Riveted by Competing Campaign Narratives

Sports Saturday

Perhaps there is nothing more exciting in American sports than a tight baseball pennant race (although I realize that I am dating myself by calling it a pennant race rather than a playoff race). That being said, the current presidential election has seemed like this year’s baseball races, with everything coming down to the final days. In the place of standings we have poll numbers, which every day either change or stay the same and which take on more urgency as the season draws to an end. Of course, there’s a difference in that polls can vary—and can be cherry picked—whereas standings are an accurate reflection of a team’s won-lost record. But one can be subjective in interpreting baseball standings as well: we may be encouraged by a team that’s gaining momentum, even though it’s behind, or be discouraged by a team that, while ahead, is playing “not to lose.” In both cases we anxiously scan the upcoming games/events to look for opportunities or danger points.

One aspect of politics that interests me as a literary scholar is how we have come to see elections less as competing policy positions or philosophies or even candidates and more as competing narratives. We talk about whether a candidate has lost control of his/her narrative and which story will emerge from a debate (with both sides trying to spin the media so that their story will prevail).  Campaigns claim a favorable narrative for themselves and attempt to impose an unfavorable one on the opponent. Is Romney a bulwark against the invading hoards or a Montgomery Burns plutocrat? Is Obama a rapacious socialist or a bastion of principle and sanity?

There are poetic dimensions to electoral language as well: a particular configuration of words will capture the public’s imagination as it seems to sum up a candidate or campaign.  When an image appears particularly apt, it functions as an overdetermined symbol and rings with the force of truth.

I don’t know when narrative became such an integral part of political science, but I’m tempted to trace the new emphasis back to 1980’s deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists, and post-colonialists. They pointed out that the visions of the power elite were not shared by everyone, and they examined the communications mediums by which visions were perpetuated. Those who were literary scholars looked at how aesthetic uses of language spoke with particular power. When a feminist like Judith Fetterley urged women to read literary classics against the grain, powerful new interpretations emerged.

As people came to understand better the dynamics of stories, they could use them more deliberately for their own ends, and the right proved at least as adept as the left in exploiting narrative’s power. Literary theory, which initially was used to dismantle oppressive narratives, also was used to manipulate narrative more effectively. Of course, propagandists have always understood the power of narrative (think Joseph Goebbels), but it could become a fundamental campaign tool once narratology systematically laid out how it works.

So that’s where we are now as campaigns struggle to control the narrative that the public encounters. I can’t exhaust this topic here but I’ll make a couple of observations. First, for all the complaining that the right does against the mainstream media, there’s something that this media prefers even to having liberal candidates elected: a good story. People are more likely to remain glued to their televisions and computer screens if the outcome of the race is in doubt. Therefore, if one candidate, like a rider in the Tour de France, gets out too far ahead of the pack (the peloton), the media may operate like the peloton and attempt to reel him or her back in.

Something like this may have occurred after Obama’s performance in the first debate, which was not quite as dreadful as people have come to see it but which changed the narrative from an easy win to a toss-up horserace. It’s as though, to put it in terms of the recent baseball playoffs, from the Democratic convention until the first debate there was a danger (from the media’s point of view) of Obama being the San Francisco Giants in the World Series and walking all over the Detroit Tigers. After the first debate, it was San Francisco against the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco against the St. Louis Cardinals, with every game played on the edge. San Francisco partisans, like Obama supporters, would have been perfectly happy if the Giants had coasted through all three series. But Major League Baseball, like the media, was happy with the dogfight.

Second, when we use great literature to assess the campaign narratives, we are better able to see through their shallow devices to underlying truths. Great narratives, if we do them justice, make us wiser and help expose self-serving narratives.

I don’t know how much more suspense my heart can take in the current battle between campaign narratives, which is exactly how America’s media wants it. At least I have literature to help me maintain some perspective on it all.

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  • 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.

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