Who Should You Vote For – and Why?

It’s high time to address two of our biggest distractions as voters.

When Obama remarked that Sarah Palin “is a great story,” he accomplished two, somewhat contradictory things. On one hand, he dismissed the legitimacy of McCain’s running mate by recasting Palin’s allure as totally insubstantial (i.e., Sarah Palin is nothing more than a “great story”) and, on the other hand, he surreptitiously recognized that the only ingredient which seems to matter in public elections (or in any public deliberation) is the narrative embodied by the person (or subject).

In the September 13 issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley brings attention to this exchange and the role narratives play in powering the political machine of each presidential candidate.

She astutely determines that a candidate’s personal narrative becomes his or her definition to the voting public – and that this definition is the basic pendulum on which voters’ opinions swing:

“A candidate’s personal story, whether captured in snapshots (Jack Kennedy, PT boat captain; Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Rider) or in a biography spanning decades (Bill Clinton, “The Man From Hope, per the 1992 video), and whether fully accurate or not, comes to define him or her.” [1]

Begley also discusses the power of narrative with historian Michael Beschloss, who notes that “voters are drawn to someone they can relate to, and the way to make that happen is by offering them stories” [1]. This attraction to stories, Begley clarifies through an anecdotal illustration, occurs because “the human brain is wired so that we can follow a chain of events that have people doing things in a chronological order more easily than we can follow abstractions” [1].

And yet, despite our innate attraction to narratives remaining static, their power over us is growing as communicative technologies congenial to narrative burgeons in both quantity and efficacy. Television, of course, is a perfect example of this. Bechloss observes that “television has made voters expect to, and think they can, ‘see into people’s souls to take their measure” [1]. The putative point of access, of course, is an individual’s narrative. Viewers witness a video summarizing McCain’s life, or Obama’s life, and feel that they know this person a little better, a little more intimately.

Begley paints a compelling portrait of narrative in our current political system, but mistakes herself, however, in suggesting that, although the power of narratives has been growing in strength over recent decades, “what’s new is that the circumstances of this election have conspired to push people away from the reason- and knowledge-based system of decision-making and more down the competing emotion-based one [of narrative]” [1]. She is correct in maintaining that our environment encourages more emotion-based decisions, but she’s wrong in suggesting that this is in any way a recent development. In fact, this has been “developing” for centuries.

In 1999, G. Thomas Goodnight, a celebrated Professor of Rhetoric and Argumentation, wrote an essay entitled “The Personal, Technical, and Public Spheres of Argument. Although this essay has been tragically overlooked, it is riddled with apercus which remain as true today as when he wrote them nine years ago. In fact, his essay, published almost a decade before Begley’s, largely anticipates Begley’s entire premise and then goes even further:

“As arguments grounded in personal experience seem to have greatest currency, political speakers present not options but personalities, perpetuating government policy by substituting debate for an aura of false intimacy.” [2]

Furthermore, he affirms that

“Many forms of social persuasion are festooned with the trappings of deliberation, even while they are designed to succeed by means inimical to knowledgeable choice and active participation.” [2]

So while Begley seems content to draw your attention to narratives and snarkily quip that we should prepare ourselves for (the passive consumption of) “seven more weeks of story-telling,” Goodnight senses that something is terribly wrong – not just with our political system, but with the social structure supporting it and supported by it. Ultimately, his observation suggests that our “public life” isn’t necessarily in good health.

In 1930, Charles and William Beard wrote The Republic in the Machine Age, opining, with haunting accuracy, about the transformations American democracy would undergo in subsequent decades. They noted that “modern technology introduced greater specialization, interdepdence, and complexity” [2]. Beard and Beard thought that our government’s response to these changes were transmogrifying the face of our society altogether, that “the nature of government was being inexorably transformed to ‘an economic and technical business on a large scale’” [2]. Where few others would, Beard and Beard saw the startling implications of this change. Goodnight summarizes the crux of their concern by asking:

“If it is the case that specialization is necessary to make knowledgeable decisions, then what value is the participation of common citizens?”

