Human beings are storytellers. It is wired into our genes, coded into our DNA as a result of 2 million years of nomadic, tribalistic existence. Witch doctors, shamans and similar-such medicine men and epic poets orally transmitted the history of the tribe, not through objective, social scientific writings and statistics, but through orally transmitted narratives. These stories had a protagonist and antagonist, they had a primary conflict and a resolution of these conflicts. There were the micro-conflicts engaged-in by the culture's major historical figures, as well as the unresolved macro-conflict, the conflict narrative which enabled said tribe to analyze their place in the world,their precarious relationships with their neighbors, and suggested actions they could take in the future.
All successful political movements are able to tap into this subconscious, narrative-dependence of human populations. All complex social, economic and military issues must be simplified into narrative form, so that the masses can comprehend and make sense of their complicated environment. To demand or expect the common folk to understand the complex causal relationships at work in political, military and economic phenomena with the sophisticated, nuanced, objective understanding of a Roosevelt, Napoleon or Keynes is to indulge in foolish self-deception.
Many liberal intellectuals sadly refuse to accept this fact (the only folks on the left who do accept it tend to folks who lived through the Nixon and Reagan eras, socialists and people whose age has provided the necessary seasoning to their former youthful naivete).
Liberal humanists have great faith in humanity, as this forms a cornerstone of their progressive idealism. There is much to said about such a noble Weltanschauung, but it fails to make a critical distinction between the "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be." It often reject the former in favor of the latter, even when doing so hinders Progressives'long-term ability to bring the latter into reality. Yet, in protesting reality, the intellectuals show that they have second-rate intellects. The essence of being an intellectual is to obtain new ways of looking at the world, so as to improve the lot of one's fellow man. By denying the essence of their fellow man and his narrative essence, and by refusing to lead him to Zion through the scientifically proven, historically sound methods described above and below, they are not embracing reason, but revolting against it. In this sense, they are nothing more than latter day Romantics, struggling in vain against the cold logic of the Philosophe.
An inherent part of this liberal, humanistic worldview is the blind faith that all people have the ability to think in the nuanced ways of judges, generals, scientists and Presidents, if only they are given the facts. Indeed, this forms the basis of our jury system in the Anglo-American commonlaw nations. Evidence supporting this ability is practically non-existant. How many voters truly understand geopolitical strategy? How many are conversant with simple, basic military theory such as that put forth by Sun Tzu, Jomini and Clausewitz? How many know the difference between deflation and inflation, and of the latter, the various causes, whether it be cost-push or monetary? The answer is that very few do or can. That is not to say that they should be ignored, but that they should be led to the optimal places through skilled leadership that employs proper narrative rhetoric.
This is why trial lawyers and politicians often resort to eloquent rhetoric, flashy clothing, manufactured smiles and simplistic, black and white, manichean rhetoric. They pay lip service to the Anglo-American mythology of the wisdom of the people, the common sense of the jury and electorate, but they are engaged in what diplomats call "two-tracking." They publicly say one thing, but they do another. Very rare are the successful politicians and trial lawyers who merely regurgitate the facts, who make compelling, earth-shattering pronouncements about the world, through numerical figures and various forms of quantitative data. Such things are needed, but only as ephemera, as window-dressing that serves to bolster the primary body of the argument, which must, by necessity, be a manichean narrative of the simplest sort.
Look at trial law. Successful trial lawyers like Johnnie Cochran, Clarrence Darrow, Gerry Spence and F. Lee Bailey will tell you throughout their various books on trial advocacy and communication, that a narrative-approach is the one that wins. Common people, whether they be jurors or voters, require a simple, often archtypical theme, a narrative. They require the skeletal framework of a story within which they can organize, classify and evaluate the complex data they are presented with. Narrative themes that are highly visual and tap into the more primitive, visceral and primordial emotions of the crowd will be the most successful. Archtypical imagery and themes such as "David vs. Goliath," "good cop vs. bad criminal," "innocent unsophisticated old woman vs. the predatory con artist," etc...these and others like them are the narrative structures that the common folk find most compelling. The trial lawyer, politician, political party or mass movement that provides the simplest, most primordial, most compelling narrative wins. This is not easy and the ability to do this often turns on innate talent and creativity, an understanding of the mass subconscious mind of the crowd, rather than laborious legal study or an innate, legal ability to split hairs and quibble over fine detail (which may work with judges and arbitrators, but not juries).
