The Power Of Narrative

March 19th, 2008at 09:27pm Posted by Eli

[H]ad Clinton or Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over.
CNN Political Director Chuck Todd, talking about John McCain’s recent multiple references to Iran supporting al Qaeda

Chuck Todd is exactly right, but it’s not all due to Mad John’s Big Media BBQ, or their longstanding love for his crazy-in-straight-talk’s-clothing. The media are thoroughly invested in a narrative that says that Republicans in general, and John McCain in particular, are Strong On Foreign Policy, while Democrats are Weak.

The end result is that any time McCain or another Republican screws up on foreign policy, it’s dismissed as an aberration, a one-time fluke occurrence. But if a Democrat makes a similar error, the media seize upon it as proof that the domestic-minded mommy Democrats just don’t understand foreign policy, and that’s why only the pragmatic, worldly Republicans can keep us safe from the bad scary people.

Of course, foreign policy is not the only example, not by a long shot. Consider the persistence of such laughable narratives as “Republicans are the party of moral values”; “Republicans are the party of personal responsibility”; “George W. Bush is a resolute man of conviction and Al Gore/John Kerry is a flip-flopping phony,” none of which have a basis in any reality other than the Republicans’ self-declared one. The media have perpetuated them in the exact same way, by downplaying stories that conflict with the narrative, and emphasizing the ones that reinforce it.

As Peter Daou said, way back in his pre-Hillary days:

These narratives are woven so deeply into the fabric of news coverage that they have become second nature and have permeated the public psyche and are regurgitated in polls. (The polls are then used to strengthen the narratives.) They are delivered as affirmative statements, interrogatives, hypotheticals; they are discussed as fact and accepted as conventional wisdom; they are twisted, turned, shaped, reshaped, and fed to the American public in millions of little soundbites, captions, articles, editorials, news stories, and opinion pieces. They are inserted into the national dialogue as contagious memes that imprint the idea of Bush=strong/Dems=weak. And they are false.

What’s so dumbfounding to progressive netroots activists, who clearly see the role of the traditional media in perpetuating these storylines – and are taking concrete action (here, here, and here) to remedy the problem – is that Democratic politicians, strategists, and surrogates have internalized these narratives and play into them, publicly wringing their hands over how to fix their “muddled” message, how to deal with Bush’s “strength” on national security, how to talk about “values.” It’s become a self-fulfilling cycle, with Democrats reinforcing anti-Dem myths because they can’t imagine any other explanation for the apparent lack of resonance of their message. Out of desperation, they resort to hackneyed, focus-grouped slogans in a vain attempt to break through the filter.

It’s simple: if your core values and beliefs and positions, no matter how reasonable, how mainstream, how correct, how ethical, are filtered to the public through the lens of a media that has inoculated the public against your message, and if the media is the public’s primary source of information, then NOTHING you say is going to break through and change that dynamic. Which explains, in large measure, the Dems’ sorry electoral failures.

Until Democrats and progressives can either develop their own media, or de-Foxify the existing media, they will always be held to a much higher standard than Republicans, and every election will be an uphill battle against the Republicans and the media.

Entry Filed under: Iran,Iraq,McCain,Media,Politics,Terrorism,War

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