So here we have it: our rapidly changing society is encouraging a sense that greater specialization is required to lead our country, but the bludgeoning power of narrative on our critical faculties is diminishing our ability to see and address this change taking place right before our very eyes, on television screens across America.

As voters, we must assess the reality of our political (and social) system. Is specialization necessary to make credible decisions? Should it be? How is our system currently oriented toward specialization? Are we distracted from this issue? If so, how do we get back on track and prevent future generations from losing sight of this as well?

If specialization is requisite to office, we must ask ourselves: specialization in what? In a specific area of politics (foreign policy, fiscal management, national security)? Or in specific skills (deliberation, communication, team-building)? Beard and Beard seem to think that our government was increasingly requiring its participants to specialize not in specific skills, but in specific areas of politics. If that is the case (or even the ideal), then we should be electing only overly-qualified uber-politicians and evaluating candidates by that rubric. But a caution: if specialization in a specific area of politics is requisite to credible decision-making, then how can we – the layperson – presume to evaluate one politician as better than another? Wouldn’t it be best to leave that sort of evaluation to other politicians who can leverage their expertise in discriminating between good or bad? If this is the case, are we not just creating an elite group of politicians who ultimately self-regulate – without full regard for what we, the governed, think and feel? Are you feeling chills, yet?

On the other hand, if we view specialization in a specific area of government to be unnecessary, then we should be electing general practitioners of political science with finely-honed leadership skills, such as communication, direction-setting, deliberation, and diplomacy, whose values resonate with us.

But what of our current system? Which does it support? Well, both and neither – and our knee-jerk reaction might be to blame our government, to say that it has become corrupt or decrepit. Or next reaction might be to blame the media, because they have the power to direct our attention wherever they choose, to focus on a candidate’s story, which may be more a reflection of his/her public relations skills than of his/her politics. And a candidate’s story, of course, includes how he/she bills his/her experience; not how it is objectively evaluated.

But is the government or the media truly to blame? Are we its victims or its arbiters? A cold, critical look would reveal that it could only be the latter, that we have been our own worst crippling influence.

While we are constantly fed narrative and less ‘technical’ substance, as Begley would suggest, that’s what we want, what we crave, what we settle for. How many of us push ourselves past the flash and flair of our current political system and sit down to set the candidates’ credentials side-by-side. Perhaps most telling of all, ask yourself: Why must candidates campaign for a year and a half prior to getting their office? Shouldn’t their preceding careers be enough? Would you rather judge someone’s fitness to lead our country by 35 years, or by one-and-a-half? And don’t be so quick to presume that you can keep them separate in your mind – as Begley and a host of researchers are beginning to show us, our emotions control more of our reasoning than we would like to admit.

So what’s to be done? Demand a reform of our media? Require it to show us technical substance, as much or more than narrative flair? Or perhaps a reform of our education, emphasizing more than ever before the need to be critical consumers of technical information, so that we can intelligently and purposefully move our country forward, toward our collective desire for it?

The simple truth of our system today is that it focuses on narrative more than it should. Narrative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the degree to which we depend on it certainly is. Our system divorces us from the chance to encounter technical material and make technical decisions. Being divorced from technical decision making as we develop intellectually gives rise to the strength of narrative by increasing our dependency on it. This will become a bigger issue than ever before as the millennial generation, or the “me” generation, grows older. This generation, more than any one before it, relates through narratives, because narratives encourage a sense of identification (which explains their fascination to social-networking sites).

The next time you encounter a political message, ask yourself: “Is this pure narrative, or something technical?” If it appears to be something technical, then you must decide: “Is this technical material relevant to the choice I must make?”

The answers you arrive at will be revealing and impactful – for yourself, and for all of us.

References

[1] – Begley, Sharon. “Heard Any Good Stories Lately?” Newsweek. September 13, 2008. (Link)

[2] – Goodnight, G. Thomas. “The Personal, Technical, and Public Spheres of Argument” in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, ed. John Louis Lucaites, Celeste Michelle Condit, and Sally Caudill (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999). (Link)

[3] – Beard, Charles Austin and William. The American Leviathan: The Republic in the Machine Age. (New York: Macmillian, 1931).

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