Saturday, September 02, 2017

Book Review: Politics Without Stories

David Ricci's Politics Without Stories was released in the midst of an election campaign which upended many assumptions about U.S. politics. But it nonetheless offers a plausible explanation for much of the U.S.' political environment as it's continued to evolve - while leaving open what strike me as interesting questions as to whether what he observes is merely a U.S. phenomenon, or whether it applies more broadly.

As his basis for comparison, Ricci notes that U.S. conservatives have generally united around a few "alpha stories" of traditional values, free enterprise and small government. He then takes the position that there's no comparable set of dominant liberal narratives to provide a durable reference point for voters, asserts that this represents an important electoral handicap for U.S. Democrats compared to Republicans, and sets out to explain the discrepancy.

In the process, Ricci first questions whether leading liberal writers and politicians have made a meaningful effort to tie their subject-specific stories into themes, and points out the "list syndrome" as the frequent basis of policy development.

More importantly, Ricci questions whether even an ideal "alpha story" would actually appeal to a liberal audience. He theorizes that a left-wing audience is likely to be less receptive to overarching narratives than one on the right - for reasons including "pragmatic" disenchantment, as well as a focus on smaller outrages and incremental policy proposals over broader themes.

In particular, Ricci identifies each of Naomi Klein's main works as offering useful alpha stories - yet notes that they have failed to become as dominant as the right's primary messages due to the failure of liberals to adopt and repeat them.

On some points, Ricci's assertion of meaningful differences between left and right seems to be somewhat forced. It's not as if conservatism lacks its own single-issue thinkers or laundry-list policy prescriptions: most campaigns of any partisan stripe include a combination of historical themes which at least somewhat fit the "alpha story" model, and proposals aimed toward immediate issues. And the implicit argument that Democratic voices are more fixated on small outrages than their Republican counterparts is thoroughly implausible (see: "but her e-mails!"). (Though to be fair, one might see a parallel to the "alpha story" issue in the comparative willingness of Republican surrogates to repeat, and audiences to accept, small stories with their associated political messages.)

Meanwhile, to the extent there is an identifiable difference between both the politicians and the audiences in the U.S., it seems odd that Ricci spends little time engaging with George Lakoff's work - which offers both a parallel explanation as to the core differences between the liberal and conservative mindset at present, and a more promising set of alternatives than Ricci is willing to propose.

That said, the most interesting part of Ricci's argument from my standpoint is the postscript comparing Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign to Bernie Sanders' - particularly to the extent it's echoed in Canada's divide between the Liberals and the NDP.

Ricci views Sanders as having succeeded in offering a compelling story at least on a temporary basis - which he views as potentially being the best U.S. liberals can expect to achieve. In contrast, he views Clinton (and the party establishment which rallied behind her) as the epitome of the type of story-less politics which creates an inherent disadvantage for the Democratic Party. And the results of the 2016 presidential campaign don't suggest otherwise, particularly when compared to the electoral rise of Sanders' UK analogue in Jeremy Corbyn.

But Canada's experience shows that it is possible for a natural governing party to be built almost entirely on politics of convenience rather than consistent narratives - and indeed to force competitors on both sides to feel compelled to adopt a similar posture. And it's worth both considering and challenging Ricci's view of a political culture which inevitably spills across the border in working to develop and tell the stories which might best serve the goal of building progressive politics in Canada.

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