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Thoughts on “The Narrative”

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Peggy Noonan has issued some follow up remarks on her ill-timed on-air remarks yesterday. Sadly, she does not really explicate on her most interesting remark, which is her comment that what she calls “The Narrative” is not at the heart of Republican beliefs. I am going to take a stab at an explanation.

First, the idea of The Narrative in politics is based upon the viewpoint that voters are more likely to vote for someone they can relate to or identify with rather than the policy or philosophical ideals the candidate represents. As a consequence, the candidate’s life story, their history, where they came, what they accomplished, who they are or are not connected too–all what we might call social or environmental facts–is the essence of a candidate. The political candidate represents a type of social mirror for the voter and the more accurately the mirror reflects the voter the more positive the image the voter will have of the candidate and thus the more likely they will vote for the candidate. In this sense, it represents the mainstreaming identity politics.

It is important to highlight that the concept of the narrative isn’t anything new, or even modern. A narrative is simply a story. The oldest and most well know narrative is the Bible. People have been using stories to bind together (and divide) socially since the dawn of time. But if that’s the case, what exactly does Peggy object too?

Contraposed to The Narrative is a vision of politics best labeled Power Politics. This perspective focuses on what can best be described as political deliverables. What distinguishes one candidate from another is precisely what they are going to do once in power. This vision doesn’t reject The Narrative in and of itself, but it insists that social factors are only useful insofar as they predict what a candidate will actually do while in office. A candidate whose life story seems out of touch with the policies they espouse might have a “credibility gap” but this disjunction would not itself be disqualifying.

What I believe Peggy is trying to say when she says, “The Narrative is bullshit. It’s not where Republican’s live.” is that Republicans voters are not motivated by identity politics but by the desire to get something done. Rather than focusing on who the Republicans are vs. the Democrats, McCain would have been better off stressing what they were going to do once in office vs. the Democrats. From this perspective, debates about the relative experience of Palin vs Obama miss the point. Even if the Republicans win, they at best occupy Democratic ground; they are not at home. The danger of The Narrative is that by picking someone who looks like us, we lose sight of what we want to do; indeed, we have no guarantee that the person who looks like us will even act like us when the chips are down.

Do I think Peggy is right? No and Yes. I think the claim that Republicans are not at home with identity politics is disingenuous. Republicans have always had their own stories to tell, and they have told them successfully and to good affect. But I am sympathetic to the notion that they best way to attack Obama is via Power Politics. He has a much more compelling identity than either of the Republican candidates and trying to go star power vs star power with him is a “mistake”. I put mistake in quotation marks because, as I said in my prior post on this topic, McCain does not have a lot of choices. When you are fighting the headwind he is fighting, anything can be viewed as a mistake. But when you are at the losing end of a lopsided score, and you simply can’t walk off the field, you have to do something. Perhaps The Narrative is a mistake, but what is McCain going to do, run on the Bush record? That would be an even bigger mistake.

So I can see where Peggy is coming from, but in the end her comments strike me as vain. Given the political environment, if McCain were the Dem and Obama the Rep I don’t think Obama could pull it out.


Written by Daniel

September 4, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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