On Narrative Captivity

            As we begin this new year I would like to use this column to address a major trend in our politics that presently affects all of the populations the Institute researches, rather than treat a concern specific to any one policy or programmatic domain. I seek to highlight a direction in our nation’s politics that affects all we do at VTIPG, and which systemically and systematically further disadvantages the vulnerable population groups in our country whom we seek disproportionately to serve. This development also raises deeper issues concerning democratic agency and efficacy that should disturb all interested in policy, politics and freedom in our polity.

            My December 15, 2014 Soundings commentary described the tragic 1871 massacre of thousands in Paris, orchestrated by the French government, on the basis of a regime-invented narrative that demonized the victims. Here is how I characterized what occurred:

This moral outrage was markedly sad on its face, but it is still more deeply ironic and unsettling, as Merriman (John Merriman, the book’s author) makes clear, when one understands that its perpetrators soon accepted the Commune’s aims as their own policy and direction. In short, the killings were purposeless and predicated on a fear built of a constructed and imagined foe and a persistent drum beat of supposed nefariousness that never existed. The Commune’s members and aims bore little resemblance to the lurid portrait that “justified” the regime’s actions.1

            We often assume that what has been labeled “perception management” politics began with President Ronald Reagan’s administration (1981-1989), or perhaps with Richard Nixon’s vigorous use of successful Madison Avenue advertising strategies to package his 1968 presidential campaign. But the tragic example of France in 1871 suggests that governments have long invented narratives to justify their actions to their populations. Such stories are perhaps most vital for democratic regimes whose hold on power rests on providing explanations that citizenries find compelling and that resonate with their basic understandings or ways in which they view the world.

            In one sense none of this is new. We are all motivated by the ways we choose to understand the world. Our frames define how we make sense of our relationships and events around us. It is also clear that humans use narrative as their primary mode of articulating their epistemic understanding; that is, as the via media to connect what befalls them and their sensibilities as they seek to understand their worlds. If how we make sense of events outside ourselves is elemental and typically expressed as a story, it follows that those who would sell us things in the marketplace or seek our support in democratic politics would bend every effort to understand those motifs and concerns and to influence or even create them and persuade us to their preferred vision, whenever possible. In the first case, the result is profit and potential riches, while in the other success results in political power.

            But the French government’s “explanation” of its massacre and our current carefully orchestrated mediatized politics illustrate something categorically different from simply appealing to people’s existing concerns and ways of knowing to mobilize their interest and support. Both suggest deliberate efforts by those creating them to develop stories directed to the anxieties and fears of the masses and thereby to garner their support. In 1871, the French government created a horrific image of the Commune’s supporters to justify their slaughter and appeal to the broader French population’s fears of tyranny and revolution to legitimate its actions. Today, an entire industry of pollsters, advocates and political professionals earn millions by crafting narratives designed to resonate with the emotions and fears of members of the electorate, and these, like their 1871 forebear, often evidence little or no relationship to reality and may or may not be joined to efforts actually to assist the populations being mobilized.

            Examples of our now ubiquitous perception management politics abound. Perhaps the most ironic recent example of partisan success in such efforts was the GOP’s smashing victory in midterm national elections in November 2014, built on factually false claims that President Barack Obama and his party were responsible for the country’s difficult economic situation and had been ineffective in addressing it. While the assertions were not true, they were adroitly chosen and each was effective in convincing many citizens to vote Republican in a low turnout election in a period of abiding collective economic anxiety.

            The danger in our leaders’ increasingly institutionalized and ever more sophisticated capacity to craft narratives designed to manage perceptions by appealing to citizen fears, prejudices and dominant stereotypes to garner and retain power is clear. In principle, our government officials should always seek what is best for the polity as a whole and recognize and protect the rights of all as they do so. In practice, history suggests how unlikely such is to occur on a sustained basis. So, one is thrown back on the hope and the argument that voters themselves will be prudent and protect themselves from manipulation or “management.” But recent decades have found Americans knowing less and less about their governments and the wellsprings of the trends and concerns those entities must address. In short, they are ripe for the efforts of “perception managers” for hire, people who work not for the common good, but to secure the interests and power of those who pay them, whether inside or outside of government. It is important to underscore that these individuals and organizations are not merely campaign consultants or firms, but now also people with responsibility for public decision-making at the highest levels, informing all dimensions of policy and programmatic action.

            What all of this means for our democracy is that our candidates and public leaders now possess the means to seek to manipulate the electorate’s perceptions by appealing to dominant narratives and fears, and they now systematically work to do so daily. We have seen the results of such activities in our recent politics at all levels, with the exploitation of voter’s deep-seated fears of global economic change and terrorism resulting in the adoption of torture during the George W. Bush administration, the scapegoating of immigrants in the current Congress for a share of the nation’s economic challenges and our country’s justification of a sharp reduction of citizen civil liberties. Many other examples might be cited. The primary consequence of this inclination and capacity is an electorate often purposefully and consciously whipped into frenzied action to obtain and ensure power for those “managing” it, and to serve specific interests in so doing.

            The ongoing institutionalization of this “perception management” turn in our politics has implications for the vulnerable populations the Institute routinely serves, and for the polity as a whole. The poor and the incarcerated, for example, populations with which the Institute works, are frequent targets of widespread and culturally derived social discrimination. As a result, they are often (and by many, increasingly) simply scapegoated in our politics and dubbed the sole architects of the conditions they confront. The outcome is inadequate public support to do more than, at best, palliate their situations. The second, and broader democratic significance of this phenomenon, given the relative level of political ignorance or indifference now characteristic of a large share of the population, is a rising likelihood of elite manipulation of the citizenry for its own purposes, whether or not those serve a broader population. Madison Avenue has long sought to find ways to appeal to Americans to part with their money. We have now institutionalized a similar perception management capacity in our campaign politics and governance, and its effects increasingly are mediated not by any calculus of the common good by its users, but by what its partisans may successfully persuade the electorate to support, whether democratic in character and result or not. The potential for the usurpation of freedom this quickening movement toward a narratively captive population represents is deeply concerning.

Notes

1 http://www.ee.unirel.vt.edu/index.php/outreach-policy/