Political Narratives

The FBI Building Presiding Over the Deep State Swamp – Diorama by J. Fraim (May 2018)

(From Chapter 8 of a New Work)

The word narrative is one of the most popular words of our time, meaning so many things to so many people. In its relationship to a story, it creates a type invisible environment of the story we all live in without noticing it as fish don’t notice water. A story narrative in its largest form today is a grand social and cultural story for a particular culture at a particular moment in its history. In effect, the greatest form of narrative today is the political narrative. There might become a science of doing this. There might already be one.

A political narrative offers that invisible environment that Marshall McLuhan talked about in Understanding Mediaand his observation that “The medium is the message.” We are drawn to messages today and fail to see the medium of our lives, the holder of the true message. It suggests a change in narrator from first person to third person. Will there rise some great authors of political narratives in the next few years? Might these people become some of the most important in the nation?

In the years psychologist Carl Jung lived, he speculated on a great collective unconsciousness. Today, with the amount of data we have, this collective unconsciousness does not have to be speculated on but is there in the data of the great search engine, in its patterns and conglomerations of words and images and sounds and voices.

A political narrative needs to be plugged into the great search engine of its time. This gives it the research into creating narratives that it needs. Barring access to all the words of a great search engine company, a political narrative can grow out of the roots of the nation, like the narrative of populism. But an understanding of the latest modern storytelling technology – in a new political narrative type of screenwriting as we suggest – is the most important element. Someone who knows how to embody the images, characters and words of current culture into a dramatic story that citizens want to participate in by activity and voting. These people will be behind the outside face of the characters they create in the narrative. Certainly, the character does not create them.

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There are various types of narratives studied mainly by academics and put into practice by all types of authors or narrators. In the article “Political Narratives and Political Reality” in the International Political Review(July 2006) by Shaul Shenhav, one of the foremost international researchers in the area of political narratives, the author refers to the definitions of “narrative” in Wikipedia. I’ll leave in the hypertext below since it leads off into interesting areas.

In the main definition of narrative, it notes “any report of connected events, actual or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still moving images.” This of course perfectly defines a screenplay for a film as we’ve noted in previous chapters of this book.

The real definition should stop pretty close to the definition above – the best political narratives of the future might come from a special new “genre” of screenwriters. But the definition in Wikipedia goes on and on into a vast landscape of other narratives of society and culture. For example:

“Wikipedia on Narrative notes A narrative or story is a report of connected events, real or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images or both. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, “to tell,” which is derived from the adjective gnarus, “knowing” or “skilled.”

Narrative can be organized in a number of thematic or formal categories: non-fiction (such as definitively including creative non- creative non-fictionbiographyjournalismtranscript poetry, and historiography); fictionalization of historical events (such as anecdotemythlegend, and historical fiction); and fiction proper (such as literature in prose and sometimes poetry, such as short storiesnovels, and narrative poems and songs, and imaginary narratives as portrayed in other textual forms, games, or live or recorded performances).

Narrative is found in all forms of human creativity, art, and entertainment, including speechliteraturetheatremusic and songcomicsjournalismfilmtelevision and videovideo gamesradiogameplayunstructured recreation, and performance in general, as well as some paintingsculpturedrawingphotography, and other visual arts.

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One can spend a lifetime studying scholarly ideas on the idea of “narrative.” Almost entire English Departments in our universities are based around the idea. The word is an essential invitee to learned author’s books these days. It is very appropriate to have it on the tip of many cocktail conversations in DC and LA.

Yet, the type of narrative we focus on is that relatively new form (not even listed in Wikipedia yet) one might call the Political Narrative. There are very few references online to the words “Political Narrative” and most congregate around a few sites. Much of the writing below comes from these sites, bound together into our own story.

Politics is now in a place where candidates fight through with stories rather than ideas. Stories reveal a reality that calls out the audience and also seeks to include more and more characters into the process. The great political stories are woven into one grand narrative with smaller narratives coming out from the grand narrative. The two should fit together with the grace and simplicity of a musical score.

