Posts Tagged ‘political narratives’

The subsurface campaign: US & NZ

September 29, 2008

Today’s LA Times carries a piece by Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology Todd Gitlin that provides a vivid and sharply drawn analysis of the symbolic import of the presidential election. Read it!

Gitlin starts from the premise that:

“The true campaign is the deep campaign, the subsurface campaign, which concerns not just what the candidates say but who they are and what they represent — what they symbolize.”

This idea will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. What makes this contest intriguing, says Gitlin, is that the current campaign pitches a candidate who fits a tried and true mythical stereotype — the grizzled, plain-spoken, straight-shooting John Wayne-type — against someone who mixes up the stereotypes twenty-first century style, and can’t be pinned down. Gitlin’s conclusion is spot on. This is the underlying contest:

“So that’s the clash. McCain, the known quantity, the maverick turned lawman, fiery when called on to fight, an icon of the old known American story of standing tall, holding firm, protecting God’s country against the stealthy foe. Obama is the new kid on the block, the immigrant’s child, the recruit, fervent but still preternaturally calm, embodying some complicated future that we haven’t yet mapped, let alone experienced. He is impure — the walking, talking melting pot in person. In his person, the next America is still taking shape.”

“The warrior turned lawman confronts the community organizer turned law professor. The sheriff (who married the heiress) wrestles with the outsider who rode into town and made a place for himself. No wonder this race is thrilling and tense. America is struggling to fasten a name on its soul.”

This seems a fair description. By contrast, while New Zealanders’ shared identity continues to evolve, the process is much less conflicted than stateside (Orewa 1 and the Maori Party notwithstanding). Instead, New Zealanders seem to be pondering whether to stick with the modest (and fair) achievements of the past nine years, or venture just a little more aggressively into the world.

Like Obama, Clark embodies an oddly contradictory amalgam; no nonsense, no-frills, presbyterian farmer’s daughter and Vietnam protester, policy nerd and steely tough political operator. In many ways this mix gelled with what the country was looking for in 1999, after 15 years of neo-liberal attacks on kiwi decency, fairness and social cohesion, not to mention the bumbling incompetence of Jenny Shipley’s ill-fated administration.

Key’s narrative is much more straight-forward and appealing, in a traditional way. State House kiwi boy makes good in tough, competitive New York. Like Clark, this narrative also embodies competence — hence Labour’s attempts to define the election as about trust, as in 2005 — but is more contemporary.

National have utilised this more future-oriented symbolism to an extent, but much less so than I anticipated. Perhaps that’s because they feel less need. Plant the seeds of anxiety — outward migration, wage gaps with Australia — and let the narratives do the work.

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After the glitz, US voters still don’t get the full story

September 11, 2008

I’m off to Waiheke for a couple of days. Back Saturday morning. By then Winston Peters will most likely have been sacked, or resigned, but it won’t affect anything much in and of itself. So I’m looking forward to resting and enjoying some of the delights that Waiheke has to offer. (That doesn’t include Business Roundtable indoctrination conferences.)

In the meantime, ex-pat political consultant Neil Stockley shares his thoughts on the US presidential election in a guest post.

So, the Republicans and Democrats have finished their conventions. Which of the candidates, John McCain or Barack Obama, is telling the strongest story?

The answer is, neither.  That may explain why they are, in effect, tied in the latest opinion polls.

Since he first ran for the Republican nomination in 2000–-and got wasted by the Bush-Rove attack machine–-McCain’s narrative has been about a straight-talking, maverick Republican who took on his own party, over taxes, campaign finance reform, climate change, environmental regulation, stem cell research and immigration. The message is that he could rise above party and clean up Washington.

By the beginning of this year, however, McCain had moved back to the right, for instance on oil drilling, to immigration to tax cuts for the wealthy. Hardly surprising, that’s where the votes were in the Republican primaries. Over the summer, the new, conservative McCain took on some of Bush’s team and got nasty, trying to paint Obama as an out-of-touch, elitist, snob –- not “one of us”. This sort of toxic politics oozed through the Republican convention. McCain’s gang continued to play on what they see as voters’ resentment at liberal political elites who seem to look down on them. Paul Krugman has brilliantly dissected the sheer cynicism of this Nixonian ploy.

Then, in his (mediocre) convention speech on Thursday night, Americans mainly saw the old John McCain, speaking with quiet civility about fighting corruption, acknowledging that the Republicans “had lost the trust” of the American people and deploring “the constant partisan rancour that stops us from solving” problems. Senator McCain promised to reach out to “any willing patriot [and] make this government start working for you again” to use “the best ideas from both sides” and “ask Democrats and independents to serve with me.”

As E.J. Dionne jr. points out, the Republican nominee no longer embodies this narrative:

. . . because McCain has capitulated to the very Washington he condemned [on Thursday] and is employing the very tactics that were used ruthlessly and unfairly against him when he first ran for president eight years ago.

