PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
The Unfinished Story of Election 2006: We Get to Choose the Ending
Election statistics are like pies. You can slice them up any way you want. And the way you slice them depends on the tool you use. My favorite tool is a nugget of wisdom from Democratic political guru Stanley Greenberg: “A narrative is the key to everything.” The party that tells the best story wins. And the recipe for a winning story is simple: Take a few handfuls of fact, throw in a large dollop of fiction, and stir.
But the story of the 2006 election isn’t over yet. It’s like one of those movies on DVD with several alternative endings. You get to choose the one you want.
Greenberg said “a narrative is the key” right after the election of 2004. Back then, he credited the Republicans with “a much more coherent attack and narrative that motivated their voters.” Though the media gave us a story about a new breed of “values voters,” Karl Rove knew that was mostly fiction. It was the “war on terror” story that put George W. Bush back in the White House.
This year, Rove told Republicans to count on the same story to keep control of Congress. It went this way: Republicans, who are real Americans, have the backbone to fight against evil and do whatever it takes to win. Cowardly Democrats just want to cut and run.
By early October, it was clear
that Rove’s Scheherazade strategy -- keep spinning ever wilder stories to avoid
certain death -- wasn’t faring well. Nevertheless, Bush was out on the campaign
trail right up to Election Day, sticking to the same old script. As he put it at a “victory rally” in
Of course it was all fiction,
just as the administration’s
<b>The Media Chooses Its Story</b>
On Election Day, though, all of Karl Rove’s storytelling couldn’t stave off the verdict the voters pronounced on the GOP. Then the media had its chance to slice up those polling and voting numbers and turn them into its own version of a good narrative. The result, as in 2004, was a mix of fact and fiction.
This year the “values voters” were scarcely given a walk-on part. In fact, they were largely written off before the voting even happened. In most pre-election polls, when voters were asked what issue would influence them most, hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage were not even offered as an option. As it turned out, fully 30% of white evangelicals voted for Democratic. So the old story of 2004 just wouldn’t play.
Of course, the story that did
play, right up on the marquee in bright shining letters, was:
But the polling data didn’t
demand that narrative. In most pre-election polling, less than a third of
respondents said that
So the media could easily have told us that the electorate had no clear focus. But their job -- no less than Karl Rove’s -- is to tell coherent (news) stories that seem to make sense of it all. They could just as easily have spun a tale about the middle class repudiating an administration run by and for the rich who corrupt our government. But that is certainly not the story of choice for the corporate elite who own the media.
On the other hand many among the
elite, and many editors and reporters in their pay, do want us to change the
Of course, that narrative does
have a good dose of truth in it. Most Americans do now oppose Bush’s
Us and Them
In fact, truth didn’t play much of a role in this year’s elections at all. The airwaves were filled with negative ads concocted largely of fictional distortions of every wild sort. No matter how much we say we hate such ads, they work, because they reach deep into the heart of darkness of the political landscape. That’s where Rove’s narrative was supposed to do its magic, creating a simple moral drama of good versus evil that would send enough of the public to the polls reassured that there is an enduring moral order amidst the chaotic tides of change that always seem to threaten our lives.
All that chaos makes it hard to hold on to any enduring sense of identity. If you can’t say precisely what you stand for, it’s a relief, at least, to know what you stand against. That’s why so many of us are eager to have an enemy. We get a sense of certainty and clarity when we define ourselves in opposition to others. “I may not know exactly what I am,” is what we, in effect, say to ourselves, “But I sure as hell know I’m not one of them.”
That psychological trick works best when, as in the negative campaign ads, we create outsized fictional images of what we are not. By exaggerating the evil of the enemy, we assure ourselves that we are on the side of absolute goodness. It may be more than coincidence that a campaign season with a record number of negative ads, filled with exaggeration, brought out more voters than any non-presidential election in 24 years. Some of them voted for the candidate they liked. But most voted against the candidate -- and thus the story -- they disliked.