* * *

Our interest is in the grand narratives of culture and not the academic offshoots in its wake. Basically, our interest is in the grandest of narratives of a particular time expressed in the dominant Political Narrative of the time. Perhaps truly effective Political Narratives of particular political times, tie into (through data) what Carl Jung termed the “collective unconsciousness” of a culture as we suggest above. But they certainly have correlations to search actions on the Internet as well as perhaps strong connections to larger historical narratives.

For example, consider two large historical narratives: the Christian narrative and Communist narrative. In the Christian narrative, “People are born in sin but THEN have an opportunity for redemption through a Savior.” Two events connected by the important word “then.” Without the word “then” it is not a narrative. Narratives, like stories, are made from events. Their connections infer causality. Story structure provides a narrative with its power.

The Communist narrative saw its first powerful appearance in the opening lines of the The Communist Manifesto which lays the basis for a grand narrative of class battle between the Bourgeois and the Proletariat, the owners of production and the workers in production.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.”

In many ways, the message of this first paragraph is similar to the grand Christian narrative. Here, we can change it to read, “People are born into oppression But Then have an opportunity for redemption through revolution.” This offers a powerful narrative that the history of society is the history of class struggles. It is difficult to think of many more powerful narratives.

* * *

Political narratives will seldom be as broad as the ones above. Yet they might also bring elements of these grand historical narratives into a contemporary setting. Using the great historical narratives is almost like riding on the tailwind of some great blockbuster film. There is much to pull one into great historical narratives in our current time of political and social isolation.

Most political narratives define themselves into four or eight-year Presidential elections. In this sense, the narratives come and go with particular political administrations. Political tales don’t last forever. Like empires, one author comments, they go through phases of development, consolidation and decline. Unless they can reinvent themselves, counter-narratives will appear, and the story will need to start all over again.

The Narrative Rise in American Politics

There is growing evidence that political narratives play an increasingly important role in American politics. UC Professor Francesca Polletta in “Storytelling in Politics” notes that pollster Stanley Greenberg declared in an election postmortem of 2004 that “a narrative is the key to everything.” James Carville, famous for engineering Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992, agreed with this assessment saying, “We could elect somebody from the Hollywood Hills if they had a narrative to tell people about what the country is and where they see it.”

Carville went on to remark that the Democrats had to learn to tell stories more than give litanies In Carville’s view of the time he was advising Clinton, conservative storytellers loomed large. “They produce a narrative, we produce a litany. They say, ‘I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.’ We say, ‘We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.’ And so, there’s a Republican narrative, a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.”

Presidential Narratives

The grandest political narratives are viewed in Presidential narratives which express the narrative of political parties and grand visions for the direction of America. In the mid-90s, Bill Clinton’s narrative was economic growth. In the 2000’s, George W. Bush’s was protection for the American people. Obama’s campaign was built on a story of hope and change. Trump’s campaign was built on the story of making America great as it once was.

One study listed in Quantified Communicationshas observed the general trend in State of the Union Addresses. These hour-long addresses to Congress and the nation provide Presidents a yearly opportunity to further define their narrative. The study analyzed every State of the Union Address from John F. Kennedy through Barack Obama to find out whether the storytelling trend is taking shape in the recent political landscape.

Despite a few outliers, the study found the general trend in State of the Union Addresses has been toward an increase in storytelling. In fact, during the 55 years studied, there’s been a twofold increase during the last 55 years in storytelling language.

Dino World (A Happy Family in Reagan’s Mythical America on Their Way to Dino Land in the 50s) – Diorama By J. Fraim (April 2018)

Reagan

Ronald Reagan is considered one of the most powerful storytellers who ever lived. It is Reagan who created the mythical, original “great” America that the Trump narrative refers to. In the book Reagan’s Mythical America: Storytelling as Political Leadership by Jan Hanska, Reagan’s ability to talk, profoundly, was examined in its entirety. Hanska explains how Reagan constructed stories using re-created “Americanized” myths such as the “American way of life” and “the American dream.”

As Hanska observes in his book, these myths blurred the factual and fictional, conflated the sacred and the absurd, constituted the American dream as an object of belief, and blended the mythical and religious into the political. Hanska’s work demonstrates that political narratives are an exceedingly complex form of action. They interweave culturally dominant ideologies, religious beliefs, and myths into powerfully persuasive frameworks for political leaders to deploy. As such, Reagan’s “Mythical America” offers a remarkable narrative and strains of this were definitely present during Trump’s campaign in 2016. In effect, Trump’s message of “Make America Great Again” was a narrative return to Reagan’s past “Mythical America.”

