If the election is a story…

As children we are raised to think of our history as a story.

I’m not sure when this way of teaching American history began, but it was definitely prevalent throughout my education. Textbooks would present events, not as simple linear moments but as stories with beginnings, middles, and endings; each with their own book or chapter.

Consider, for example, how we look at the Civil War: The Civil War has a beginning with the election of Lincoln and Fort Sumter; a middle with Gettysburg; and an ending with Lincoln’s assassination. Everything else that occurs is seen in the context of that storyline. You can do this same trick with other wars and major events and you will see how it has affected your view on history as well. We all do it, we were taught to do this; we probably just didn’t realize it at the time that is what was going on.

The question is so what does the mean for us now?

Well, it means we view events that occur in the present differently than we probably should, especially when they are taking place on the big stage. Think for example about the media and how they present the news, they are stories as well and all of the archetypes of a story are included within the discussion. Newscasters and news shows do it every day (and sometimes you will even hear them say humorously “to be continued” if a story is ongoing).

I first noticed this as an oddity about our culture during the 2004 election. CNN was interviewing a perspective voter and she said how she disliked everything President George W. Bush did, was not happy with the Iraq War, etc., but was still voting for him. Why? As she put it, she wanted to give him a chance to fix his mistakes.

Think about that for a minute.

It escapes all logic.

If you, in your workplace, had an employee that made a series of incredibly bad mistakes would you give that person a chance for redemption like Scrooge on Christmas morning? No, of course not; that person would be dismissed and a new worker will be hired. But you think that way, because your work world is the real world; it is not looked at by the greater percentage of the population as a story. In other words, it is different from American history, and American history is a story, which means living human beings (like Presidents), for good or bad, are characters in a tale, as compared to the bad employee.

When it comes to today’s news, in politics all of the different aspects of a story emerge. There are heroes, villains, symbols, twists, turns, and an “us-versus-them” mentality. Roles change on a daily basis and the stories are fraught with all of the surprises one would find in a bad movie. No wonder people who follow the news call themselves “junkies!” They are like people who stay home all day watching soap operas waiting for the next twist in their “stories.”

How healthy (or unhealthy) this perspective is for our country is debatable, but it is a fact of our culture (this is not a new concept I am sharing) and you hear pundits talk about politics like this all the time with catchphrases like “narrative.” I always find that hilarious when I hear pundits use the term, because they are taking part in the storytelling, it is not like the “narrative” is out of their hands at any given time.

In 2008, President Obama once discussed how many see him as a symbol. That is a powerful statement and very true when one considers what his election meant for our country’s history. He was the first minority president, raised by a single mother and his grandparents, put himself through college and worked towards the highest office. That is a very American story—no matter which side of the political fence you lie on—that will be told for as long as people learn about American history. His first election represents in many ways how we like to look at our country and the possibility here for success.

So, if we are to assume that the public views this current election cycle as a story and the people as characters in the narrative, you begin to see the mountain that the Republicans have to climb. See, it is hard to change the narrative of what we “want” the story of the first African-American president to be and that is what they will have to attempt to do. We want the hero’s story to be one of success and growth; and at this time, in the narrative playing out around us, President Obama is definitely the hero and this re-election is the middle of his story.

It’s fascinating watching the Republicans during the primaries because, intentionally or unintentionally, they are falling into the role that they are to play if President Obama is the hero; the role of the villain. This goes from the negative focus that they use to report the news (Fox News), the attacks they throw at the hero, and to the candidates that they have chosen. Let me give you one example with Governor Mitt Romney.

Honestly, if this was a piece of fiction, Governor Romney has a lot of the characteristics I would have created for the villain of the tale.

  • He is very rich, from a privileged upbringing
  • He pays less taxes than most lower to middle-class families (including mine)
  • He has millions hiding in the Cayman Islands (and in Swiss banks!)
  • He thinks corporations are people
  • He made his fortune downsizing companies, in other words, firing normal people like us.
  • He flip-flops on issues (like the environment and abortion) when it helps himself politically
  • His financial plan would actually benefit the upper classes and hurt the lower and middle classes

When you look at that list, all he is missing is a thin black mustache, a black cloak, and an evil laugh.

Now how fair or unfair this list may be to the Governor, they are facts that help continue the narrative already playing out in our minds. That is the trick that the Republicans have to pull off; they need to change the focus of the story and the roles assigned.  Frankly, I can’t see them succeeding.

See, to keep the base energized the Republicans will need to stay negative at President Obama whoever their nominees is. However, their negativity will not draw away any of the voters that voted for President Obama in the last election; if anything it will stir them to support the hero in the story more.  Because in a good yarn, we all want the hero to win. We want to see Harry Potter beat Voldemort, we want Lex Luther to lose to Superman.

The fact is, as writers and readers, the “story” of the next election is going on right now around us, and for those in the know, it is not a challenge to skip to the final pages and read the ending already. In a way, we’ve read this story before.

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6 responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard and commented:

    I’ve been dying to write about politics this entire year, but since I just started this site realy this year, I wanted to avoid the controversial stuff. This early article, where I compared the election to a story and why that is important in our American worldview (actually, even though some of this is dated I still believe much of it), is one of the few times when I had no choice and gave in. And, to be honest, I still stand by a lot of what I say in this post and believe the result will still be in Obama’s favor.

    Here are other things I have considered:

    • I wanted to write about truth and how it really, really bothers me that people could justify changing the truth for the sake of the result and how others can go along with that untruth fully knowing that it is a lie. Without truth, what do we have?
    • I even started work on a comedic piece about why I think conventions are usually structured like a bad high school award night. (It’s why I was inspired to reblog this post for those curious.)
    • I even had to fight myself from at one point comparing Romney—and the fact he has run away from his past and old beliefs (pro-health care mandate, pro-choice, supporting gay rights, believing in global warming, etc.) to achieve his goal—to a Greek tragedy. Think about it: when you abandon everything you have done in the past and changed all of your beliefs for the sake of a victory, who are you in the end since you are no longer yourself…. See classic Greek tragedy. God, it could be one heck of a play! You would just need someone next to him telling him that he is making a mistake (probably the narrator of the play, maybe the character can be one of his sons?) and he would have to abandon that person… and after he loses that one person comes back to remind him that it is gone, and no one (including himself) knows who he is anymore.

    Who knows? Before November they might appear on the site. For the time they are on my list of possible future topics.

  2. Wow. Very insightful. I agree completely. I’m looking forward to watching the debate tonight. Should be quite educational–now from a writing standpoint as well. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Pingback: My Reasons… Election 2012 « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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