29 November 2016

Narrative Power: Power Narratives, Pt. 1

There are many ways of looking at a thing. Some are more comprehensive than others, some more pointed. Even among the comprehensive views, there can be competing narratives. And that is the subject of this post.

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]

11 November 2016

Post Mortem: A Moral Morass

In my last post, Aftermath, I mentioned what I take to be the two distinct ethical philosophies motivating the two Presidential candidates. I had explored these views in a bit more depth in my post-Convention six-part essay Frameworks, if you're interested. In this post, instead of looking at how the candidates' strategies, tactics, and messages sought to implement their philosophies, I want to look at the intended audiences of those messages—the targets, the voters. How did those philosophies appeal to them? Why did they vote the way the did?

I want to warn you ahead of time, this is an uncomfortable post to write, and I suspect it will be uncomfortable in places to read. It deals with what is a divisive and often taboo subject, to wit: morality.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election saw an electorate divided almost precisely in half. Out of some 120 million votes cast, Hillary Clinton received around 230,000 more votes than Donald Trump—or 47.7% to 47.5% (as of this writing). Trump, of course, won the presidency due to the quirks of the way votes are apportioned by state in the Electoral College. I suggest that this split represents two very distinct views of morality and is, in effect, a war for the very soul of America.

Clinton's campaign sought to mobilize a broad and diverse and inclusive coalition of constituencies, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, feminists, millennials, and academics and urban intelligentsia, among others. Trump's campaign, by contrast, sought to energize a base of predominantly white, rural working class and otherwise disaffected voters. Before the election, it was practically a given that the former campaign approach would prevail—and, in fact, it did by a razor-thin margin that was insufficient to carry the electoral college. As I stated, however: "In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity."

An ethical philosophy seeks to explain the way people make decisions. Morality, by contrast, has to do with the way people feel about right and wrong, their judgment of things as good and bad. My view is that, among voters, the clash of two competing and, ultimately, incompatible moralities explains the split among the electorate.

The prevailing morality of Clinton's voters, I would suggest, is rights based. That is good which expands or protects or is sensitive to their vision of fundamental human rights. For example, the political and economic rights of minorities and the oppressed, or the right of a woman to control her reproductive choices, or the right to express one's bodily freedom and to self-identify, or the political right to exercise unfettered speech and assembly (within certain limits having to do with infringement of others' rights), etc. Clinton's voters, I believe, felt their view of morality was ascendant, and the last eight years under President Obama has done nothing to contradict this. Under their moral view, it is wrong or bad to oppose or limit these rights, and people who seek to do so are racist or xenophobic or homophobic or bigoted or misogynistic, for example. Make no mistake, these are terms of moral opprobrium. These are explicitly moral judgments.

This differs from what I take to be the prevailing morality of Trump's voters. In a word, their morality derives from certain traditional codes of behavior and social order. Morally, they see Clinton's voters as degenerates and baby killers. They see the moral order of things under assault. They are offended by open licentiousness in the broader culture and what they view as the heedless slaughter of the innocents. And for at least the last eight years they have felt their moral feelings have been increasingly under siege by the prevailing culture and politics. They resent the ascendancy of Clinton's constituencies and long for a time when what they view as basic moral decency prevailed. They feel hurt and insulted and seek to punish those who have held them in contempt as ignorant and bigoted. And, in a very real and larger sense, when they say they want to "Make America Great Again," they are asserting their own need to retreat to a moral "safe space."

Where Clinton voters woke up on November 9 wondering how they were going to explain to their children that the country elected a racist and sexist bigot as president, Trump's voters have been despairing about how to explain to their own children that a man who leads a sexually perverse lifestyle is the head of the U.S. Army or that a Reality TV star and former Olympic decathlon Gold Medalist considers himself to be a woman or that the Planned Parenthood in their neighborhood gets away with the brutal, heartless murder of precious human lives. Where Clinton's voters see progress being made with respect to the expansion of a diverse set of human rights, Trump's voters see an America sliding into the sort of decadence that doomed the Roman Empire. The left views the right as intolerant; the right sees the left as invasive.

Such moral feelings are not easily assuaged—on either side—precisely because they are feelings. What's more, what one side views as a moral issue may not be shared by the other side. For example, the issue with respect to abortion has been joined: women's right to bodily self-control vs. infanticide. This moral divide seems unbridgeable. Likewise, the issues surrounding LGBTQ people: the rights to self-identify and to love whomever one chooses vs. degeneracy and perversity.

Other issues are not so cleanly defined—at least in the moral realm. For example, where Clinton's constituents may see their opponents as racists, many of Trump's voters feel unfairly libeled. Certainly, the racist right identifies with Trump's brand of politics, but not all of his supporters feel they should be lumped in with the Klan and its allies. Many know and work and socialize with people of color and other ethnicities on a regular basis. Many others live in pockets where, in their day to day lives, they simply do not encounter such difference. Racist motives do not always come into play for many of them. Similarly, much of the anti-immigrant stance of the Trump constituency, while condemned as racist and xenophobic by Clinton's voters, might better be viewed as economically motivated; though, without question, there are necessarily racist and xenophobic elements in the mix.

