I've been meaning to post for many months about the power of narrative in understanding political campaign. Emory Psychologist Drew Westen has written some great stuff on the matter and so has Political Science PhD turned on-line journalist extraordinaire, Paul Waldman. I've had a link on my “to be blogged” page since last July, when Waldman first wrote about the importance of narrative in campaigns. Last July, Waldman wrote:
The most effective political communicators weave their stories into
our stories. Nonetheless, the fact that at the moment, Barack Obama has
his campaign narrative written, and the others mostly don't, is not a
guarantee that he will be the next president. For starters, primary
campaigns are much more volatile and subject to influences like the
weather on primary day than the general election.
But the candidate who wins is likely to be the one whose story
contains answers to our most fundamental questions. How will Americans
see themselves and their country — its present, and its potential –
in 2008? The candidate who can understand that question, and place him
or herself within the answer, is likely to be the one taking the oath
of office in January 2009.
Last week, he came back to the subject to essentially say “I told you so.“ And, of course, explain why Obama has been so effective with his narrative where other major candidates have failed:
Those [previous] columns were written in July, but even before that?indeed, as
long ago as his explosion into national consciousness at the Democratic
convention in 2004?Obama has been telling a story perfectly keyed to
the current moment in history.
As Obama tells it, the country is held hostage by a political class
that sows partisan and cultural division, making solving problems ever
more difficult, while the country yearns for a new day of unity. As the
youngest candidate, the only post-boomer candidate, the only bi-racial
candidate, and the one candidate with a preternatural ability to obtain
the good will of those who disagree with him, he can bring all
Americans together and lead us to a future built on hope.
Your own reaction to that story may be a quickening of the
heartbeat, or a disgusted '”Give me a break.'” But there is no denying
that many, many people are willing to sign on to it. And though he is
careful not to say it himself, Obama''s story benefits greatly from how
often other people say that he is a Man of Destiny. This is a story we
know well, because we have read it and watched it so many times before.
When Luke gazes out across the barren desert of Tatooine, the wind
rustling in his hair as the twin suns set and the music swells, we know
just what it means, even if he doesn''t know it yet. He is The One, he
will defeat the forces of evil and save the galaxy.
(How much do I love that Waldman references one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.) Waldman concludes by discussing McCain's successful use of narrative in 2000, but seeming failure this time around. On the latter point:
McCain told an interesting story when he ran for president in 2000:
the system was corrupt, and with his unmatched courage, independence,
and integrity, he would rid Washington of its blood-sucking influence
peddlers. But in this campaign he has told no story at all. What is the
problem McCain's presidency is supposed to solve? Why is he the only
one who can solve it? These are the questions to which winning
campaigns know and communicate the answers. McCain doesn't even seem to
have thought about them.
And what he communicates about himself is tethered firmly to the
past. As much as his Vietnam suffering and courage gives him a halo
with the pundit class, the key moment in McCain's personal story
happened forty years ago. It does not connect to anything the public
wants out of their next president. And the more he talks about the
present and the future, the worse he does. While last week he
criticized Barack Obama by saying the Democrat's speeches are
“singularly lacking in specifics,” few candidates on either side have
been as vague as John McCain. How many people could tell you just what
it is McCain wants to do if he becomes president, apart from staying in
Iraq for a really long time?
And if he should find himself facing Obama, McCain will discover
that his own weaknesses fit in neatly with the story Obama tells. Where
Obama is young, dynamic and optimistic, McCain is old, subdued, and
prone to telling voters that things are likely to get worse before they
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, McCain offers no indication
of where we as citizens fit into his story, what a vote for him is
supposed to say about us.
It is well worth reading the whole thing, as well as his two earlier articles on the topic (they are all pretty brief).