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Narratives designed to unite rather than divide

Every generation has to fight to retain our democracy. Every single one. Yes, our country is seriously divided at the moment. But we too often forget the history and believe our situation is the worst America has ever faced. That’s seldom the case.

On Monday, I considered the need to have both smart and accurate narratives if we were going to move beyond this current period of division. We can all contribute to building better stories based on facts and reality, stories that have a compelling, moral, inclusive vision for the future. Similarly, we can all call out the harmful and bad narratives for what they are: attempts to sow discord and divide our country.

That last point is critical. Unscrupulous individuals, seeking to retain power and halt changes toward a more equitable future, are working overtime to tear our country apart with bad stories. Others unknowingly fall into their trap by repeating their lies. In 2018 Steve Almond wrote about this issue and the individuals who embrace these stories. Many have “an unwillingness to take reality seriously.” If bad stories become pervasive enough, “they create a new and darker reality.”

Today, I look at what other writers are saying about the harmful narratives the American public is being fed at this crucial moment in our history, specifically around the topics of:

  • building a narrative to reach a preconceived outcome,
  • narratives that focus on the wrong issues,
  • ignorance of history,
  • the intention to sow discord, and
  • the need for optimism.

(If one of these topics interests you more than the other, be my guest and skip down to that headline.)

An outcome in search of a narrative

John Stoehr‘s recent writing at The Editorial Board pushed me to think in depth about the state of our political narratives. It began when Stoehr discussed “teleological storytelling” — predicting the outcome of a future event, then reading everything happening now through the lens of that prediction. (*)

In this case, that future event is the coming congressional elections. Due to consistent patterns in political history, it’s widely believed among journalists and editors that the Democrats are heading for a wipe-out … So everything happening now — and I mean everything — is being reported through the lens of that prediction of the future.

In Do they get paid when they are wrong? I wrote of the night last November when Democrats actually outperformed the normal expectations for off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia based upon the historical pattern. Because it didn’t fit the baked-in press narrative, we didn’t hear that perspective but instead heard a story of the Democrats’ “surprise losses.” The losses were only a surprise to those who didn’t know their history.

Too many narratives focus on the wrong issues and unwittingly undermine democracy

I don’t reflexively bash Democrats, but some among the party too often trip over the varied policy positions of supporters in our big tent and are unable, as a result, to craft a compelling, outward-focused narrative. Stoehr looked at this problem in The Democrats’ progressives need a new story. He wrote about the outrage focused on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and the narrative among progressives that “The Democrats would win more elections, and therefore contain the fascism arising from the Republican Party, if the Democrats were more progressive.” Things that fit are included in “The Narrative”. Things that don’t aren’t.

When conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin recently put the kibosh on the president’s climate change bill (he has a virtual veto due to the filibuster rule), the progressives said that once again the party’s centrist instincts undermine action on planetary apocalypse. 

But when Manchin greenlit a bill that would lower prescription drug costs, by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers directly, and extend Obamacare tax credits, thus stopping an anticipated spike in insurance premiums, The Narrative ran out of room. 

And like many stories that are only partially true (e.g., see Republican redemption after four years of complicity in enabling Donald Trump), this narrative has dangerous consequences. Stoehr writes…

I would guess that the young people most invested in progressive politics don’t know about all the progress being made in this Congress on account of the progressives in the Congress not telling them about all the progress being made. These same young people, however, know all about centrist saboteurs like Joe Manchin. The Narrative about Do-Nothing Democrats — who are in fact doing a lot — generates its own gravity pulling Joe Biden’s ratings downward.

Speaking of those approval ratings, bad stories often forget or ignore our history

Take the bad stories about President Joe Biden’s “historically low” approval ratings. In Today’s Edition, Robert Hubbell notes that the press is being disingenuous or sloppy when it simply follows right-wing talking points.

Yes, President Biden’s favorability ratings are at “historic lows” . . . but only if “historic” refers only to the time between Biden’s election and now. As to the history of presidential approval ratings before Biden’s election, see these two sites: Ballotpedia, Comparison of Opinion Polling during the Trump and Biden Administration, and Wikipedia, United States presidential approval rating.

you have to go all the way back to John Kennedy to find a president who did not have lower approval rating (at some point in their presidency) than Joe Biden’s lowest rating. (emphasis added)

That doesn’t sound like historically low approval ratings to me.

In History has its eyes on us, I wrote that President Biden and the Democrats have had many accomplishments to celebrate, especially in the face of constant political opposition. But that’s not the narrative that the Republicans, the press, and some Democrats want to use. Instead, the “disastrous” pullout from the endless war in Afghanistan — which wasn’t disastrous — was the point at which the press began its intensely negative coverage of President Biden. As Dan Froomkin wrote last November, Biden’s low approval ratings have a lot to do with media failures.

One is the coverage of the Afghanistan pullout, especially by the visual media, that overhyped the tragic elements of the withdrawal and made Biden look like a loser, when history will record the ending of the Forever Wars as a huge win for the United States and the world.

Stories intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance

I have long been incredulous that so many Republican voters can see the dangers to democracy and our country that Donald Trump and his ilk hold, yet they can’t imagine working alongside, much less voting for, a Democrat because of socialism, communism, or some such “ism” that is never well defined. As one writer noted, they don’t even have communists in China anymore! What gives?!

The world’s richest men have so completely taken over our right-wing media and messaging platforms that they can drive outrageous narratives of threats we face from our neighbors and friends — people we know — without much effort. Of course, low taxes on the rich and lax-to-non-existent regulations on business are their goals, but to build a large enough minority block to get their way they have to appeal to single-issue voters and pretend to fight against all these “isms” with unsupported narratives about Christian nationalism, control over women’s bodies, and the appropriateness of armed insurrection.

Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, called out this bad story about America’s supposed drift towards socialism or worse, which he backs up with facts and data.

Desensitization is an amazing thing. At this point most political observers simply accept it as a fact of life that an overwhelming majority of Republicans accept the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen — a claim with nothing to support it, not even plausible anecdotes.

What I don’t think is fully appreciated, however, is that the Big Lie is embedded in an even bigger lie: the claim that the Democratic Party is controlled by radical leftists aiming to destroy America as we know it. And this lie in turn derives a lot of its persuasiveness from a grotesquely distorted view of what life is like in blue America.

Krugman states his very persuasive case, then ends by noting:

The fact is that a large segment of the U.S. electorate has bought into an apocalyptic vision of America that bears no relationship to the reality of how the other half thinks, behaves or lives. We don’t have to speculate about whether this dystopian fantasy might lead to political violence and attempts to overthrow democracy; it already has. 

We need more Republicans and former Republicans to put forward narratives that call on their colleagues to work with Democrats to save democracy and upend that apocalyptic vision. We need them to make the strong case for a truly reformed Republican Party, like the op-ed recently in the Washington Post by Max Boot, who stood up and said the quiet part out loud.

(G)iven that the GOP has become “authoritarian to its core,” there are two main ways to save America: Either reform the Republican Party or ensure that it never wields power again. But a MAGA-fied GOP is likely to gain control of at least one chamber of Congress in the fall and could win complete power in 2024.

A place for optimism

Boot may be too much of a doomsayer for some, although I feel he is simply being clear-eyed. Nonetheless, Robert Hubbell ended his newsletter yesterday linking to an article by Jane Coaston in the New York Times entitled Try to Resist the Call of the Doomers. In it, Coaston considers the relative merits of “doomsaying” vs. “optimism” as a way of motivating people.

If you want people to do something, they need to be motivated — and impending doom doesn’t seem to do it. Yes, it seems like it would be the equivalent of setting someone’s couch on fire to get them to move, but doomerism seems to have the same effect as depression, bringing about a loss of interest in taking action.

It makes sense. If you believe that your fate is sealed by climate change or the Supreme Court or the Republican Party, well, why would you do anything about it? [D]oomerism causes people to be “led down a path of disengagement.”

We cannot motivate people, Hubbell notes, if our only message is that “the end of democracy is upon us.” He adds:

Yes, we are in perilous times and the fate of democracy hangs in the balance — as it does for every generation. We must be realistic and steely-eyed about the challenges we face, but we have a surfeit of Cassandras who excel at spotting the challenges we face. That is the easy part. Identifying solutions and motivating people to pursue those solutions is the hard part — especially when people criticize you for maintaining your optimism. Ignore them. Do the hard work of defending democracy. Somebody has to. It may as well be us!

We have a role in creating the future. That’s the good story.

More to come…


*If you want to predict something, Republican votes today are good predictors of how the party will rule if it returns to power. We can look at Republican votes in the current Congress (helpfully supplied by Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. of New Jersey) and understand where they will attempt to take us the next time they control the government.

Citations: HR 7688; HR 5376; HR 1319; HR 1319; HR 1; HR 4; HR 350; HR 8373; HR 8; HR 7790; HR 1620; HR 3967; HR 8404; Roll Call 11 (1/7/21)

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

This entry was posted in: The Times We Live In, Weekly Reader


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

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