Tuesday, May 20, 2008


The importance of narratives and framing is pretty much the political marketing cliche of the decade. Yet Kevin Drum manages to use the concept to draw what is, I think, a pithy, accurate, and important distinction between right-wingers and progressives:
Left and right tend to rely on different narratives. Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy. Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest.
This comments produced two insights for me about why the right has done better than the left at dominating political narratives. First, it's a basic political truth, at least in the U.S., that political narratives work better when they contain an element of hope, and a spur to hopeful action. Unfortunately, guilt and personal tragedy, the two liberal narrative tropes that Kevin identifies, are hard to tether to a call for hopeful action. Same goes for fear, of course, but right-wingers at least have a narrative of personal self-interest which is easy enough to place in a discourse of hope.

The second insight is that the two pairs of narrative elements relate to each other in very different ways. For liberals, the rhetorical move from personal tragedy to guilt seems natural enough (hence the cliche of "liberal guilt"). Right-wingers, however, tend to reject that connection. By contrast, the connection between fear and self-interest is organic, not just to conservatives, but to liberals as well. Liberals may reject the logical basis for the fear-mongering, but they never doubt the rhetorical relationship between fear and self-interest. What this means is that right-wing narratives can appeal more easily to progressives than can progressive narratives to right-wingers. In other words, right-wing narratives have easier political cross-over appeal than do progressive narratives.

At least, that used to be true, until conservatives actually got to run the country for six years, and proceeded to bring us to defeat and ruin. No amount of right-wing narrative coherence has been able to overcome that obstacle.

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