These differences in how and which issues are joined can be traced back to something I argued in Frameworks and Aftermath. The deontological right judges actions by the intentions and motives of the actors; the consequentialist left, by contrast, looks primarily at the effects of the actions. Thus, if the effect of an anti-immigrant sentiment inequitably targets a minority group, the left rightfully in its view sees this as racist and/or xenophobic whereas the right might legitimately claim its motives were purely economic. (NB: We've seen some shenanigans in some places like North Carolina where admittedly racist voter suppression acts were cloaked in seemingly legitimate motives as a pretext. That is why courts are often called upon to look at the demographic effects of political actions to determine whether they impermissibly violate Constitutionally protected rights.)

As an aside: The moral conundrum (for me at least) of this election has to do with Donald Trump as the standard bearer of the right. He is a known philanderer, thrice-married, a womanizer; a litigious, corrupt fraud and gambling magnate; a coarse and vulgar Reality TV entertainer. Thoroughly immoral by either standard. Yet he carried the moralistic right—including evangelicals and other moral scolds—against a woman who is widely reputed to be a good Methodist. It would be easy to chalk this up to hypocrisy, but I do not think that such name-calling is a productive analysis. Rather, I surmise those on the moralistic right saw Clinton as someone who would continue the progressive assault on their heartfelt moral values that they believe has been on-going since at least the time of her husband. They believe that this progress is reversible and that America can be morally great again. And they see Donald Trump as an albeit flawed champion who can halt its spread in the culture. Whether they are deluded remains to be seen.

All that to say that moral issues are tangled and intensely felt. The moral divide I've described does not perfectly explain the 2016 election, but it does go a long way to providing some helpful context for understanding what is happening in our country. And it helps to explain why the campaigns ran the sort of messages (see Frameworks and Aftermath) they did, appealing to these divergent moral sentiments of their perceived bases of support.

As it stands, the country seems about evenly divided between two intractable moral systems, and right now one side holds all the levers of power. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to inculcate their values in the political and legal realms and, what's more, the extent to which these two incompatible moral visions can continue to peaceably coexist.

09 November 2016


The U.S. presidential election of 2016 is over now. Donald J. Trump will be the next President of the United States of America. How did this happen? What does it mean? Where do we go from here? On this morning after, I want to attempt to answer these questions.

Analysis is not prophecy, but a good, accurate analysis can clarify issues and reveal and anticipate underlying truths. Back in August, after the national political conventions, I posted a six-part essay analyzing the ethical underpinnings, the strategies, the tactics, and the messages of the two major political parties' candidates called Frameworks. You can find it here. Now the election's over, and it's time to take stock.

If you follow me on Twitter (@140xLangame) (and I encourage you to do so!), you will be aware of my political sentiments. Neither Frameworks nor this Post Script discuss or debate the merits of specific policy proposals of the candidates—or my political feelings.

Briefly, Frameworks posited that the ethical philosophy the GOP tends to favor is a deontological approach. That's a big word that means they prefer political decisions and actions that follow certain predetermined rules or principles or values without regard to the consequences and who might be affected by them. As a corollary, this favors a strong-man type leader who will pursue the agreed-upon ideology "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" and lead the faithful against all criticism and opposition. The Democratic ethical philosophy favors a more consequentialist approach, asking how a given decision or action will affect its various constituencies. It favors an inclusive leader, sensitive to the demands of the people.

Strategically, Frameworks argued, the GOP and Trump was seeking to excite its base of supporters, exploiting their grievances and resentment and even rage against "the Establishment". The Democrats and Clinton, by contrast, sought to craft a broad, inclusive coalition of diverse constituencies. Tactically, Trump was relying on outrage, seeking to gin up conflicts and feuds and controversies that would generate free media for his message, hoping to translate this into actual votes. In this, he was wildly successful. In Frameworks, I made the observation that Clinton was seeking to implement a tried-and-true, data-driven, micro-targeting approach to get a message out that would please a set diverse constituencies. She was marginally effective in this, but seemed to miss out on and failed to address the concerns of perhaps the largest constituency in the overall electorate: economically disaffected and rural white voters.

In retrospect, Clinton's coalition proved to be insufficiently broad and ultimately shallow, while Trump's base turned out to be unexpectedly deep and extremely motivated. Resentment and iconoclasm prevailed over progressive values and competent continuity. (In my personal opinion, while Clinton failed to address this constituency, Trump's resort to anti-immigrant and anti-trade scapegoating misses the real root cause of the economic disaffection felt by his base, to wit: the upheavals brought about by rapid technological change on a scale not witnessed since, perhaps, the Guttenberg Revolution. For example, what's going to happen to all the truck drivers, cabbies, Über and Lyft drivers, etc., when self-driving vehicles displace them? Those jobs will not be lost to immigrants or foreign trade agreements. Watch this space for more analysis of the effects of this ongoing technological revolution.)

