This week the big news is the midterm election and there are two competing narratives worth examining. Today, in advance of the vote, I want to use my ethnographic and rhetorical training by loosely applying to them Clifford Geertz's textual methods for uncovering organizing principles in cultural stories and Walter Fisher's well-worn criteria for evaluating narratives, namely, do they "hang together" and do they "ring true?"
First, let's examine the "big picture." As I wrote last week, this country is engaged in an ongoing "war of ideas" that pits Progressives/liberals against conservatives/Tea Partiers for narrative control of the country. Clifford Geertz, in his classic work, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) posits that stories and myths represent the organizing locus of cultures, out of which an observer may build a text worthy of analysis. So, in the spirit of Geertz, let's examine those two opposing "big picture" narratives as if they are competing cultural worldviews and isolate their major themes. Then, using Fisher's evaluative criteria, let's see what they teach us about this election and its likely aftermath.
From denizens of American culture on the right we hear that the U.S. is a "center-right" nation and that most Americans want a limited government, low taxes, strong national defense, and as little interference in business or the exercise of individual liberty as possible. Proponents of this narrative support their story with a strictly literal interpretation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as a signed contract with America, wherein every word means exactly what it says and there is no room for argument.
Conservative cultural warriors adhere to a view of American history that celebrates our "exceptionalism" from the landing of the Pilgrims to the present, and that values individual initiative, the "luck and pluck" of entrepreneurs, and the right of every citizen to pursue "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," usually, but not always within legal limits, the exceptions being to violations of bureaucratic rules and regulations that they feel interfere with their Constitutionally-mandated freedoms. An enduring theme of this conservative narrative is that America is, in fact, a Judeo-Christian nation, and that the separation of church and state is a misguided notion, a conspiracy from the left to remove God from schools, courts, and the practices of citizenship in everyday life.
On the American cultural left we hear that the U.S. is a "center-left" nation and that most Americans want a strong central government that is vested in protecting our civil rights and powerful enough to provide equal access to education, opportunity, jobs, and health care, while at the same time being able to ensure that we maintain a strong national defense and honor our Constitutional commitments to balancing individual liberty with the promotion of the public good. Proponents of this narrative support their story with a "consequentialist" interpretation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, wherein the founders expected changes to be made to those founding documents as needs arose and circumstances changed, as well as to what the consequences of carrying those principles into modern life would mean.
Liberal cultural warriors adhere to a view of American history as an ongoing struggle to live up to the founder's goals for a free society wherein every man and woman, every person regardless of race, creed, color, and religion, enjoyed equal access to the bounty of the land and equal protection under the law. Liberals value individual initiative, the "luck and pluck" of the people, and the right of people to pursue "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" usually, but not always within legal limits, the exceptions being to laws that make it easy for corporations to exploit workers, immigrants, and minorities. An enduring theme of this Progressive narrative is that America is, in fact, a nation dedicated to the principle of freedom of religion and speech, that the separation of church and state is one of Thomas Jefferson's most important values, and that without that separation not only would the contributions of those other than Jews and Christians be devalued, but moreover the knowledge generated by science would be at place at risk by those who would deny global warming, stem cell research, and evolution.
On the surface both of these "big picture" narratives seem to fit Fisher's criteria. Both "hang together" in the sense that means that the story components exhibit a reasonable probability of being rational to members of each culture. And for their adherents, they no doubt "ring true." What they both express is a common adherence to sacred texts (e.g. the Constitution and Bill of Rights) but a fairly wide divergence in interpreting how those texts should be applied to life in the 21st century.
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For conservatives, there is one more sacred text that enters into the conversation, and that is the Holy Bible. For liberals, that sacred text may, in fact, be sacred to Jews and Christians, but given their reading of the Establishment clause in the First Amendment, there is no way it should be valued above any other religion's sacred text when it comes to making laws, or corporate best practices, or encouraging habits of mind and action in education and elsewhere. And here, as it is for many of the world's cultures, on the question of the relationship between God and humanity, and how life itself should be lived, is where the common narrative thread begins to unravel.
The next unraveling is no surprise to anyone who has noticed recently that we live in a capitalist country. The issue is money. And it angers people, makes them "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." Specifically, it's our taxes and their relationship to the larger question of how to deal with our burgeoning national debt. In fact, the sub-theme of this election could well be titled "Of God, Money, and Madness in America."
Conservatives, as a matter of fundamental belief, taut "low taxes" and balanced budgets in campaigns for public office. They stand united in their opposition to any spending that would increase the national debt, which is code to their side for cutting more government programs and repealing health care reform. What they do not say, or as yet have not produced, is a credible account of how cutting taxes for everyone (including the rich) helps us pay off the debt. Which is to say they are unwilling to admit that they would have to take major shears to public services and entitlements, including social security and Medicare.
