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Hullabaloo


Friday, October 10, 2003

 
Narrative Politics

From The Guardian:

But the key to the election of Governor Arnie is a phenomenon which might be called narrative politics. American electoral campaigns have tended to be driven by the theory of "retail politics": the candidate made as many speeches, shook the maximum number of hands, accrued the largest air-mile account as possible. Races were won by imprinting a face and a few simple policies through ceaseless repetition.

But, in recent American elections, the centrality of chapped hands and battered soles to a candidate's chances has been balanced against the quicker, simpler power of narrative politics. The victor was likely to be not the man who put in most hours but the one who told the most extraordinary story about himself.

Hence George W Bush - a notoriously indolent campaigner - was able to match the more assiduous Gore because his candidacy was a better yarn: a son following his dad into the Oval Office, a drunk sorting himself out, a child taking revenge on the administration that beat his father.

Previously, the election of the wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota was an extreme example of narrative politics - voters bored with the process waking themselves up with an unlikely plot twist - but even Clinton can be seen as a beneficiary of this electoral mentality. In 1992, the entry into the White House of a womanising, draft-dodging poor Southern boy whose father had died before he was born was simply a better story to tell history than the re-election of the patrician George Bush senior.

A rough rule of narrative politics is that the candidate whose life story makes the best Hollywood movie will win the race. Which is why Schwarzenegger represents the greatest triumph of the theory to date. In the past, narrative politics has had to be combined with retail politics: Clinton, like Reagan before him, had spent years shaking hands and practising legislation.

Schwarzenegger, who had done the retail part unknowingly in multiplexes over decades, relied during his campaign entirely on his narrative: his pitch. Beginning with the neatness that a man who had made a film called Total Recall should be competing in a recall election, his run for governor was such a bold and ridiculous tale that you kept thinking it needed a script editor.

Even apart from his own compelling back story - body-building to nation-building - there was also the B-plot that his marriage to Maria Shriver (niece of JFK and Bobby) also made the race a strange and wonderful pay-off to one of America's greatest political storylines: the Kennedys. The advantage of narrative politics is that weaknesses are reclassified as strengths. A politician who knows nothing about politics? What a premise. A leader who can barely speak an American sentence aloud? Such a gripping yarn. A candidate whose answer to the bankruptcy of California is to propose tax cuts? We sure want to stay and see how this turns out.

The paradox of narrative politics is that it is the very improbability of the campaign that gives it plausibility. In voting booths now - as always in cinemas - audiences will sacrifice coherence for surprise. This is democracy played by the rules of a Hollywood script conference and so, in this context, the coming of the machine governor ceases to be a surprise. Arnie may know nothing much about politics but he's a proven genius at the business of getting Americans to swallow preposterous propositions and outcomes.


I know it's difficult for us political junkies to view something we take very seriously in this way. But, I am convinced that it is a very important key to advancing our cause.

As a good friend of mine once said, "it's all about who you want to watch on television for the next four years." I used to think that was ridiculously cynical. But, with the ascension of Clinton, Bush and (mind-bogglingly) Schwarzenegger, I think it's obvious that there is merit in this concept.

Recognizing the power of this type of politics does not require that we choose candidates who are as vapid and empty as Schwarzenegger and Bush are. It just means that we must pick candidates who also have the story and charisma that modern media requires and be prepared to tell that story to the American people.

The framing of the campaign and the arena in which it will be engaged is likely to be chosen by the Republicans purely because of their natural domination, as incumbents, of the free media, their Mighty Wurlitzer and the period between the primaries and the convention during which Democrats are going to be financially dead in the water. We will probably be fighting on their terms, even though we will win on ours.

Whoever gets the nomination must appeal strongly on this narrative level or we will lose to a 300 million dollar advertising campaign in which steely eyed George W. Bush, underestimated all his life, is sold as having risen to the occasion when the chips were down proving his courage and fortitude in the face of the greatest challenge any man of his generation has ever faced.

Even if his show is getting less and less believable, people are not likely to switch channels unless they are guaranteed something more satisfying.



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