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It's not the news, it's the 'narrative'

An Austin, Texas-based group that studies language trends says that the top political buzzword for the 2010 election cycle is "narrative."

The Global Language Monitor uses some kind of algorithm that tracks the usage of words and phrases in all forms of news media plus now social media to spot such trends. This is way over my head, and I don't vouch for their finding, but as soon as you hear their big "narrative" conclusion, you realize there's something to it and that we've been hearing "narrative" a lot.

The GLM offers several sample headlines and excerpts to make the point, like "The Obama White House has lost the narrative in the way that the Obama campaign never did” (New York Times, March 6)," “Ok. Has the narrative changed because of the health care success? (Washington Post, March 26) and “The only thing that changes is the narrative.” (CNN, March 23).

When used by talking heads, it seems to me that a discussion of the narrative amounts to spin about spin (possibly about spin.) On a big story, with many strands, like the story of the health care bill, talking about the narrative substitutes not only for facts, but for arguments about facts.

"Obama lost the narrative" means that his preferred version of "the narrative," one that features his preferred facts, or his preferred arguments about those facts, is losing traction (look for "traction" to be the buzzword of the moment in some not-too-distant moment) versus the preferred arguments based on the preferred facts of his opponents. Does that make sense?

To let the author of this analysis explain it for himself:

“The rise of the ‘The Narrative’ actually renders actual positions on the issues almost meaningless, since the positions now matter less than what they seem to mean.” said Paul JJ Payack, President and Chief Word Analyst of GLM. “The goal of political campaigns now is to spin a storyline that most ‘resonates’ with the electorate, or segments thereof.”

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Comments (16)

The concept of Narratives is old hat in many academic circles, American Studies and History scholars have been using it for decades. It's a nice way of explain the content and origin of popular consciousness and political control. People organize experience in stories and place themselves within those stories. Control the stories and you control people or at least explain why they will support or oppose certain ideas.

The troubling thing about the recent appeal to the concept of narratives is it's basically reducing the concept to a "branding" or marketing principles. If you look at the way it's being used here it's basically interchangeable with "messaging", controlling the narrative is like staying on message.

If you're intrigued by the idea of narratives you should check out: "The Progressive Mind" my David Noble. He's a U of M American Studies professor who's been writing about it for decades. Howard Zinn used it as well to discuss the nature of national myths.

Here's an recent article from McClatchy about some conservative efforts to control or reshape the historical narrative:

If you think in terms of shaping the national story it makes sense.

An "Aha" Moment.

As soon as you mentioned it, an immediate response was "Of course!"

Now that the facts are irrelevant, and even the positions of the players, it becomes even more critical to have an EB or two around to penetrate the fog.

This just sounds like political strategists have caught up with mythology, historicism, religious studies, literary criticism and cognitive science. Our species prefers to organize information as a story to provide meaning and greater ease of recall . Of course stories need a beginning a middle and an end and in the process tend to make inferences about causality and that produces a moral framework. I think we are always fighting over narratives, but maybe now we are more intentional about it. Maybe fighting over narratives or the role of branding in creating narratives is part of some larger narrative. Head trip!

It may be that what we're seeing at the moment in American consciousness is the increasing revelation of the failure of the Reaganesque conservative narrative wherein the assumption that the ever-higher flight of ruggedly individualistic entrepreneurs - assumed to be "self made" people (a misnomer if ever there was one) - would provide the means by which the vast majority of the population would make themselves fabulously wealthy... in essence the meme we continue to hear from the right, and the MSM which they own, that how we treat each other is irrelevant because ANYone has the opportunity to be rich.

The tide has clearly risen for those very few at the top, but that tide has not "lifted all boats." In fact it has left more and more boats mired in the muck.

Taking its place is the old narrative that we're all in this together and that the overall well being of our society is not based on how wealthy a very few individuals can become but rather, on how we best help the vast majority of those who are not wealthy to move into and maintain stable, productive lives, and protect the well being of those who will never be able to do so.

Those at the top, including MSM figures who are mostly among the very wealthy, are working against this change in narrative, but the personal, on the ground evidence of the need for change has become too overwhelming for them to succeed.

//Now that the facts are irrelevant,

Actually John the nice thing about narrative consciousness is you see that there's nothing new about it all. Facts have not "recently" become irrelevant, they have been in many ways for a very long time. Consider the narrative of salvation that was used to "save" native americans for 500 years, they weren't being conquered, they were being civilized. Teutonic myths combined with eugenics and anti-semitism formed the National Socialist narrative that propelled Nazi Germany. More recently and closer to home you have the stadium debate. Imagine the debate without the warm fuzzy narrative of the American pastime that brings joy, prestige, and economic vitality everywhere it goes.

It's not so much that facts are irrelevant, it just that facts in-and-of themselves are meaningless without context. Narratives provide context, but there's the rub, who's narrative?

Controlling the narrative is critical, because it is through the story that opinions are formed. When health care reform is a 'government takeover' it is not particularly popular. So, watch the narrative with the next big initiative - financial system reform. Latest word is that the Repubs are going to try to cast tighened regulations of wall street as another 'bailout'. If that narrative becomes the conventional wisdom, look for support for reform to dwindle. If Dems and the White House are able to cast renewed regulation of wall street as a way to protect the rest of us from becoming collateral damage when behemoth businesses implode, financial regulation will pass more easily.

p.s. Welcome back Eric.