One of the primary differences between the way liberals and conservatives view the world, their role and purpose within it, is through such narratives. Every high school English teacher will tell you that there are three basic narrative structures. "Man vs. Man," "Man vs. Nature," and "Man vs. Himself." Conservatives dominate liberals when it comes to utilizing these narratives as a method of persuasion and as such win far more political points, even on issues one would expect liberals to win on, such as oil spills in the gulf. Below, I will summarize my observations on how liberals and conservatives differ in their utilization of said narratives.
1. Man vs. Man. Since Nixon's brilliant electoral victories in 1968 and 1972, and later, Reagan's similarly brilliant victories in the 1980s, working-class, blue collar Americans have bolted from the Democratic Party. The liberal, Democratic Party that remains has some working-class, blue collar support among the minority community, but this support waxes and wanes, mostly due to the poor leadership ability of the Democratic Party candidates, as well as the social/religious conservatism of many in the minority community and the resulting cultural chasm that differentiates them from the wealthy white agnostics who often lead the DNC. As a general rule, then, the Democratic Party is now comprised of, for the most part, middle class and upper middle class folks. This is certainly changing, but what can be agreed upon is that, at a minimum, these folks form the majority of the folks who consistently turn out in elections with the least effort on the behalf of the party organizers.
Due to their "class-position," most of these folks have had relatively easy, sheltered lives without much experience with resolving "external conflict." By external conflict, I mean threats and challenges from without, as opposed to challenges from within. Working class folks know what I mean. Struggling with a government agency for unemployment benefits, struggling with neighbors, struggling and fighting with local bullies, etc...Because the upper-middle class and middle class are so civilized, there isn't a great amount of belligerent, dramatic one-on-one struggle that takes place. Indeed, they frequently view such displays as crass.
Instead, such types will often retreat and "deal with" these people by avoiding them and/or seeing therapists, Woody Allen-style, in order to resolve their anxiety. If the conflict escalates, they will indirectly seek resolution through the utilization of intermediaries, such as lawyers, for purposes of a civil suit, or police, when such conflicts encroach on the physically confrontational or violent.
Most liberals today (who are, by nature, middle and/or upper middle class) do not like nor enjoy conflict with their fellow man. This stands in sharp distinction with many working class folks, for whom conflict and confrontation provide the primary drama for their otherwise oppressive lives. When one continuously has to take orders from superiors, obey, not utilize one's mind and only engage in repetitive, physical or mentally rote routines, then the drama provided by a personal conflict becomes a welcome distraction.
Indeed, the conflict can provide a sense of meaning and purpose in one's life. These conflicts can often take on a life of their own and last for many years. Perhaps this is why the working classes and lower middle classes find the personal combat and interpersonal belligerence on television talk shows like Gerry Springer and Maury Povich to be so entertaining?
Let's look at sports, as well. There are many liberal fans of football and hockey, but how many of them actually play hockey? How many of them actually enjoy, on an emotional level, physically tackling somebody and hurting them? How many of them truly enjoy feeling the speed, wind, crash and collision and collective impact of their bodies into others and into the ground and the rocks, trees, thorns and nature about them? The blood, the mud, the guts and the tears? How many of them enjoy the personal conflict, the deeply pathological quest to defeat "enemies" and "foes?" How many of them truly see the world in this deeply romantic and often medieval manner?
Granted, many of them enjoy the spectacle from afar, as a safe way of vicariously proving their aggressiveness, but when push comes to shove, many fold. True athletes, whether in high school, college or even professionally, love this stuff. The romance of the kill, the dramatic heroics, the agony and the ecstacy of the pain you feel and the hurt you inflict.
