The Closet Moderate: Speculative Politics: Narrative [2 of 2]

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Speculative Politics: Narrative [2 of 2]

A recent poll found that Fox News is the most trusted name in news. You should've already filled your britches, and not because Fox News is partisan, or chockablock with shallow megalomaniacs. You could say that about many TV news outlets. The reason you should be scared is that Fox News--and the GOP generally--has figured out how to make storytelling the dominant mode of information consumption. In 2004, a Bush aide said this to a Ron Suskind, a reporter for New York Magazine:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Though the phrase "reality-based community" is still much-mocked in liberal circles, that aide was exactly right. [Cont'd.]


To wit: earlier this year there was a hullabaloo because the White House communications director flat out said that Fox News was partisan, not, as their motto argues, "fair and balanced." Fox wasted no time casting this as a "War on Fox," which is, make no mistake, a story. The fact of the matter could be summed up as "A said B about C, based on D." In other words, she was making the argument that Fox had a history of partisan statements and distortions that made them, in effect, an outlet for GOP talking points. You can evaluate those claims using higher brain functions. But by framing that statement as part of a war on Fox, the network was able to dodge the whole issue of whether the statement was accurate. Instead, they cast themselves in the role of aggrieved victim of unjustified belligerence on the part of an entity that had no right to such aggressive action. That is a story, not an argument, and was designed to arouse tribal anxieties. It worked. The press corps, already shaken by the decline of traditional media and associated prerogatives, was incensed by the White House's interference.

That episode, in and of itself, is not particularly significant. But what it represents--the primacy of storytelling--has some explanatory significance when we're trying to figure out why our legislative process is gridlocked. The story that the Republican Party has told Americans for the last 30+ years is, essentially, "government can't do anything right." At this point, the worst thing they could do is change their story.

There are a couple of tangled threads here, all based around the the three factors I mentioned in the previous entry. First, there's the issue of cognitive fluency. A short way of restating the linked article is that, in most cases, familiar things are more readily accepted and subject to less scrutiny than strange things. In other words, over the course of a generation the GOP has conditioned their base to accept stories about the uselessness of government.

It follows that Republicans have an interest in making government appear to be useless. After all, that validates their story. Now, it's indisputably true that the perceived uselessness of government is due to the GOP's shameless abuse of Senate procedure. But that doesn't matter. Given the low information nature of the relevant audience (only 26% of Americans know 60 votes is required to break a filibuster), it's a useful tack to take. People shouldn't have to give a shit about the procedural ins-and-outs of their government in order to produce a working legislature. They ought to be free to elect Scott Brown a senator without halting all legislative action on Capitol Hill, but that's not the government we have.

I don't know to what extent this was conscious, but the Republicans have uncovered (and abused) a powerful reality of modern existence: most of us just don't have time to process things outside of our core areas of interest. So we have coping mechanisms: frequency becomes a stand in for accuracy. Received wisdom from a trusted source replaces inquiry. Narrative replaces argument. Yes, that's always been true of human existence, but the rate of issue turnover has accelerated in unprecedented ways. By the time I'm done dealing with relevant thing X, relevant thing Y has already eclipsed it. Storytellers are always spinning the next tale by the time fact checkers have finished with the previous one. And the value that novelty carries in the age of digital media means that the new hotness will almost always overshadow its predecessor, with little regard for the merits of either.

That's the brilliance hidden behind the baldness of the reality-based community quote. The judicious study of reality simply can't keep pace with the invention of new stories and new realities. Thus, the only form of permanence is the creation and reinforcing of an identity--a relationship between storyteller and audience. The nominal separation of the interconnected sources of the GOP, Fox News and the wider right-wing noise machine exist entirely to create and foster an identity by abusing the coping mechanisms of their audience. By moving in concert from one story to the next, they never provoke "cognitive disfluency." The result is a remarkably homogeneous base of Republican voters.

The bottom line is this: Democrats need to become better storytellers if they want to move their agenda through Congress. So far, they haven't, and Obama seems less enthusiastic about being the Storyteller in Chief for the rest of the party.

Edit: This article makes a similar point about information overload and how we cope with it.


Silent Cal said...

Remember when the Republicans were trying to get rid of the filibuster and Democrats thought it was essential for democracy to keep it? Good times.

Statler said...

See this and this.