Narrative Bias – Political Narrative Edition

.In my previous post about narrative bias, I detailed how telling stories is the preferred information-gathering system for us all. So if that is the case, what would a political narrative be?  We’ll get to that… If we are given information without a story, we often will make up a story to help understand this information more clearly.  For example, see the difference between these two bits of information:

  • John yelled at Bobby as Bobby cried.

If that is all the information you have, answer these questions.  Who’s the good guy?  Who’s the bad guy?  Why is John yelling?  Why is Bobby crying?

  • John took his three year old son Bobby to the mall last week.  As John reached up to grab his son a toy, a shifty-eyed man grabbed John’s shopping cart – with Bobby in it.  John looked back to see his son crying in the cart as the shifty-eyed man ran off with him. John yelled “That’s my son!” at Bobby as Bobby cried.  John yelled for security to stop that man with his son.  A chase ensued as the shifty-eyed man with Bobby in his arms ran out of the store with John and a security guard fast on his heels.

Now, can you answer the same questions.  Who’s the good guy?  Who’s the bad guy?  Why is John yelling?  Why is Bobby crying?

Which of these stories is more engaging?  In the first one, the lack of information leaves you without answers. You want to know why John is yelling and why Bobby is crying. You probably also want to know what their relationship is and understand the events that led up to the yelling.  Without this information, you may create a story as to why it happened and who they are.  Creating the story allows you to put the information in a narrative context to understand what happened.  John had to yell at Bobby for some reason. Bobby had to be crying for some reason.  Our brains will almost automatically draw conclusions to fit the information in a narrative form.  The second story does just that for us.  That’s why its more engaging.  We understand the circumstances, why John is yelling, why Bobby is crying and who the good guys are and who the bad guy is.  It fits into a familiar narrative.

If all movies, novels, games, stories and the story of our own lives are couched in narrative form so we are engaged by them and connect with them on a deeper level, then do political parties have similar narratives?  If they want to best engage with the public, then yes they do.

George Lakoff, the famed cognitive scientist, writes extensively about political narratives. He wants to know what happens in our brains when we activate certain narratives we are familiar with in a political sphere.  Writing in 2008, Lakoff supposes that in “place of the reality of conserving the best of the past…many right-wing radicals have created mythical narratives governed by radical conservative values that they want to go ‘back’ to.”  Hence, why Trump’s motto to Make America Great Again works with his supporters.  They have been hearing this rhetorical narrative about going back to a time when America was great for decades.  Lakoff went on to suggest that “mythical narratives are the stuff of politics, and contemporary conservatism is rife with them.”

What are “mythical political narratives” and why does the conservative movement create these myths? 

Well, in my example, we have a narrative about what happened one day to John and his son Bobby.  That is their story.  What if you are trying to tell a story not about John and Bobby, but about fiscal policy or immigration?   If I gave you a power point presentation on GDP growth, tax rates and stock prices filled just with charts, graphs and numbers, you would probably want to jump out the nearest window from complete boredom. (I would).

But what if, instead, I gave a numbers-free presentation on the story of the unlikely rise of tech giant Google? What if my story claimed that, due to a lower tax rate, they were able to hire hundreds more employees? However, they are currently struggling to come out with the next great innovation due to government regulation.  That’s a more exciting story. It’s the story of a business going thru a hero’s journey – an unlikely beginning, a calling for a cause greater than itself. All it wants to do is give the world Google Maps. It must, however, come up against the dual threats of regulation and taxation from the villain ‘big government.’ Ultimately, this courageous business defeats its villain by supporting lower taxes and ending regulations.  That’s a political narrative.  That’s also how to create a myth.

Conservatives have created many myths in political narrative form that explain the way they think.  Lakoff used as examples of this the “Christian nation” myth, the myth of “American exceptionalism,” corporate agribusiness as a return to the family farm and “orginalism” when defining constitutionality of any law before the court system.  I will add here the myths of supply-side economics/trickle-down economics, the myth that the union has destroyed the working class, the myth of the “job creators,” the myth of immigration threatening your livelihood, the myth of the “culture wars”/ War on Christmas, the myth of voter fraud, the myth of the magical affects of tax cuts, the myth of red state and blue state values, among many other myths.  I’m sure I’ve missed some here, but it shows how rife the conservative landscape is with these mythical political narratives.

How do these narratives spread?

Conservative politicians, pundits, think tanks, websites, television networks, radio talk show personalities, books, conferences, television advertising, direct mail and everything else they can create all feed into these mythical narratives.  It’s twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year.  Everyday there’s a couple dozen stories on Fox News highlighting one of these myths.  Everyday there’s thousands of tweets about these myths.  Everyday on conservative Facebook groups and on ordinary conservative people’s Facebook pages are shared articles proclaiming another instance of these myths – voter fraud (“3 to 5 million illegal aliens voted for Clinton”), blue state values (“Chicago and its restrictive gun laws still has more black on black crime than ever”), white fear defined thru nationalism and xenophobia (“Muslim extremists terrorize local community”).

This isn’t just an election year political narrative.  These myths are disseminated quicker than ever.  With the advent of social media, smartphones and the democratization of ‘news’ coupled with the decline of print journalism and the obscuring of objective truth, these myths can grow larger than ever, spread faster than ever and gain a larger following than ever before.  When these myths come in narrative form, they are easier to digest, easier to understand, easier to remember, more engaging to the audience and more likely to make a persuasive impact.  The American people – and by extension the American electorate – must deal with these mythical political narratives on a daily basis.  Whether we deny them or share them, our political narratives are what shape our debates.

Next week, I’ll take a look at how the Democratic Party has undercut its own ability to create their political narrative. In the mean time, whenever a politician or pundit speaks about one instance of voter fraud or one immigrant who committed a crime or any other specific instance that they claim is indicative of a larger issue, remember that they are spreading their mythical political narrative.  How do you combat that?  Organize and tell your own story.