far, “Obama is the answer” is not and hopefully will never become a campaign slogan. Yet when it comes to considering the impact of his rhetoric, I find it strange that it is often met with such skepticism. When Obama says that change works from the bottom upwards, it’s either just a cute populist line or an astute and neatly packaged observation. It doesn’t however sound like a liberal claim for increased executive power.

    When it comes to considering the power of a president’s words, we don’t have to look back far. From one of these least articulate presidents America has ever had, “You’re either for us or against” truly had an impact on shaping the mindset of the nation. It was easy for those of us with little influence to decry, but the fact was that it affected the way millions of Americans thought.

    Giving speeches and shaping public discourse — this isn’t something peripheral to the presidency. This isn’t something a would-be president must do merely in preparation for the “real work”.

    The human world is a product of language. We’ve seen how it can be abused, but that shouldn’t make us afraid or dismissive of the power of words. When Obama says “I want to end the mindset that took us into war,” I take him at his word. And I also think he’s smart enough and experienced enough to realize that this will be a mighty undertaking. The fact that it will be difficult does not mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Bush had a pivotal role in creating the mindset. Obama can have just as pivotal role in deconstructing it — and in the process I doubt very much that he’ll use the word “deconstruct.” 😉

  3. don

    “The human world is a product of language.”

    Might it also be said that language is the product of the world. As a student of Jurgen Habermas, I wouldn’t for a moment downplay the significance of language (and even more importantly, communication). But here is another thought for your consideration.

    With the developing crisis in the financial sphere (credit/debt crisis; the evaporation of fictitious capital, etc.), combined with the fact that the US is entering a recession (along with likely and evenutally global), might the problems confronting the new president (whomever he/she may be) be of such a scale and proportion that language it be of little effect? It will take a great deal more than message formation and inspiration to address the problems.

    We are entering very interesting times, and the financial meltdown and accompanying long and severe recession will re-shape significantly the political (and geopolitical) landscape.

    You would well serve your readers to place much greater emphasis on such economic (and financial) matters, rising it in proportion to the current emphasis given to ‘political’ and geopolitical matters.

  4. Jacob Freeze

    Don’s reference to Habermas resonates with some of my doubts about Obama’s “narrative,” which may be a more appropriate word than “message,” since Obama is laying out something closer to a world-view than a set of disconnected opinions.

    As Don probably knows, Habermas and and his friend Karl-Otto Appel don’t just emphasive the role of language in politics… They advocate a particular sort of discourse ethics and communicative rationality. This involves the development of moral norms out of debate between different points of view, a dialectic process requiring honesty from both sides.

    I don’t see any such thing in Obama’s speeches or the platform outlined on his website. Chanting “Yes we can” may be an effective way to draw crowds to your rallies, but it doesn’t fit any reasonable definition of “communicative rationality.”

    The details of Obama’s program described on his website also leave all hard questions unanswered, and fundamentally misrepresent the reality of major issues like healthcare, as Paul Krugman has repeatedly demonstrated. Obama’s obfuscation about the necessity of “mandates” is the exact opposite of ethical discourse: It’s a lie.

  5. don

    Comments well taken Jacob. As for Obama’s “Yes we can” rallying cry: the proof of course is in the pudding, and so any measure in which his rhetoric, message, communication strategy, or narrative, however one wishes to describe it, is substantive and based in concrete action one can only be determined in hindsight, assuming he becomes president.

    I appreciate Obama’s message and think he is obviously onto something with his communication strategy. Still, I’m left with this new age sense that its more about positive feeling . . . the notion that if only you believe then it can happen. I find this thinking evident in the editorial above. So I’m left with this erie feeling that the left has gotten just a bit too enthused about this and will find itself once again waving its head in disbelief, wondering aloud what went wrong . . . why doesn’t more come of his presidency.

    The bottom line from my perspective is that the problems confronting the US and the world are so large that it is a mistake to built expectations too high as to the outcome of who is and isn’t elected president. The political sphere just doesn’t hold that kind of sway over economic matters, unless and eventually Habermas’ deliberative democracy turns its sights on democratizing the economy. In the end, the Great Man theory just doesn’t hold water. Said another way: the job is bigger than the man (or woman).

    As we all know, hope is the last thing to fall.

  6. Enzo

    Yes we can.

    It doesn’t mean we will. It doesn’t mean we must. It means what it says.

    The “we” certainly doesn’t mean “Obama.” I imagine “we” means not a relatively small number, but a relatively large, number of we, the people.

    Unless one has abandoned a tad too much of one’s willingness to be inspired, the prospect is inspiring.

    It’s a breath of fresh air in an increasingly polluted environment. Can anyone be surprised that more and more people want to breathe deeply and fill their lungs with it?

    What kind of change, how much change, how profound a change? Well, that would depend far more on we, the people, than on Obama, wouldn’t it?

    Wondering whether Obama will bring change, let alone being cynical about it, would seem to miss the kind of change he is heralding. Is he not simply offering a more participatory democracy for the early 21st century, American style?

    For a look at participatory democracy South-American style, see what’s happening in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and other South American countries. It seems to be about more and more citizens becoming more and more involved.

    I’d say it’s about time we reached for a higher level of participatory democracy in America because the folks who are representing us now don’t seem to be doing much of a job of it. In fact I might go so far as to say they’re doing a rather lousy one.

    Perhaps the most serious error Obama could make — and I’m delighted that he goes nowhere near it — is to get too far ahead of we, the people. What we do not need is a LEADER writ large. (Look at some of the problems Hugo Chavez, a brilliant leader is so many respects, continues to create for himself as he personifies just some of the elements of a LEADER.)

    So, no, I don’t think we need a LEADER who’s figured it all out and knows what we want to make us happy.

    And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a saviour. I’d prefer to continue the good fight to save myself, thank you.

    What I would like is a greater opportunity to participate, along with you, my fellows, in a more promising, and a more heart-felt endeavour to create a better world.

    Such opportunity is what Obama is preaching.

    I don’t know if, elected, Obama will succeed. I don’t know if we, the people, increasing our participation, will succeed. But I do know that I’m up for giving it a shot. And it certainly beats the shit out of the other offers on the table, wouldn’t you say?

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