Narrative Blitz!: The race to tell the story of the midterms
“I’ve spent my whole life chasing the American dream,” John Boehner said, just before tearing up and getting verklempt. Everyone knows that’s the international symbol for having finally, against overwhelming odds, made it.
On the other side of the country, Harry Reid gave his own victory speech. He promised struggling Nevada families that “the bell that just rang isn’t the end of the fight; it’s the start of the next round.”
Wednesday afternoon, President Obama mumbled awkwardly to explain a car in a ditch in neutral with people pushing in opposite directions while a slurpee looks on from the shoulder or something like that, continuing his Guinness Book run for Most Bloated Metaphor.
In the days following the 2010 midterm elections, there’s been a second, unseen battle being waged across America’s airwaves and hotspots: to control the story of what this election really means for America. Regardless of who wins, the victor will benefit the most and, accordingly, control the story heading into 2012.
After all, History is just the winner’s recollection of what happened that day.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s something much more fundamental going on here. In the beginning–long before electricity and running water, much less iPads and Twitter feeds–we “knew” very little. Humans, being curious creatures who like being right, used stories to fill in the cracks where knowledge was missing.
“That’s Zeus up there throwing that lighting, because you did that thing you shouldn’t have!” For the balance of human history, stories like this were used to span the gaps between what we observed in the world and what we thought was happening.
Then, on the Eighth Day, we invented the Internet, so you’d think we wouldn’t have that problem anymore. To our collective chagrin, we’ve got piles of information now–an undifferentiated mass of data we couldn’t sort through in a lifetime, even if we stopped checking our blackberries Blackberries and iphones iPhones every 6 minutes.
So why am I rambling on about the advent of stories and prehistoric man? Because in a world of infinitely accessible knowledge and instant communication, whoever controls the story controls how we react to everything else. As a matter of biology, we can’t hold all that information in our heads at once. Half of it is contradictory anyway. No matter how committed we may be to “just the facts,” we still need a coherent story to organize and connect those facts, to give them meaning. The stories competing for primacy in our minds are filters telling us what to believe, what to care about, and how to respond.
An example helps make the point. Let’s say you’re about to park your car when another driver squeals around the corner and darts into your space. This, just like a midterm election, is an event. You immediately begin to imagine why this happened. Depending on variables as different as what kind of day you’ve had or how recently you stole someone’s space, you might think, “This jerk has NO concern for anyone!” Or: “He must be extremely late for something to act like that.”
If you see that driver in the store, everything he does will be filtered through your mind’s story about him. If he grabs the cheap store brand, you might think, “He doesn’t even care about what he’s buying.” Or: “He doesn’t even have time to look at what he’s buying.”
In 2006, Barack Obama noticed that the narrative Americans were telling themselves was about a government out of touch, ignoring the people who hired them. He positioned himself as the answer, as the way we could relieve our frustration. But during the course of his first two years in office, the Republicans, led recently by the Tea Party, have managed to make the Righteous Will to Correct Washington’s Insider Culture their story.
That’s why the president looked so lost and forlorn on Wednesday.
It wasn’t shock – we knew this was coming for months. Instead, the story he thought he controlled was taken from him. Without a narrative frame, he struggled to organize the events of the election in a way that made sense. He was the One to fix Washington, not them!
If you want to understand just how important owning the story and writing the history truly is, pay attention in the next few months to how Republicans, Democrats, and the President explain what this election, and the future, “means.” Pay attention for words and phrases like “this is about,” “America is,” “the stakes are high.” These phrases are far too broad to account for all the facts, but that’s not the point. What you’ll hear are attempts to control the story we use to understand what’s happening. Their interpretation becomes our interpretation–their reality becomes our reality.
Whichever story you choose to believe, you’ll do so knowing that you’re right and they’re wrong. At least, of course, until a better story comes along.
Follow Michael Maslansky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/m_mas