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The Morning After: What Went Wrong & What We Can Do With Narrative to Make it Right

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"They had an enormous opportunity to bring about change and they failed, and I don't say that harshly," he said, adding: "They really are left-wing elitists and they really thought the country didn't get it, and, therefore, it was their job to give the country the government that they thought the country needed, even if they didn't want it." Newt Gringich, on the morning after the midterms in 1994

In Permanence and Change, Kenneth Burke introduces the idea that "motives are shorthand terms for situations." When someone--say, a political commentator--names something as a "motive" for an outcome, what she or he is also doing is associating that motive with an outcome without discussing the complex mix of contributing factors, all of which add up to an understanding of the situation. The assumption is that the audience--let's say voters--will fill in the details with what they already know. Or, as was the case last night, with what they didn't care to know because it might have contradicted what they already believed, which was largely incorrect.

So it is that when Wolf Blitzer on CNN opened his coverage of the midterm elections last night with the lead-in of a "dramatic ideological split" between voters in this election, my critical antennae became attuned to motive. Turns out, the motive, the definition of a situation, for this lead was an exit poll sample that indicated 68% of those who voted Democrat wanted government to do more, while 81% of those who voted Republican wanted government to do less.

The night's election story unfolded from that opening statement, not just on CNN but throughout the mediated landscape. What the Teapublican victories--and even their losses--meant was less a referendum about the candidates and the future than it was about President Obama. He had reintroduced "big government" and the voters didn't want it. For a country that loves easy solutions to complex problems, fast food over a cooked meal, Cliff Notes over the whole book, soundbites over difficult details, what the commentators sold us last night and again this morning was a motive done up in American political shorthand.

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But what did it mean? What are the details of that shorthand? And does whatever it meant last night make any real difference this morning? How about next week?

The role of government in our lives as a political divide is not new to American elections. It is, in fact, a controversy that pre-dated the writing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and one that continued by the founders after they signed off on the documents. It has been a contentious issue whenever states rights have been brought into conflict with federal mandates, or when state laws were passed that trod none too gently on federal statutes. It's not much of a stretch to say the role of the federal government in regulating slavery was a major contributing cause of the Civil War, nor is it much of an exaggeration to say that the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 was viewed by those who opposed its establishment as a violation of the Constitution, a furthering of big government against the wishes of at last some of the founders to limit government.

Hence, the role of government in America is a big issue, largely unresolved, and it is no surprise that the party out of power since 2008 would resurrect that historical narrative as a framework to rail against the "government takeover of healthcare," the "government bailout of the banks and Wall Street," even the more general "government interference in our lives," phrases used to refer to a wide variety of perceived wrongs, from the separation of church and state to largely illusory gun laws to a perceived vast bureaucracy that gets in the way of doing business to the unnecessary use of tax dollars to fund stem cell research, to counter global warming, and to prop up that fledging liberal radio station, NPR.

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What Obama failed to do was communicate the success of government to solve problems during his first two years in office. Aside from passing healthcare reform and saving the auto industry (now profitable again), breaking even on the TARP bailout, and significantly improving our stature around the world, Timothy Egan provides a bracing dose of reality with his observation that had you invested $100K in the stock market on the day Obama came into office, you would have seen a 77% return on that investment today. And that's only using the averages. But these are silly details. And silly Obama thought we were all paying close attention.

In fact, if these elections prove anything at all, it is that the American people were not paying attention to the details. And the president did a singularly poor job of communicating with us about them. As the editorial from the New York Times put it:

"Mr. Obama, and his party, have to do a far better job of explaining their vision and their policies. Mr. Obama needs to break his habits of neglecting his base voters and of sitting on the sidelines and allowing others to shape the debate. He needs to do a much better job of stiffening the spines of his own party's leaders.
He has made it far too easy for his opponents to spin and distort what Americans should see as genuine progress in very tough times: a historic health care reform, a stimulus that headed off an even deeper recession, financial reform to avoid another meltdown."

Motives are, indeed, shorthand terms for situations. The problem is that Americans vote based on shorthand terms. It has been the sheer ability of shorthand terms to stand in for larger discursive situations that has given them their power as rallying cries, organizing slogans, and talking points. 1840's "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" to 1948's "Give "Em Hell, Harry!" to 1980's "Morning Again in America" to 2010's "Take Our Country Back!" are the sorts of "shorthand terms" that unify and divide while standing in for much more detailed, as well as nuanced and complex situations.

Think of the signs for the winning side you've seen during this election cycle. They are all very angry. It is as if the Tea Party and most Republicans were and are unified by a motive of anger (the signs are their shorthand terms for it) while most Progressives are unified--if not by a core narrative, which they desperately need--then by humor and "sanity" in response to that anger. And is that wrong? Kenneth Burke also teaches us, in Attitudes Toward History , that in the face of crisis, humor offers hope, whereas anger produces tragedy.

But as Peter Beinart argues in today's The Daily Beast, ridiculing the right's fear, calling for a "fake bipartisanship" that likely won't materialize, and suggesting that we can all move forward if we just stop yelling at each other obscures this fact: "In America today, as at past moments in our history, there's a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it's not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose."

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These bracing comments echo those of Chris Hedges, who writes that the folks on Fox and the Comedy Central are in the same show business, and that by touting a "phantom left," Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert actually fulfill Guy Debord's vision of a political future totally co-opted by entertainment, thus producing a "society of spectacle":

Politics in America has become spectacle. It is another form of show business. The crowd in Washington, well trained by television, was conditioned to play its role before the cameras. The signs --"The Rant is Too Damn High," "Real Patriots Can Handle a Difference of Opinion" or "I Masturbate and I Vote"--reflected the hollowness of current political discourse and television's perverse epistemology. The rally spoke exclusively in the impoverished iconography and language of television. It was filled with meaningless political pieties, music and jokes. It was like any television variety program. Personalities were being sold, not political platforms. And this is what the society of spectacle is about.

Whether you adhere to the notion that the real left needs to rise up and take control of the Congressional debate, or, as Tina Brown put it on Sunday, that our president, Mr. Cool and Calm, needs to suddenly embrace the "theatricality of the presidency," one thing is certain: after last night's defeat, we can no longer afford to laugh out way out of this mess. Nor can Obama survive and the country prosper under his leadership without a new commitment to making a core narrative and a media campaign explaining what he is doing the rhetorical centerpiece of his administration for the next two years.

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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)

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