In an otherwise excellent op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Elizabeth Edwards bemoans the narrative logic that organizes political campaign coverage:
Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride. And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn’t fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.
I understand her frustration, but I am skeptical that rejecting narrative templates is a desirable, or even a possible solution. People construct their understanding of the world through narratives, not chains of logical argument. Even in domains where the latter predominate, like science, there is usually a move to the narrative mode when discussing the larger implications of one’s argument. So the idea that we’re going to somehow replace our narrative templates with something else seems like a non-starter. Better to focus on how our repetoire of narrative templates might be expanded, and how groups outside centers of power might sucessfully disseminate narratives that communicate their ideas.