Consider the old news story "Mary had a little lamb"...whose fleece was white as snow...
or was it...

'fleas were white as snow'?

He or was it 'they' who followed
her to school one day,
which was against the rules which
made the children laugh and play
to see a lamb at shool
or, possibly...

'They' made the children laugh and say,
"We got fleas in school."

Which is the story, which is the narrative and which embellishes or distorts the headline's approach "Farm Animal..."?

Does 'narrative' imply a more subjective approach over what is assumed is a rational, objective story or newsworthy storyline?

...Whatever,I'll bet you, Mary's farm animal had fleas. That's my 'narrative', ho!

Brian S (#7): Frank Luntz is a Republican consultant who wrote a "Language of Health Care" memo that gave opponents of health care reform all the catch-phrases we have heard so often (government takeover, death panels, et cetera).

Lou Dubose reports in the March 1 issue of The Washington Spectator that Luntz has developed the Words to be used to oppose financial reform (among them lobbyist loopholes, bloated bureaucracy, another Washington agency, unlimited regulatory powers, another government bailout).

Dubose says Luntz "...uses polling to measure public opinion. Then he identifies inflammatory language that can turn public anger into a campaign. ... The campaign he proposes directs public anger at the 'architects of failure' who are now 'designing the rescue.' "


A narrative transformed? The former leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina, his wife and supporters spent 10 years changing peaceful coexistence into such deep hatred on the part of Christian citizens for their Muslim neighbors that they were willing to attempt their extinction through violence.

//Controlling the narrative is critical, because it is through the story that opinions are formed. When health care reform is a 'government takeover' it is not particularly popular.

See, it's not "wrong" to refer to this a narrative but it's much more limited scope. The Narrative that's really troublesome in the health care debate is the national narrative of the US as a New World reaction to Old World thinking. This is the national myth of the rugged individual who's escaped the decadence of Europe and created a divinely inspired place in the American wilderness. Throw in the Social Darwinism of the late 19th century ( i.e. survival of the fittest rugged American who innovates and fights his way through adversity without government aid) and you have the durable national narrative that survives to this day in everything from Robert Gates to Trump's "Apprentice". Of course the facts supporting this narrative are tenuous at best but there you have it.

I say this narrative is the bigger issue because it's almost universally accepted, by both Democrats and Republicans. Returning to health care, remember it was the Democrats, not the Republicans that killed any single payer plan, or even the public option. Now you can say that this was just 21st century real-politics but you're still left with question why rational approaches to a health care crises are so completely unthinkable. The narrative comes into play because the idea of adopting any European models conflicts at a very basic level with the new world/old world narrative. The idea that America is not a European country is so deeply ingrained that any European public policy from gas taxes to health care is simply unthinkable. Of course the fact is that America is/was a European colony, but say that to a Tea-Party person and your cruisin for a bruisin Mr. The Tea Party reaction transcends party affiliation, it's a direct appeal to a dominant, although interpreted in the extreme, national narrative. Liberals and conservatives in this country buy into this narrative, because of it's historical and emotional appeal, and it's support of the status quo.

Absolutely fascinating.

I'd say, based upon the anecdotal evidence before us, that the Global Language Monitor is definately on to something here. But more importantly, the thoughtful reader will detect in previous comments, exactly how easily control of "the narrative" is lost when the premise upon which it is based lacks the least basis in fact.

Obama didn't lose his "narrative" because he can't craft a skillful turn of phrase; when it comes to dishing out the verbiage, the guy's all pro. He lost "it" because "it" was based upon utter nonsense from the start.

Our grandparents would have recognized it as "buying a pig in a poke".

That is to say, succinctly, that the intelligent consumer has nothing to fear from “the narrative”, irrespective of who controls it at any given time.

Not that I'm a great fan of the health care bill or anything, but the extent to which the narrative has been "lost" has not yet been determined. The bill passed Mr. Swift, and the country is still in the process of figuring out to respond to that. In the meantime, I think it's hard to argue that the folks who cried about death panels and socialism had a better command of the facts than did Obama.

"Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder sound respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind" George Orwell

Sitting on a bus one day I heard a group of kids in front of me using the 'F' word so frequently in their speech, it sounded like hens cackling. Then I realized it was a buzzword, essentially rendering 'F' meaningless.

How long will it take before 'narrative' as a buzzword is renderd meaningless by its overuse or abuse?

Semantically, buzzwords are serial-fillers killing meaning by their overuse.

Take a word, any word, that the public tongue abuses as it goes from specific in its meaning to rendered meaningless as a becomes merely a style-component, rather than definitive in its use?

There must be a giant landfill somewhere , where dead buzzwords go to die after losing their public appeal...and another buzzword takes its place.

Buzzwords like'existential' are fading. Words like 'angst' are in a state of apoplexy and all I can say is RIP since they were so tragically misunderstood in their buzzworld lifetime.

One could say any clarification of meaning was soon lost in the babble of tongues overusing and abusing.

//Buzzwords like'existential' are fading.

As an existentialist I must say I'm relieved to hear this.

Paradigm brings up the way you describe yourself as the ink-stained wretch. That's a paradigm in itself, and one that doesn't fit MinnPost or you, in that I doubt there's ink anywhere to be found that would stain, what with your entry of articles by keyboard, the publication of which is strictly online. It's new paradigm time, perhaps, if you persist in the Internet version of daily journalism. I don't know what you wish to stain yourself by, but it is clear printer's ink isn't it.