Political Narratives

(Upfront Disclaimer: I came up with many of these ideas after a conversation with the Pope of Walnut.)

It’s no secret that political battles are won and lost based on the stories told by the opposing sides. Each side wants to create a narrative that appeals to the broadest number of voters no matter what the facts are. Moreover, the facts often have little to do with the outcome of a political battle. An excellent example of this was the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Bush Administration created a narrative wholly divorced from reality, making claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would use at any time on the American people. I can remember vividly debating the necessity of going to war with some co-workers. At the time, they felt that the threat posed by Saddam was a good enough justification for going to war. Bush and company put enough doubt in people’s minds that they were able to accept the possibility of a “what if” scenario (i.e., What if Saddam really has WMDs?). This kind of narrative is the easiest to sell. Why? Because there are clearly defined “characters” in the story. The “protagonist” (if you’ll let me indulge in a little stretching of the metaphor) was W, the cocky cowboy/village idiot from Texas by way of upper crust New England. He’s the common man. He’s inarticulate. He’s sincere. That’s why people back then liked him. The “antagonist” was Saddam. He was obviously evil because he was swarthy and had a mustache. And it didn’t matter to many Americans that there was absolutely no link between Saddam and the events of 9/11. They believed it. We went to war, and you know how that’s turned out.

Also easy to sell was Obama’s narrative of hope and change. These themes are often used by politicians trying to oust the incumbent, especially if the incumbent has really f**ked things up. Obama came across as a boy wonder who would, by virtue of his impeccable credentials and his charisma, lead the country to a new era of collaboration. His message was never anything close to the claim that we would have four more years of centrism and wishy-washy policies, and yet that’s exactly what we’re getting with Obama. Many of his moves have been Clintonian (from Cabinet picks to his position on healthcare), but the narrative that he created on the campaign trail was as far from Clinton as it could get.

This leads me to my last point. If we look at the current climate crisis, we see a political battle unfolding. The winner will create the most effective narrative. Conservatives often vote against environmental causes because they see regulation as too much government intervention. (There are many holes with this way of thinking, but I’ll save them for your imagination.) Because of this, for many conservatives, these regulations are a non-issue: they simply will not favor more regulation. However, much of middle America finds regulations fairly neutral (provided they don’t raise taxes or end up costing them too much money in other ways). The only way that Americans in our current political/cultural moment will make any sacrifices whatsoever is with a compelling narrative. As I see it, there are two ways to get Americans to take global climate change (GCC) seriously and begin to give up fossil fuels: 1) Scare the crap out of them by painting a dire picture about impending environmental catastrophes. 2) Appeal to their sympathies for cute little animals that will die if we don’t do something. Neither of these strategies have been all that effective. If I were an ace political strategist, I’d have great plan to get people to care about the environment. But I’m not, so, sadly, I don’t.

I care about the environment for really selfish reasons. The narrative I believe in involves the possible future that will affect my daughter. She’s only a year old, but I am already concerned that the worst effects of GCC will hit her generation pretty hard. I worry about what life will be like for her when she’s forty or fifty in the late 21st century. I may still be alive by then, but I’ll have already lived a fairly full life. If GCC results in a 20-50% species loss or increased incidents of drought, hurricanes, or other extreme weather, the lives of our children will be qualitatively different from ours. This is not a political narrative. It’s a real possibility. What scares me, what ought to be a matter of national security, is that the lives of our children are in real danger if even a handful of the predictions made by reputable scientists are right. Global climate change cannot be a villain the way that Islamic extremists can. GCC doesn’t wear a beard and a turban. But I’m much more scared of it than I am of another Al-Qaeda attack on US soil. I’d love to find a narrative that can push people’s buttons on this issue, but the truth is that the facts are scary enough. But people don’t want facts. They’re too busy looking for more stories.

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