Obama

President Obama, whose reputation as an excellent speaker predates his stay in the White House, is also attuned to the importance of storytelling. In a 2012 interview, the president said his biggest mistake during his first few years in office was not telling enough stories.

“The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people, that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times. […] In my first two years I think the notion was, “Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?” And I think that was a legitimate criticism.”

Obama started to learn the importance of telling stories in his early days in politics. His advisor in 2002 was David Axelrod when Obama was running for Senate. Axelrod notes Obama was possibly one of the greatest political storytellers ever but wasn’t sharing these stories. Axelrod encouraged him to share his stories. As Axelrod notes:

“I started working with Obama in 2002 when he was looking to run for the Senate. Every night, we’d talk. He’d be out on the road, and he’d share stories about people that he had met. He’s a great practitioner of the narrative arts. You saw that in his own writing. But then, he would give political speeches, and they were very high‑level policy talks. Finally, I said to him, ‘You know, every night, you tell me these moving stories. You should share those stories because they animate the points you’re trying to make much more effectively.’ He started integrating these stories into his speeches.”

* * *

As Sarah Weber notes in Quantified Communications, President Obama’s final State of the Union is an excellent example. “His strength in that address is in creating small narrative arcs to drive the speech — outlining the obstacles and challenges, the path of progress, and the sense of unified achievement that make a story worth retelling.” Here is a part of this speech:

“Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the dogmas of the quiet past. Instead we thought anew and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.”

Overall, it seems significant to any political narrative of our times, that the Obama vision was of a new future while the Trump vision of a past time, a past time as recently as Ronald Reagan, when the myth of America’s greatest still lived. 

Clinton & Trump

The study analyzed Clinton and Trump’s performance throughout the primary debates to see whether stories are reflected in their language. Throughout the primary debates the two candidates participated in, both used far more storytelling language than the average politician. While Trump’s use of storytelling hovered in the high 90th percentile throughout the primaries, Clinton’s was not as steady.

During the last two democratic debates, Clinton’s storytelling language increased significantly, narrowing the gap between her speech and her opponent’s. Was it a sign that she was shifting her communication strategy? Regardless of either candidate’s political position or qualifications for office, Trump’s story has been clear and consistent throughout his campaign, while Clinton’s has been harder to pin down. However, Trump used, on the whole, nearly 30% more storytelling than Clinton in the debates.

Sanders & Trump

Similar Narratives – Different Solutions

In spite of being very different on major areas like economics, the narratives of Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign were surprisingly similar in many ways. In the Berkeley Political Review(12/5/17) Henry Tolchard observes their similarity in a very interesting article.

As Tolchard notes, “Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders are often compared as both being part of a larger populist trend in politics, or, contrasted for their nearly opposite political ideologies. But their real similarity lies in their rhetoric. Each has persuasive power because of the narratives that they support. Both rely on descriptions of the status quo systems of power being “rigged” against the common people to rile up support. Sanders, in his opening remarks at the fifth Democratic presidential debate, took a stand against the ‘rigged economy,’ as he also did in advertisement.  In describing campaign finance, he said the “system is corrupt, big money controls what’s going on.’

Tolchard notes that “Alone, these comments all seem par for the course, but when evaluating next to Trump’s they are strikingly familiar. Trump has echoed Sanders in saying that ‘it’s not just the political system that’s rigged, it’s the whole economy.’ Additionally, his distrust in institutions has led him to also call the political structure ‘a rigged system.’ The similarity between the two is clearly not in their views about what should be done to fix these problems. Trump favors conservative economic reform focused on ‘America first,’ while Sanders is a social democrat who supports large government programs to combat economic injustice. Their similarity, and their rhetorical power, is in the narratives that they uphold.”

Trump & Kim Narrative

Trump Kim Resorts. 2025. Diorama by J. Fraim (June 2018)

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(Above from a chapter of our new project The Application of Screenplay Technique to Poltical Narrative)

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