This is to say nothing of specific policy issues. Trump's main issues seemed to be: immigration reform, infrastructure upgrade, economic populism, and an America first trade and foreign policy. These policies were never developed in any kind of granular detail, and he has been inconsistent in his statements of his feelings about them. I suspect he will leave that for lower level managers to hammer out. And what's more, unlike President Obama, he will not have the enormous disadvantage of an organized, minority party opposition with significant control of any of the levers of power. He will have no excuses—or Democratic scapegoats to blame—if he does not come through for his rabid base.

Though explicitly detailed, Clinton's 'all things to all people' approach to policy—issuing policy prescriptions aiming to please all the people all the time—failed to generate the sort of excitement it takes to win a convincing national electoral majority. (Though, as of this writing, she appears to have won the popular vote). It is not clear whether the Democrats will feel the need to alter their detailed policy prescriptions approach going forward.

The recriminations on the Democratic side, however, will now begin. In no particular order:

  • Did entrenched misogyny play a role in the defeat of Hillary Clinton?
  • Could Sen. Bernie Sanders have won the general election if the DNC hadn't conspired against him (as many of his supporters believe), or, more likely, did the pique of Sanders' passionate supporters and his own lukewarm support for Clinton dampen Democratic turnout in the general election?
  • Was Russia/Wikileaks running an undercover operation against her?
  • Did FBI Director James Comey's meddling affect the process, especially early voting?
  • Did states' voter suppression tactics after the repeal of sections of the Voting Rights Act lead to disenfranchisement of her natural constituencies?
  • Were third party candidates' vote totals sufficient to make up Clinton's margin of defeat in key battleground states?
  • Was Clinton simply an awful candidate, especially given her health issues?
  • Was Clinton too apparently aligned with neo-Con hawks to sufficiently bring out her base?
  • Was her campaign team too smug and over-confident, too reliant on polls that proved misleading and wrong?
  • Did the media's normalization of Trump's outrages and its constant uncritical airing of GOP anti-Clinton talking points dampen her turnout?
  • Did years of GOP and Congressional Committee coordinated attacks on her trustworthiness and character assassination (Benghazi, emails, etc.) finally take its toll on her ability to get her message of competence across?
  • All of the above?

I suspect there are good arguments, pro and con, on each of these points. Likewise, I don't believe any one of them was sufficient of itself to sway the election—especially given Clinton's popular vote win. Most likely it was some combination of all these factors.

Given these points, I do not know what shape a Democratic minority opposition will take going forward. The GOP has certainly set a template with its obstructionism—from the so-called 'cloakroom conspiracy' back in January, 2008, to its shutting down the government in 2013 and continued threats to do so again, to its blockade of the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court this year. The Democrats will have to continue to reach out to the broadest, most diverse constituencies; it's in their DNA. But the party will also need to address the sense of displacement and disenfranchisement pervasive in the land. And it will have to do so with conviction and emotion—not simply technocratic, wonky policy white papers. (And as I opined above, by getting at the true root causes of this despair: the upheavals due to the massive ongoing technology revolution.)

President-elect Trump will now begin to consolidate his power, figure out what he truly wants to do, assess what he can and cannot get away with, and put assets in place to carry out his plans. There are still rifts in the GOP, and I do not know whether its moderate wing can survive other than as a whimpering, submissive abused puppy. Others, likely a reformed RNC, will take to heart the message that a combination of brash leadership and extremism on the right can excite a very real disaffected base of support sufficient to sustain a national electoral tsunami.

This was not a traditional Conservative/Liberal election, though. That much is clear. Nor was it precisely a Class Warfare referendum, the GOP being traditionally the party of the "haves". The divides, rather, seem to lie more on the fault lines of educated/uneducated, urban/rural, majority (white-straight)/minority, Southern + Rust Belt/coastal schisms. Though, given the propensities of the GOP, there does seem to be a good chance they will interpret this victory as somehow a vindication of Randian policies—again, missing the point entirely. Whether Trump allows them to revert to this typical knee-jerk reaction or whether the powers that be bring him to heel, however, remains to be seen.

04 November 2016

J-tree Silhouettes

Thumbing through the tons of photographs I took on my trip to Joshua Tree National Park this week, I noticed an interesting theme emerging: Silhouettes. It's a place you must see! It has a pre-historic feel. Here's a selection of my snaps (as always, click a pic to embiggen a slideshow; right click to download)(all, by the way, taken with my iPhone 6—Wisdoc kept her good camera to/for herself):