Same goes for boxing, wrestling, war, any sort of overtly aggressive, violent competition. Liberals shirk from it. They find it primitive and too overtly masculine (as a rule, things that are overtly masculine are disliked by liberals, who put primary emphasis on male sensitivity, being non-threatening and the liberating metamorphasis known as androgynization, the erasing of the traditional barriers between the genders; for many liberals, there is even disagreement as to whether there is, in fact, any objective difference between the genders, whether gender is a social construct, or even whether there are more than two; some have ventured a guess that there might even be eight).
As suchThey pre-emptively cede this ground (the man vs. man narrative) to conservatives, not b/c of strategy or forethought, but because of internal emotional revulsion at the slightest hint of testosterone, conflict, belligerence and aggression. In doing so, they lack balance as a political movement, for there is an equilibrium at work in any social grouping, a Yin and Yang that requires both aspects of the human psyche in order for it to be politically efficacious.
Look at the practice of law. Certainly there are liberal trial lawyers, but these types are not well liked by most liberals. Indeed, they are disliked by most people, of both political persuasions, albeit for different reasons. In law, the liberal passion is for non-aggressive, alternative dispute resolution or ADR, where mediation or arbitration are utilized, rather than the nasty, belligerent and aggressive forum of a jury trial. Granted, not all liberals are like this, but a sufficient majority are so as to alter the playing field. Being aggressive or nasty with a pen in a NY Times editorial is one thing. But this is a form of passive-aggression. Liberals are not overtly aggressive, generally. Of course, there are always exceptions.
Unlike liberals, the masses love a man vs. man competition, with winners and losers, with a grand cause, a glorious struggle, a great battle and victorious triumph in the aftermath. Far too many liberals shirk from this, such that they no longer have the necessary competitive spirit to prevail in political competition, and when they do, they feel uncomfortable in framing politics in this personal, conflict-based way, even though the masses require this, in the same way that hyenas require blood.
Conservatives and right-wingers, as we have seen, enjoy attacking other human beings in many different ways, provided the cause is necessary in their world view (profit, xenophobia, religious intolerance, Lebensraum, etc...) They retain the primordial narrative mindset that spoke not only to our ancestors, but also speaks to the majority of our contemporaries. The few enlightened ones who see this narrative as a sign of primitiveness are so enlightened and wise, that they voluntarily disarm and isolate themselves and render themselves politically impotent, by abandoning this tool. In so doing, they believe they show themselves to be superior, but if they lose, it is rather hard for them to keeping having such an inflated sense of self worth, is it not?
It is exactly because they are more willing to converse with the primordial aspects of the human psyche that conservatives dominate this narrative construct in modern day American political rhetoric and discourse. It is one reason, among others, why they win so frequently, even in situations and on battlefields inherently advantageous for Democrats. It is also the primary reason why theworking and lower middle classes so readily identify with the Republicans, even when the GOP supports policies that would harm their economic interests. It has nothing to do with their ideas and philosophies. Most voters can't comprehend these things. Instead, it has to do with the GOP being able to converse with the masses "on their wavelength."
2. Man vs. Nature: Conservatives have no problem with humans fighting animals, hunting, dominating a river, breaking a horse, fighting a bull, irrigating desert soil in a region where nothing could previously grow. They embrace and glorify man's attempt to dominate, control and transcend the natural boundaries and limits of nature. Liberals deify nature and don't like it when man tries to fight with, dominate or struggle with it. They would rather the narrative be about man living with nature or man supporting nature, or man becoming more natural. Never is it about an overt conflict with nature, such as that which we read about in Jack London novels and the like. Liberal Americans cede most of this narrative to the right-wing.
The only issue on which the liberals trump conservatives in this narrative form is when it comes to scientific discovery and medicine. Here, conservatives are seen as giving-in to nature, in order to maintain the "dignity" and "sanctity" of life. Conservatives are against stem cell research, abortion, cloning andthe like. They also oppose contraception. Although most people forget high school history, many remember, albeit vaguely, the Catholic Church's harassment of Copernicus and Gallileo. These things have created a new archtypical narrative/theme, one where the noble scientist fights against ignorance and superstition. This is the only issue on which Dems/Liberals trump conservatives. That being said, it is a very potent issue and one which they do not exploit nearly enough.
