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Michelle’s commentary on books, digital publishing and intersections between fiction & reality

Politics, the election, narratives—and why you should read a book

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November 10, 2020

Last week, I justified not posting an article due to the overwhelming stress and nerves I was feeling from the election. There was too much on my mind to sit down and construct a thoughtful, eloquent blog post. But, here I sit, unable to think of a topic to write on besides—you guessed it—the election.

It’s because the intersection of my previous studies in creative writing and my current degree in public administration boils down to this year’s election, or really any contest between two parties that garners such intense media attention. I definitely didn’t pay as much mind to previous presidential elections or have the knowledge I do now to dissect what’s going on. It’s what I’ve mentioned before on here, and what I will never hesitate to bring up: the importance and power of narratives.

You’d think that ethos would be a more powerful tool, that a candidate’s reputation, experience, knowledge, and resume would be the most vital factor in deciding who to lead this country. This year—and 2016 as well—has proven that no, that’s not the case.

“We vote because of the story,” Sara Weber shared in a post similar to the one I’m trying to construct—though hers was published back in 2016. A qualified candidate pales in comparison to one that can command and influence an audience with a strong, focused narrative. Was Donald Trump qualified to run for president in 2016, or even again in 2020? Most everyone, even those that voted Trump, would probably shrug their shoulders and admit that no, he wasn’t.

“Make America Great Again”

You have to admit, Trump did have a centered and powerful narrative. “Make America Great Again,” though it’s backwards and insensitive and downright nonsensical when you think about it, gets a clear message across (and I’m not giving him total credit, I recognize it is recycled from Ronald Regan’s successful 1980 campaign).

This all comes down to the fact that a good story will interest the general public more than credibility.

Make America Great Again appealed to those unhappy with the state of the nation, painting a picture of an idealized past and presenting hope for an improved future. It constructed a clear narrative that recognized a problem and promised a solution.

Though Biden didn’t have such a recognizable catch phrase, he capitalized on and subsequently weaponized Trump’s message against the President himself. Biden and the Democrats continuously emphasized the divided nation we’ve found ourselves in—attributing the problem to Trump—and promised a united, whole country instead.

Policy Narratives

Elections aren’t the only opportunity for political narratives to drive agendas. Policy change at its core is built on storytelling. It can involve heroes, villains, and victims to appeal to change-makers or the general public. To really get someone on your side, you need more than numbers and stats and facts—you need a compelling narrative.

Putting forth substantial, real problems in a way that invokes emotion and sympathy is the key formula. Follow that up with a tangible, thought-out solution to that problem and you’re more likely to garner support.

For one of my graduate school classes, I had to debate the topic of housing vouchers for former foster youth. In writing the opening, it was clear that the most influential way to structure it was to introduce real individuals and describe their unfortunate situations. It’s harder to turn your head away from a human being than a clump of statistics.

“When you turn 18, we’ll have a nice bonfire in the street for your stuff.” This quote still haunts me, weeks after I completed the project. The instability of housing for those who age out of foster care and the consequential issues of addiction, homelessness, and prison time was never a topic I’d put a lot of thought into. Now, I can’t get it out of my head. While the numbers and research associated with the issue were impactful, it’s the human stories that I can’t shake.

This post has turned more into a stream-of-consciousness word vomit, but I think the narratives found in politics are definitely something to pay attention to. And bringing it full circle to this blog, I believe fiction is that hidden element to create substantial change. Those leaning hard right or hard left are not likely to be persuaded by Biden or Trump’s narratives—an imaginary world, on the other hand, can be the secret ingredient.

The power of fictional storytelling is that it catches you off-guard and can change your line of thinking without you even consciously realizing it. We may be too stuck in our ways to even give the opposition a chance, but by reading a book and letting your guard down, you may end up doing just that.

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