At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Living Narratives, not Lifeless “Facts”: The Power of Story in Politics

posted by Jack Kerwick

Admittedly, I thought that Mitt Romney’s chances of defeating Barack Obama were greater than not, a point for which I argued on more than one occasion during the election season.  However, I also contended that Romney’s chances would be considerably weakened if he and the Republicans insisted upon limiting their campaign’s focus to the economy—i.e. Obama’s policies.

Well before Romney was the GOP nominee, Republican commentators derided those among the rank and file of their party who wanted to attack the President on a more personal basis.  We don’t need to do that, the pundits assured the rest of us; we need only center our attention on Obama’s policies in order to sail to victory.

All too predictably, this is the approach that Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, decided to take. 

It failed.

As I argued not all that long ago, while the economy may be voters’ top concern, the endless litany of abstract zeroes with which they have been bombarded by their candidates were not likely to resonate with them.  Romney and Ryan undoubtedly know their numbers, but how can the average American be expected to identify with billions and trillions in debts and deficits?  Hell, how can the average voter relate to talk of millions

I also had observed at various times that Romney’s business experience was most definitely not the asset for the presidency that his supporters were making it out to be.  Corporate executive officers manage the corporations over which they preside.  The president of a free people, on the other hand, far from being a manager, is supposed to be a governor.  And he (or she) is supposed to govern in accordance with law.

Yet now we know that there is another respect in which Romney’s success as a businessman may have been a political liability.  As a businessman, Romney was consumed with the bottom line.  He was, well, “all business,” as they say.  In politics, though, being well versed in dollars and cents isn’t going to connect a candidate with voters, for numbers don’t generally warm the heart. 

In fairness to Romney, whether it was Obama’s economic or other policies, as long as he, like John McCain before him, was resolved to speak to their opponent’s politics while ignoring his person, Romney made life more difficult for himself.

Neither the voter nor the country lives by policy alone.  As a community organizer, Obama recognizes this for the axiom that it is.

Obama realizes that, when it comes to politics, at any rate, reason exerts little influence over the decision-making of most people.  His time as a community organizer has also taught him that while it is imagination that moves the average person, in most this faculty is not too terribly sophisticated.  Thus, community organizers—think Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, etc.—are extraordinarily adept at weaving moral melodramas.  Every issue they cast in terms of an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil: black versus white, rich versus poor, men versus women, gays versus straights, etc.

Republicans, then, were sorely mistaken when they explained away Obama’s “Kill Romney” strategy as a pathetic attempt on the President’s part to run from his record.  Obama knew then what he has always known: to win people over to your side you must convince them that you are on the side of the angels.  This, in turn, requires nothing less than the depiction of your opponent as the embodiment of villainy.    

But the lionizing of oneself and the demonization of one’s rivals can occur only within the context of a story.  It is only within a narrative that each party can be personalized.

In other words, Republicans’ obsessive preoccupation with their opponents’ policies and equally pathological neglect of their characters is proving to be a losing strategy. Had Romney situated Obama’s policies within the context of the President’s long standing alliances with a variety of countercultural, anti-Americans—had he “gone negative” or, what amounts to the same thing, “gone truthful”—the evening of November 6th just may have ended differently.

We will never know for certain.  We can only hope that in future campaigns Republicans will prefer living narratives to lifeless facts as they spend at least as much time defining their opponents’ characters as they do their policies.   

 

 

 



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