A presidential campaign is an exercise in storytelling. Each candidate is always seeking to tell the most compelling story of the nation, one that both reflects who we think we are and projects into the future the kind of nation we’d like to be. The very occasion of campaign, with its promise of renewal, should be a strong backdrop for the symbols, themes, images and practices that tie past and future of a nation together.
This year, both Romney and Obama have struggled to find their foothold in a narrative that works. As the near tie in popularity makes clear, neither has a mandate, and neither has told a story with a powerful sense of forward momentum.
In this, the candidates of 2012 continue what is fast becoming a tradition of deadlocked races, as we approach the fourth election in a row that will essentially be a tie. In other words, the United States is about to enter its second decade of wishy-washy elections whose outcomes do not reflect a national sense of its own identity or story. In 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush received almost exactly the same number of votes. In 2004, Bush and Kerry were within 2 percentage points of each other in the popular vote. And in 2008, although Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote, that is hardly what you would call a landslide victory (McCain won 45.7%).
This year, although Obama has offered that the election is a choice between “two fundamentally different visions of America,” both his own and Romney’s have devolved to claims of hermeneutic victory on various statistical measures of national health, like employment statistics. Metrics, while useful for macro-level diagnosis, can be almost meaningless when it comes to individuals, and it is likely that we will gauge their truth by comparing them with our personal experiences. Macro-level measurements may support a story, but they are a terrible wholesale substitute, in the same way that a power point presentation might summarize, but could hardly do justice to a good novel or a film.
We blame candidates for their failures to either catch the spirit of the nation or tell a good story. Obama, say some, has lost his talismanic storytelling gifts. . Romney was never credited with storytelling skills in the first place.
But where are we, of We the People, in the making of this national story?
Narratives are not one-way affairs. All stories are mutually constructed. They never belong fully to the one who tells, or the one who listens, but arise in the space between the two. A great story is elastic and porous, and permits its listeners the opportunity to find in it a place where they feel at home. A great storyteller tells nothing from whole cloth but rather speaks from the fabric of their moment, and of the broader tapestry of history, culture and language into which it is woven.
We, the voters, are as much writers of the national story as our political leadership. From this vantage, over a decade of indeterminate elections looks less like only a failure of a strong leader to help us find ourselves, but also like a form of comprehensive confusion. We are being offered impoverished visions, but we are also living in a moment of tectonic social, economic and–as we learned from Hurricane Sandy–climatic shifts.
Our American story may take some time to catch up. No one has figured out how to get from our founding narratives to the next chapter of this country in a productive way. There is clear empirical evidence that the economic mobility that once defined American democracy no longer does. Yet many of us cling to it because it defines our political identity, and it offers a hopeful story. The shifts in power underfoot in the world, not only between nations, but between nations, corporations, global governance institutions and NGOs, to name a few, is so profound as to make the argument about whether the United States is on the rise or in decline irrelevant. Yet both Romney and Obama use this framework to explain their respective visions. The terms of power and international relations are changing. So should the framework within which the American role in the world is discussed. We don’t have the words for a new story about this role, though.
The Distributed National Narrative
The American story of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all has historically offered citizens the opportunity to live a miniature version of that unified story. One possible future alternative form of collective narrative would recognize the fact that we each may have different experiences of that promise, and that our experiences are a partial piece in a larger narrative mosaic, rather than a microcosm of a unified whole. The socially and technologically networked world lends itself to this kind of “distributed” narrative. As scholar Jill Walker has explained:
Distributed narratives are stories that aren’t self-contained. They’re stories that can’t be experienced in a single session or in a single space. They’re stories that cross over into our daily lives, becoming as ubiquitous as the network that fosters them.
The era of the self-contained national narrative may have come to an end. One possible American future could tell a a new version of diversity, not only of ethnicity and identity, but of political experience. Our current stories of diversity explain a nation of people from different places who ultimately come to share and live the same aspirational dream. Our future story may be of how the same political or economic forces generate a variety of experiences. It will be the job of our political leaders to help us understand this diversity of experience, to harmonize where possible, and to nourish a healthy diversity that lives up to the ideals that root the country. An honest future narrative would be built from a reality that many experience as a moment fragmentation and uncertainty, rather than pasting over it with false unities.