The Power of Political Narrative


 Are you wondering how to make a living with your English degree? Consider becoming a political operative.

That’s because those in politics need people who understand how narrative works. A couple of New Yorker articles make clear the effectiveness of a powerful political story.

Jane Mayer, in the November 19 issue, believes that the most effective ad of the 2012 presidential campaign was “Stage,” produced by a pro-Obama Super PAC. Targeting Mitt Romney’s involvement with Bain Capital, the ad’s compelling narrative managed to define the GOP candidate for Ohio voters in ways that he never recovered from. Here’s a description of the ad, which can be viewed here:

[Stage] features an Indiana paper-plant worker named Mike Earnest telling the story of how, one day, he and his co-workers were asked to build a thirty-foot-wide stage. When they were done, they were hereded in front of the stage, and executives at Bain Capital, which had bought the plant, walked out and told them that they were fired. Before Bain, Earnest says, the factory was employing three shifts of workers, and Romney, y shutting it down, made more than a hundred million dollars. Earnest concludes, “Turns out, when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin, and it just made me sick.”

Is the narrative true, not only in the details but in the way it tags Romney as (in the words of  New York Magazine’s Jon Chait) a “sneering plutocrat”? Well, here’s a post-election quotation from Romney that will allow you to decide for yourself:

Obama, Romney argued, had been “very generous” to blacks, Hispanics and young voters. He cited as motivating factors to young voters the administration’s plan for partial forgiveness of college loan interest and the extension of health coverage for students on their parents’ insurance plans well into their 20s. Free contraception coverage under Obama’s healthcare plan, he added, gave an extra incentive to college-aged women to back the president.

Romney argued that the Obama’s health care plan’s promise of coverage “in perpetuity” was “highly motivational” to those voters making $25,000 to $35,000 who might not have been covered, as well as to African American and Hispanic voters. Pivoting to immigration, Romney said the Obama campaign’s efforts to paint him as “anti-immigrant” had been effective and that the administration’s promise to offer what he called “amnesty” to the children of illegal immigrants had helped turn out Hispanic voters in record numbers.

In other words, it appears that Romney actually believes what he said over the summer about 47% of Americans not taking “personal responsibility and care for their lives.” His own  (fallacious) ad claiming that Obama wanted to end work requirement for welfare–the underlying narrative is of the underclass seizing control of the store and profligately handing out the inventory–proved nowhere near as effect as Stage, which conveys the idea of a heartless CEO through a simple narrative with an unforgettable image.

A Ryan Lizza article on the political future of Texas, meanwhile, makes the case that the Democrats hold the upper hand in a battle of competing narratives about immigration. Lizza quotes the newly elected Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz as he makes the point:

“I think every case in litigation and every argument in politics is about the fundamental narrative,” he said. “If you can frame the narrative, you win. As Sun Tzu said, every battle is won before it is fought. And it is won by choosing the field of terrain on which the fight will be engaged.” For now, the field belongs to Obama and the Democrats, and the storyline on immigration is theirs to lose.

If you’ve studied novels or taken a creative writing class, the future of America could be in your hands.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete