January 29, 2008

Stories, not policy, define pols

Reading the recent coverage of the presidential election from Iowa through New Hampshire, Michigan, and beyond, I have been thoroughly impressed with the news media’s ability to spin a good yarn.

The coverage of the Clinton/Obama tête-à-tête has by now bested Don King’s boxing showmanship; Mitt Romney’s disappearing/reappearing status as contender follows a plot line reminiscent of a Las Vegas magic show; and the little Huckabee campaign that could was, for a few seconds, at least as exciting as The Little Engine that Could.

Should the collective storytelling ability of American newsprint, glossy magazines, and punditry prove capable of maintaining this suspenseful and dramatic thrust, it might just get people excited about voting again (much like replicating the thrill of a choose-your-own-adventure book). Unfortunately, this type of excitement might just cut short a healthy democratic process.

For all the experts, pundits, and individuals who want others to believe that their two cents is worth the cost of publication, no one can claim any real insight as to what the heck is actually going on in this election. It would be a bit extreme to say that the political environment has become too sophisticated for commentators to comprehend, let alone communicate in the space of a column. All the same, we all have a shot in the dark at getting it right, which of course has led to no greater amount of modesty in the world of political commentary.

Many politicos still want to package the election into a neat, tightly constructed story line. Democrats wish for a return to the greater days of the Clinton legacy or hope that Barack Obama’s youthful novelty will reinvigorate the party. Republicans are supposedly in an existential funk because no one knows where the strong, socially conservative Christian can be found. Women are rumored to have a strong preference for Hillary Clinton, while Obama’s appeal to both minority groups and middle-class America is supposedly enough to carry him into the White House. Much like prescription medicine, there’s an explanation built to accommodate whatever mood or attitude tickles one’s fancy—just don’t expect it to last beyond the next turn in the race.

Presidential elections in the United States should have an intrinsic ability to produce excitement without assistance. The fact that this high office-holder will have the capacity to simultaneously make the residents of a Park Avenue townhouse and a hut in Sudan sweat blood is enough of a motivation to at least give the candidates’ profiles a gloss. And yet analysis of the candidates’ ability to carry out the functions of the office now seems little more than a background detail. Sure, when discriminating an ideal candidate from the typical presidential election-year flea market, managing the economy, foreign-affairs knowledge, and governing experience all have their lauded places in the polite and proper election analysis etiquette. However, just like table manners, there is a tendency to follow them only under certain circumstances.

The addition of flair or a sense of drama to explanations about the world comes with the territory. It’s not so much a matter of lying or reporting non-existent facts as it is one of adding a bit of narrative bite to an event. No one  aside from perhaps a few accountants is going to derive any interest from reading a list of polling statistics or an unmitigated log of events. Most people tend to be pattern-seeking individuals. We need stories, as Joan Didion rightly states, in order to live. That being said, the audience that finds itself drawn to these narratives can find itself so engrossed in the story, and so dedicated to its meaning, that it treats the story as an illumination of the inevitable and votes to maintain the structure of the story. This may be why so many individuals who believe that race or gender should not be used to discriminate are acting as if such categories are the key deciding points in the Clinton/Obama contest.

What an interesting detail it was to hear that exit polls in New Hampshire suggested that the voters in that primary only really picked a candidate at the last minute. It is as if they were waiting for their news source of choice to give them a sort of inside information on how best to place one’s bets. Here, you have the depressing problem laid out in a single statement. Who is in fact voting here: The voting public or those who say how the public will vote?