By contrast, liberals in this election point out that under President Obama taxes for everyone making under $250,000 a year--95% of the tax paying population--have never been lower. Liberals also point out--at least some of them--that low taxes for the past thirty years have, in fact, placed the nation at greater risk due to the systematic defunding of education, public services, and the infrastructure. That without revenues there is nothing to spend. Furthermore, Progressives promise never to touch social security or to cut back on health care. Hence, liberals take on the national debt, while hopeful, is more complicated than the other side's storyline, which renders it somewhat problematic in an election where, as a recent study pointed out, most people don't know the facts and are likely to vote on what they believe is true, regardless. But it is true that one complication of the Money issue for Democrats is that our message on it is cloudy. We want to balance budgets, but not yet, because we want to first halt the defunding of education, public services, and infrastructure, and then use what we imagine to be massive savings in health care costs to pay down the national debt by 2020.
I'm not entirely sure that most Americans accept that argument. But neither am I sure that the other side wins the debate. The thread unravels here on both sides.
Which brings us to another point of difference between the conservative and Progressive narratives in this election season. Candidates on the Teapublican right are proud to say that once elected they plan to do nothing that requires compromise with Democrats, and that they plan to dedicate themselves to dismantling healthcare, further reducing the education budget (if not eliminating public support for education entirely), and promoting deeper tax cuts that will inevitably rob lawmakers' abilities to promote the public good or repair the broken infrastructure. Several candidates have also spoken openly about their desire to dedicate the next two years to weakening Obama's chances for reelection, no matter what it takes, including the possibility of an impeachment trial.
Progressives, on the other hand, champion improvements in legislation that will affect civil rights, immigration, education, the environment, and further refinements in health care. They are committed to using federal and state dollars to create a new jobs bill, something those on the other side of the aisle deny they will support if it increases the debt but will likely have to compromise on to win reelection themselves in 2012.
Dig a little deeper into these campaign promises and, after that, it is very much "turtles all the way down." For those of you unfamiliar with that phrase, the short version of the story is that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz tells about the belief system of one South Asian he once interviewed. In the informant's account, the world was held in the sky on the back of a giant turtle. Geertz asked, "and what is beneath that giant turtle?" The response was: "Another turtle." Geertz pressed on, asking "And under that turtle?" The reply was voiced as a certainty: "ah, sahib, after that it's turtles, all the way down."
So it is that I have discussed the giant competing narratives that carry the weight of two opposing sides in this election, and after that, it is all about the turtles beneath them, all the way down. By which I mean it's all about the quirky, hard-shell personalities in the form of candidates, pundits, and commentators that have defined media attention in this race.
On the right we have a list of Tea Partiers and Teapublicans, each one more outrageous than the last, from candidates who can invest a personal fortune beyond reason to their own campaigns and others who advocate dismantling the government they want to be elected to run, to characters straight out of bad acid trips ("The Rents Too Damned High") or Halloween cartoons ("I am not a witch"), to serious ideologues whose only true sacred text is not so much the Constitution nor the Holy Bible, but instead Atlas Shrugged. We also have a legion of old white men who, still running on their war records, have overstayed their usefulness to everyone except the corporations they represent and a cadre of die-hard supporters. And then there are those not yet running for the presidency, but threatening to, who, if they aren't on the ballot this year are certainly part of the turtle soup that the Tea Party, through a constant emote comprised of slur, lies, and invective, is bringing to a boil.
On the left, by dramatic contrast, we have candidates who lack charisma, or who are open to the charge of having stayed in the job too long, or who fear being tied to Obama, or who otherwise do not evidence the kind of rhetorical and narrative skill necessary to make them memorable. There are those, like Harry Reid, who have had their manhood questioned by a woman who should have been eliminated from serious consideration in the primary, and we have decent folks across the nation who have suffered attacks to their character, their integrity, and their leadership by opponents who themselves have been subjected to the same negative attacks. On the left, the one and only rock star is still Obama, and while this turtle may be the giant holding the country's narrative on his back, the turtles beneath him don't seem to doing much to help him.
Tomorrow will arrive and the votes will be tallied. Commentators will treat each election as part of their own national narrative and, despite the overwhelming success of the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear on Saturday I doubt very much that our future holds anything like a narrative cease-fire. Fox, Rupert Murdoch, and the Koch Brothers will continue to call the shots for the right with daily assists from The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and others of that conservative ilk, directing their attention to the campaign for 2012, which will begin on Wednesday morning. MSNBC, George Soros, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart will continue to represent and urge on the left, with routine assists from op-ed stars from the New York Times and bloggers from The Daily Kos and The Huffington Post.
Ordinary Americans will hope that some good comes from the election. And maybe it will. Maybe.
But if it doesn't, we know two things for sure. First, these two national narratives that brought us into this war of ideas are far from settled. They both meet the criteria Walter Fisher provides for the "big picture," given the values held by their respective audiences, and if these narratives unravel considerably in the details, well, America's story has never valued details very much. What we have learned is really very little. What we know is that, once again, the right is better at messaging, and we hope the left is better at governing.
And we know a second thing. That South Asian was right: after that first thing, which is all about the weight-carrying narrative capacity of that giant turtle, it's nothing but lesser turtles all the way down.