McCain is trying to run with these two different narratives by, in the words of the New York Times, “talking loftily of bipartisanship [while] allowing his team to savage his opponent.” The latter will be Sarah Palin’s one of main jobs, with her deliberate distortions of Barack Obama’s policies, eloquence and record. (McCain also questioned his opponents’ patriotism and Obama’s position on energy.) The logic is a bit strained but this gambit worked – just – for George W. Bush. How’s that for cynicism?

There’s more: McCain and co. will also try to bridge these two narratives by using an even bolder one: “reform”, which became the watchword of the Republican convention, appearing no fewer than 11 times in McCain’s own speech. They are trying to steal Obama’s “change” narrative.

Where the story runs aground though is that it’s not exactly clear what McCain’s “reform” means. Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post says:

“In McCain’s attempt to fire up the Republican base without losing his “maverick” image, calls for reform have come to mean a pledge to “change” Washington — with little explanation of what that change would be or how that change would take effect. “

Is “reform” in Washington about programmes, systems, or governing style?  We haven’t been told.  And:

“It does not appear to have much to do with campaign finance reform, immigration reform, reforming the selection and confirmation of judges — all issues that McCain had something to do with and have helped define his career in the Senate.”

The reason is obvious: these issues would drive wedges between McCain and the conservative voters, lobbies and dollars that he needs. And what would he do for people struggling with rising bills and worried about losing their jobs?

That leaves McCain’s story only half built. Successful narratives aren’t just about personal stories and records, which McCain’s speech emphasised. They are also about issues and policies, framed these days as “solutions”. The two need to work together, with the candidate’s (or party’s) persona making the policy narrative more authentic.

Obama should have the edge. His promise of change is more credible. He can embody that narrative. [click here] He is new to Washington, unlike McCain, and the Democrats have been out of the White House for nearly eight years. But his economic narrative has still not struck a chord with voters.

The conservative pundit Michael Barone believes that both candidates have a problem:

“The Obama convention contended that the Democratic nominees understood people’s woes from personal experience and that their programs would provide economic security. But the substance of those programs — refundable tax credits (i.e., payments to those who pay no income tax) and a national health insurance option — are unfamiliar to voters, and their details can be hard to explain.

“The McCain convention’s thesis is that higher taxes on high earners in a time of slow growth will squelch the economy (this was Herbert Hoover’s policy, after all).

These assertions, too, are unfamiliar to voters. And, up to this point in the campaign, neither party has set out its programs clearly (or characterized the other side’s fairly).”

On energy, the other big issue of the campaign so far, this is playing out in the much the same way.

Neither Obama nor McCain will prevail until they have got their narratives together, the policy and the personal.

Neil Stockley: Clever frames, shame about the policy

August 22, 2008

A Neil Stockley guest post looks at McCain’s success in framing an issue on which he’s weak (the economy) in a favourable way. The problem is, it’s pure deceipt. For more on framing, policy and the US elections, see this recent post of Neil’s.

Politics isn’t just about getting the frames; it’s about moving them too. If you can’t win on the issues being talked about, change the subject, and fast.

Framing Science explains this week how John McCain’s campaign has successfully framed “the economy” as being about “energy”. They quote one pollster as saying:

“The Republicans’ biggest problem in this election is that they are viewed as lessable to fix the economy. When the economy is defined as job loss, mortgage foreclosures, high health care costs, that’s Democratic territory. Obama wants to play on that field.

“McCain wants to define it as being about energy, because his being in favor of drilling is on the right side of the [opinion poll] numbers.”

That’s an impressive bit of framing. But the policy is bad. Climate Progress and Tom Friedman (to name but two) have demolished the notion that allowing more offshore drilling will solve America’s energy problems.
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Stockley on McNasty’s counter-narratives

August 7, 2008

Ex-pat political consultant Neil Stockley provides an excellent analysis of McCain’s nasty counter-narratives, and what they tell us about the American body politic.

Barack Obama: not “one of us”

During the primary season, Barack Obama gave us an object lesson in how political narratives work, engaging both the heart and the head. Now, after a slow start, the McCain campaign shows us how counter-stories really work; in the process, they might be proving something thoroughly unpleasant about American politics.

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Boris’s blues: You won’t find this on kiwiblog

July 10, 2008

Oh dear. Boris Johnson is in trouble already. When he was elected Mayor of London a couple of months ago, the NZ right bloggers were ecstatic. However, not much has been heard from them on Johnson’s current woes, so I’m stepping in to fill the gap.

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Guest Blog:Yes, you can have a political narrative but no, you can’t own it

June 12, 2008

Guest blogger Neil Stockley is an expert on political narratives. The lessons are equally valid in NZ. Comments on how it applies here, please.

So the US presidential election moves from the gruelling primary election campaigns to a no doubt brutal general election campaign. A lot of the analysis about the Democratic contest boils down to one question: who created Barack Obama and who destroyed “frontrunner” Hillary Clinton? Looking ahead, the underyling question is: whose narrative is winning out: Barack Obama’s or John McCain’s?

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