narratives

The Story of Barack Obama

Today, Barack Obama became the 44th President on the back of an incredibly powerful story. Some of these storylines are true and unassailable: the historicity of the first African American President. Others are the work of an incredibly skilled campaign team and a candidate who mastered the literary realm (and indeed, used it as the basis of his political career) as Reagan mastered stagecraft. Watching TV today reminds me of an immutable truth of our politics: above all else, we as Americans love a good story.

Oddly, this dynamic does not wind up devaluing issues and policies as you expect it might. When radical policies like the biggest expansion of government since FDR can be cloaked in a tableau of hope, change, and history, they are much easier to get through. Good storytelling is the natural ally of those who would like to see bold public policies -- on both sides.

Again and again in American politics, certain themes recur. And certain storylines are more successful than others. I went back and looked at Presidential elections since 1960 -- generally considered to be the birth of modern Presidential politics -- to see which storylines worked and which didn't, and it's not hard to see why Obama's trifecta of youth, change, and hope -- represented here by optimism, is so powerful: they've won every time they've been tried.

Here are the overall themes. I tried to boil down each candidate to a maximum of two main narratives: 

Year Winner Narratives Loser Narratives
1960 Kennedy (D) Youth, optimism Nixon (R) Continuity
1964 Johnson (D) Continuity, risk Goldwater (R) Opposition, integrity
1968 Nixon (R) Stability, experience Humphrey (D) Continuity
1972 Nixon (R) Continuity McGovern (D) Opposition
1976 Carter (D) Integrity Ford (R) Americana
1980 Reagan (R) Optimism, change Carter (D) Risk
1984 Reagan (R) Optimism, continuity Mondale (D) Opposition
1988 Bush (R) Continuity Dukakis (D) Competence, opposition
1992 Clinton (D) Change, party reform Bush (R) Service, risk
1996 Clinton (D) Continuity, optimism Dole (R) Service, integrity
2000 Bush (R) Integrity, party reform Gore (D) Intelligence, continuity
2004 Bush (R) Safety, continuity Kerry (D) Service, opposition
2008 Obama (D) Change, youth McCain (R)

Service, party reform

Here are the overall standings:

Theme Won Lost Win %
Optimism 4 0 1.000
Change 3 0 1.000
Youth 2 0 1.000
Safety 1 0 1.000
Continuity 6 3 .667
Party reform 2 1 .667
Integrity 2 2 .500
Risk 1 2 .333
Americana 0 1 .000
Intelligence 0 1 .000
Opposition 0 4 .000
Service 0 4 .000

The Media's Obama Narratives

The Leftosphere has long (and correctly) been frustrated over the media tendency to adhere to narratives and ignore contradictory evidence.  See the Daily Howler's incomparable archives or the late, sorely missed Spinsanity for examples from the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.  However, this media problem is not unique to the Left.  They have just been more aggressive at exposing and fighting back against it online and in ways that are likely to impact media coverage. 

Unfortunately, while the Right has a long, and sometimes effective, tradition of media criticism, it has never really evolved that media monitoring apparatus for the new media and social media age.  I'll have more to say about that in time. 

In the meantime, with Obama largely getting the glowing, Messiah treatment from the media, the Right has some current Narrative VS Evidence problems.  

These narratives have taken hold, and despite evidence to the contrary, it's very difficult to break them without organized emphasis on a counter-story that is consistent and sustained.  The Right does not have the online infrastructure to do that well yet.

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