In my previous posts, Aftermath and Post Mortem: Moral Morass, I've looked at the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election from the points of view of the philosophico-ethical theories driving the two campaigns and of the moral sentiments of the two audiences the two campaigns sought to engage. This post will examine the competing narratives the two campaigns sought to convey to their targeted constituencies—and their relative successes.
A political campaign seeks to tell a story—to present a narrative—about itself (and, of course, its adversary) that will persuade enough voters of the power of its cause. In this most recent election, roughly speaking, the Trump campaign narrative was something like: a smug Pepe the Frog vs. a corrupt, collapsing Meemaw. The Clinton campaign narrative, in broad strokes, was something like: Hermione Granger vs. Amateur Voldemort.
Those of us who write stories understand the power of narrative. But what is a narrative? And how does understanding the nature of narrative help us understand what happened in the 2016 Election?
Simply put, a narrative tells a story. Stories, first and foremost, seek to entertain us. They often provide examples that instruct us as well. Stories serve a further societal purpose—and have done so probably since the earliest peoples sat around fires and recounted their battle with a mastodon or their escape from a saber toothed tiger—they serve to bring people together.
Narratives satisfy at least two basic human needs: (a) the need for authority and (b) the need for meaning. They do this because every story: (a') must have a teller, i.e., a point of view or an authority and (b') carries some message or moral. Thus, stories essentially serve to: (a") salve the psychic wounds from the pervasive anxiety of existential insecurity and (b") reinforce our sense of the order of things. These are, by the way, essentially conservative functions.
A coherent narrative posits that everything is somehow connected and orderly, and that there is some author(-ity) behind this order providing meaning. That is why we turn to stories—on television, at the movies, in books, etc.—for comfort and a retreat from an otherwise indifferent and chaotic world.
I will end the first part of this essay with a quote from David Foster Wallace's essay "The Empty Plenum," his analysis of David Markson's experimental novel Wittgenstein's Mistress, where he puts it, inimitably, like this:
T. Pynchon, who has done in literature for paranoia what Sächer-Masoch did for whips, argues in his Gravity's Rainbow for why the paranoid delusion of complete & malevolent connection, whacko & unpleasant though it be, is preferable at least to its opposite—the conviction that nothing is connected to anything else & that nothing has anything intrinsically to do with you.Narratives inflate our sense of self. Often falsely. At the same time, they comfort us with the illusion that things are somehow under control, and that it's probably better that they are.
[to be cont'd]