If our political life, like
our identity, works by saying who and what we are against, what did the voters
really say they are against? Exceedingly modest numbers of them are against war
itself. More are against this war -- and have been from the beginning. But when
the war started, despite what was the largest prewar antiwar movement in our
history, it had broad public support. Even now, no great wave of moral
revulsion against the war seems to be sweeping across the land. As far as can
be told, not many of those voters who switched from the Republican to Democratic
column were expressing outrage at the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have
died since we invaded their country. In fact, few seemed to care, or notice,
when the media quickly disappeared the most recent,
rigorous Johns Hopkins study (published in The Lancet, the prestigious British
scientific journal) that confirmed the shocking magnitude of death in
Most Americans seem content enough to see the U.S. use its immense military force no matter how many of “them” die -- but only as long as we win. We can know what it means to be an American as long as we have an enemy who is not just an evildoer, but a loser. To see our side losing, however, just doesn’t fit our national story.
For once, you don’t have to be
a conservative to agree with George F. Will:
“Republicans sank beneath the weight of
Across the political spectrum,
an incompetent losing war effort creates cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the
Apple Pie, Mom, and a New Tale for a Lost War
It is a rare day when I agree
with neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer. Yet he was right on target when he said: “The election will be a referendum of sorts
A number of Democrats, like
Congressman John Murtha or Senator Joseph Biden, have spelled out their own
plans to get us out of the
That means it’s now up to us to decide whether Krauthammer’s conclusion proves true: “If either friends or enemies interpret the results as a mandate for giving up, they will be mistaken.”
That’s certainly what the Bush administration wants us to believe. And advance reports suggest that the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (of which Robert Gates was a member, until he was nominated to be the new Secretary of Defense) will probably agree. But the election results hint at a public hungry for a new story about the war. And George Bush’s day-after Rumsfeld response shows that, however reluctantly, he will change his story in response to voter disaffection. The public may be able to force policy change too, but only if there is a compelling new story that demands a new policy.
This is a job for the peace movement, whose role has always been to articulate alternatives. Now is the time to offer a new narrative using an alternative recipe, the same one that the peace movement has always used: Take big dollops of truth and moral compassion in equal measure and stir.
But there’s another ingredient as well, one that peace activists should borrow from Rove’s recipe, despite its recent failure: To succeed, the “new” story must contain elements of an old, familiar morality tale about good against evil. It must offer reassurance that there is still some ethical clarity amid the growing, war-bred dissonance, and some permanence amid all the change. That means it should be built on time-honored, bedrock principles from the mainstream of American political discourse.
Here are a few that those who might like to begin telling a tale of a lost war might consider picking up:
* Pragmatic Yankee ingenuity: If one approach isn’t working, we Americans don’t let our pride get in the way of simply trying something else.
* The innate goodness of American motives: As a people, we are not by nature imperialists; it’s not in our cultural DNA to send troops to occupy the lands of people who don’t want us there.
* Self-determination: We started the ball rolling in 1776 and it wasn’t just for us either; it was for every individual and every nation; it’s as American as apple pie and Mom that we keep our noses out of other people’s business.
* The sacredness of life: Every human life is precious and what American can’t get behind that?
* It’s the American way to give everyone a fair chance to have their opinions heard and respected or we wouldn’t have had a Bill of Rights: The humblest guy or gal might have the best idea for fixing things -- and the American people might have the best ones of all.
* We Americans trust that most people, deep down, are reasonable: Eventually, they can see that compromise is better than killing.
* And, most American of all, we
apply all our principles not only
here at home but in every land -- including
There isn’t an American
principle in this list that the Bush administration hasn’t tried its best to
trash. That’s why a new narrative built
on any or all of these principles is bound to confound the President and his
advisors. It also offers hope of real
pressure for a new policy that would actually get our troops out of
But the Democrats who now control Congress won’t embrace a new story (or a new policy) unless they feel some pressure from their constituency. Lobbyists are already descending on the new majority in droves. Now is the time for the peace movement to push its way to the head of the line.
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