October 10, 2003

Narrative Politics

Its always nice to see an idea you've been pushing for a while achieve some real coherence and media. Well sort of...

Anyway the Guardian give a phenomena I've been dancing around a proper name and explanation. Narrative Politics. This is important pay attention if you care who runs your government:

The key to the election of Governor Arnie is a phenomenon which might be called narrative politics. American electoral campaigns have tended to be driven by the theory of retail politics the candidate made as many speeches, shook the maximum number of hands, accrued the largest air-mile account as possible. Races were won by imprinting a face and a few simple policies through ceaseless repetition.

But, in recent American elections, the centrality of chapped hands and battered soles to a candidate's chances has been balanced against the quicker, simpler power of narrative politics. The victor was likely to be not the man who put in most hours but the one who told the most extraordinary story about himself.

Hence George W Bush - a notoriously indolent campaigner - was able to match the more assiduous Gore because his candidacy was a better yarn: a son following his dad into the Oval Office, a drunk sorting himself out, a child taking revenge on the administration that beat his father.

Previously, the election of the wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota was an extreme example of narrative politics - voters bored with the process waking themselves up with an unlikely plot twist - but even Clinton can be seen as a beneficiary of this electoral mentality. In 1992, the entry into the White House of a womanising, draft-dodging poor Southern boy whose father had died before he was born was simply a better story to tell history than the re-election of the patrician George Bush senior.

A rough rule of narrative politics is that the candidate whose life story makes the best Hollywood movie will win the race. Which is why Schwarzenegger represents the greatest triumph of the theory to date. In the past, narrative politics has had to be combined with retail politics: Clinton, like Reagan before him, had spent years shaking hands and practising legislation.

Schwarzenegger, who had done the retail part unknowingly in multiplexes over decades, relied during his campaign entirely on his narrative: his pitch. Beginning with the neatness that a man who had made a film called Total Recall should be competing in a recall election, his run for governor was such a bold and ridiculous tale that you kept thinking it needed a script editor.

There is a lot more too it though. Narrative politics is a big part of the reason Dean did so well this year, his story is more interesting. Its the reason so few Senators win presidential elections, a life in DC is about as boring a story as there is. Its the reason Wesley Clark is leading polls for Democratic Presidential nominee after being in the race for only seconds, he's got a better story then the rest of the fools.

Of course there is more to it. You need to appear trustworthy and competent. You need to at least have vague stands on push button images. But more then anything a good candidate needs to tell a story. A good one. One that people can tell their friends.

Their is a nasty flip side to it of course. A boring ass candidate can win by telling negative stories about the other candidate. If you can't be the hero, turn your opponent into a villain. Dirty politics, but that's how the game gets played.

So who is the hero of 2004? I'm listening, tell me some stories and maybe I'll tell my friends.

[digsby has more and provided the original link]

Posted by Abe at October 10, 2003 04:49 PM


The London Times wrote about this too - as it applies to Tony Blair and the Labour Party:


narrative story