Caleb’s Corner: The hopelessness of political narrative
Editor in Chief
Every election cycle, journalists, like a bunch of hungry fish flailing for bait, try desperately to make sense of the nonsensical ugliness that is politics. The bigger and badder the politics get, the more urgent this need becomes. It’s rooted in an enduring lust for narrative, good or bad, and an unfaltering belief that we can and ought to condense a political system of over 300 million into something coherent that falls under 800 words.
The result is a fateful, dangerous reductionism that gradually loses its grounding in anything real, quickly regressing into blind value judgements generated from a desk. Take the following New York Times excerpt, for instance, selected mostly arbitrarily after a quick skim of recent news:
“Mr. Sanders’s unflinching position is a reminder to voters that he is unabashedly left-wing and unlikely to worry about working within the confines of the existing system anytime soon. It also reflects a schism within the Democratic Party over the best way to recapture power in Washington: Should Democrats project big, bold policy ideas that could fundamentally alter the political structure but face long odds in a hyperpartisan Congress? Or should they present incremental measures that are more likely to appeal to the center and could succeed sooner?”
This is not what I would call value-free and factual. To me, this reads more like commentary than the news it’s masquerading as. That is, I detect virtually no reporting in this expendable chunk of verbiage. For instance, according to whom is there a “schism within the Democratic Party”? Who exactly is being reminded? Did they even need any reminding? According to whom does the Party’s fate rest in these two options? Who and what the hell is “the center”?
I would like some sources.
Moreover, it’s unclear to me why such terms as “unabashedly” and “confines of the existing system” belong in a so-called reported piece. If this were an essay for a 100-level political science class, then ok. But it’s not. It is further unclear to me how TWO rhetorical questions made it through the editorial process in a so-called reported piece, something that is by definition intended to tell readers information, not frame false rhetorical choices that purport to reflect reality.
But then I think about what’s beneath all of this and so many other articles. Recall the narrative lust, the desire to convert politics into a blood-pumping, ever-unfolding narrative. Bernie Sanders is just another character in this ongoing story, and thus it feels appropriate to write an article not rooted in Sanders’ actual policy, not in his personal motivations and history, but against the rest of the cast, his every act an utterance to be interpreted as a plot development. This article had value insofar as it took a minute, hardly new insight into Sanders’ healthcare stance and pitted it against his election antagonists, those fellow Democrats who are putting the party over policy.
The entire article, like nearly all others about politics, published in the New York Times or elsewhere, rests on a set of blind assumptions — their only vaguely empirical rooting in ever-unreliable, ever-fluctuating polling data — about the entire psyche of a nation. Once certain notions, certain narrative options, get into circulation, they depart from reality, swirling around the media world unquestioned.
Think, for instance, of the other general characters, such as the “white, blue-collar Midwestern voter,” or the “suburban woman.” Think then about their apparent role in the narrative, based on the latest wrong poll claiming that “white Midwestern voters” will be “pivotal in determining the next election.”
(This, of course, is not to contribute to any of the preposterous “fake news” conspiracies, but rather to criticize a style of political reporting that prevails across all media, left or right, and how it more often than not gets too carried away.)
My main claim is that there is no possible way to capture national American politics in a neat, narrative fashion without making things up, and that most all political journalism is basically flawed. Not just flawed, but noxious, dangerous for the country and bad for journalism. Once these scripts get in circulation, they get picked up by everybody else, not only destroying any capacity for originality in general political conversation but deluding us into believing that this work of fiction depicts something real.
With this, I have personal experience. Take, for instance, this excerpt written by a young and naive journalist, told to emulate the tactics of our gatekeepers:
“Although not without their moments of excitement — and outright oddities — the races concluded as predicted. Carper — who will be entering his fourth, and likely final, term in the Senate — cemented his status as an indomitable force in Delaware politics with a decisive win over Rob Arlett, his Republican opponent.”
Who was I to speak for the entirety of Delaware, proclaiming, with a presumed veracity, that the race had moments of “excitement” and “outright oddities”? Who was I to use the word “indomitable” and “decisive” to describe Tom Carper and his victory. This reads less like politics and more like a boxing match.
But by most standards, this is a pretty good graf, just like the New York Times graf, and this is a bad, bad thing. It’s a product of the narrative lust that keeps us chasing political activity like a bunch of panting dogs, and there is no foreseeable end. Nothing has proven its ability to self-perpetuate (and turn profit), to keeping readers wanting more, desiring new plot developments, new twists, new fancy words, better than political journalism.
(This would be an excellent point to bring up the reporting disaster that was the Mueller report, but that’s already been beaten to death, and is largely being considered the exception to the rule. I hope it is now obvious that it is no such exception.)
So, what do I think journalists should do when covering politics? Not much more than direct quotation. Journalists, and the rest of the country, need to embrace the radical idea that politics can only be sane and civil when it’s boring. That there is no way to “craft a narrative” about national politics with any factual integrity, and that, so long as we continue to swirl around in this self-indulgent fantasy — the story we want our political life to be — we will be totally screwed.