3. Man vs. Himself: This is the narrative at which liberals truly excel. Liberal Americans revel in self-absorbed, narcisistic internal struggles. They love talk shows, like Oprah and Dr. Phil, where people can discuss the personal challenges and adversities they have faced in their life and how they have overcome them. Conservatives don't tend to be this introspective. Conservatives desire struggle and conflict with an external, sentient agent, an "other."
The liberals shy from this. For them, the best and most important struggles are those that take place within. Some types of struggle strongly are strongly endorsed by liberals, and seem, on first glance, as "man vs nature," such as sailing, mountain climbing and hiking. But in these things nature is not sentient. It is not really nature that is being fought. Instead, you are fighting yourself. It is an internal struggle, a story of man pushing himself beyond his limits, beyond what he previously thought possible.
Granted, many people identify with these sorts of struggles, but they are the least compelling and dramatic of the three narative forms we have discussed. Certainly a movie or novel concerning the third type of struggle is likely to be more profound and more lovedby the critics, educated folks and intellectuals. This goes without saying. But the masses will not support it. The masses prefer the prior two narrative types. If these types have a "man vs. himself" component as a subplot, then fine, but it must come second to the over-arching, macro-plot of man vs. nature or man vs. man.
How does this impact politics? It is pretty obvious. Liberal policies and rhetoric shy from macro-level struggle. They shy from this approach to politics, which is odd. They dont like grand, macro-level crusades or struggles, unless they are struggles against inner-demons like "intolerance," "prejudice," "wastefulness/being a litterbug," or "closed-mindedness." All of their crusades ultimately aim at the internal, at man changing himself around for the better.
Historically, the only folks on the left that have employed the man vs. man, and man vs. nature narrative were the Progressives, the Abolitionists and the Socialists/Bolsheviks. All of these folks used the imagery of class warfare, organized violence (Civil War, insurrection, labor unrest, etc...) There was also a great deal of it in the Reformation, but this was so fused with religion, as to more properly be the focus of a different article. Perhaps liberals are so traumatized by past instances in which these narratives have been misused, that they fail to see how they can be utilized for good? If this is so, then they are not pro-active historical actors, merely passive things, acted upon by events, circumstances and the pro-active crusades of the right-wing.
Conservatives love combat with the sentient "other." They formulate wars on crime, communism, secessionists (under Lincoln), liberals, elitists, Al Qaeda, the Soviets, Hollywood, the media and the like. They espouse man vs. nature narratives, especially when it comes to recreational activities like hunting, fishing, enacting dams on large rivers, harnessing energy through oil wells, etc...All of their struggles and conflicts are aimed at something external. They are fighting to dominate and overcome nature, as well as sentient opponents without and within. They practically monopolize the first two narrative forms, "Man vs. Man," and "Man vs. Nature."
Although this is just a cursory summary of something I was thinking about the other day while I was playing a video game, I think there is something here that warrants further study. This is a major psychological, rhetorical, literary distinction between the two camps. Perhaps partisanship in the modern age has less to do with geography, religion, race and economic interest, than it has to do with fundamental differences in human psychology?
Perhaps we are slowly turning into a society where all the major psychological distinctions are easily observed and neatly correlated by simple membership in professional/political organizations? If this is so, it means human society, (and B.F. Skinner aluded to this in some of his writings) while becoming more complex, is perhaps falling back on that which is most simple, the two sides inherent in the most basic and ancient form of intra-tribal conflict, where the hawkish indian braves want war and are conservative and the dovish ones who want peace and negotiation are liberal? Where all issues are determined by personality type and psychological disposition? A world so small and so simple, that there is no longer need for nuance, no longer a need for understanding? A world where persuasion is useless, because logic and facts are ultimately meaningless, because nature and the first eight years of nurture are dispositive and cannot be altered by later attempts at political persuasion?