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Altered Consciousness: Two different narratives

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Opinions


Over the course of this midterm election cycle I have noticed the emergence of two very distinctive narratives—a Democratic one and a Republican one—framing the trajectory of the Obama presidency and its initiatives thus far.

According to the Democratic narrative, President Barack Obama arrived in the White House with an unprecedented mandate for change. Indeed, he had immense popular backing to heal the country from the enormous damage that President Bush caused and to initiate the most progressive and forward-leaning agenda since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. However, his ability to do so was hindered by a relentlessly obstructionist Republican minority, who filibustered and held his initiatives hostage to petty partisan politics at the expense of the American people. Despite these tactics, Obama ultimately was able to pass some of the policies he campaigned on—albeit watered-down, centrist versions of them.

The Republican narrative is completely different. It states that when he was elected, Obama completely misread his mandate. Specifically, America is a center-right nation economically and socially, and this fact did not change in November of 2008. However, Obama thought it did and unleashed upon the country radical policies that were far out of line with what most mainstream Americans wanted. Fortunately, Republicans were able to halt Obama’s leftist onslaught, but only to a certain extent.

These dueling narratives extend to the policies Obama passed. For instance, Democrats believe that the stimulus bill was a desperately-needed initiative that saved or created millions of jobs and averted another Great Depression. Republicans, in contrast, hold that the stimulus was loaded with pork and wasteful spending projects, and that it only expanded government as well as the deficit at the expense of the private sector.

Additionally, Democrats claim that the health care reform legislation, while flawed, will expand coverage to millions of people, start to bring down health care costs and hold insurance companies accountable. Conversely, Republicans maintain that the bill undermines the health care industry and free markets, limits choice by forcing people to buy a Washington-mandated product that they don’t like and creates a whole new entitlement program that makes individuals become even more dependent on the federal government.

The enormous gap between these competing accounts is indicative of the astounding polarization found in Washington. Generally, mainstream Americans are not overly ideological and are a pragmatic, results-driven people who simply want their representatives to solve some of their problems. In contrast, political elites in the halls of Congress and the White House, as well as their counterparts in the media, are determined to construct partisan storylines that cast doubt and blame upon their ideological foes. Our leaders seem more intent on feeding off of a litany of perceived slights and wrongs to the American people and, implicitly, themselves in order to score political points than actually doing something productive.

However, this gap between mainstream American pragmatism and partisan narrative-building and grievance-accumulating will prove very difficult to close. Instead, many Washingtonians are afflicted by confirmation bias, group-think, egotism, narrow self-interest and a desire to make their self-fulfilling prophecies come true. As a result, these people spend most of their energy finding new evidence to fuel their story lines while blocking out any facts to the contrary. Some ultimately find themselves in a state of close-mindedness and epistemic closure, referring to the proclivity among certain factions toward ideological intolerance and misinformation.

Is there hope? Certainly, there are some independent-minded thinkers on both sides of the partisan divide who prioritize leadership over grievance narratives and policy solutions over political strategies. But there has been an apparent dearth of innovation emanating from our leaders in these respects.

Partisanship is inevitable. There will always be more than one way to solve a given problem. But a refusal to compromise and an insatiable desire to allocate blame to and fault others will, in the long run, cause more harm than good to both political elites and the nation they are supposed to govern.