Robert Sibley . No happy endings
Some commentators say Americans are looking for the candidate with a 'story' that captures their vision for their country -- but in the end the hero is just a politician
Robert Sibley, The Ottawa Citizen
Today, on their nation's 232nd birthday, Americans are an anxious lot. Their economy wobbles. Russia and China challenge their superpower status. Distant wars tax the nation's treasure and citizens' patriotism. Thus, thoughtful Americans will mark Independence Day asking serious questions about their country's future.
Perhaps, though, if there is one question that encapsulates all others, it is this: What is the American "story" for the foreseeable future?
I've taken this concept of "story" from Walter Fisher, a communications theorist who argues that humans are essentially storytellers, and that all communication -- history, art, language, science, etc. -- is a form of storytelling. That is to say, the world is a collection of "stories" -- or "narrative paradigms," to use Fisher's terms -- that we constantly examine for coherence and check against our experience as we attempt to create meaningful lives, individually and collectively.
You can readily see how this idea functions at the political level. Obviously, various factors determine political success -- everything from the state of the economy to the weather on voting day -- but a deeper dynamic is also at play. When you vote, you are not only endorsing a particular politician, but also saying something about yourself, about your ideals and aspirations (or lack thereof, as the case may be). The politician who wins elections is one whose story a majority identifies with.
Paul Waldman, a political analyst for American Prospect, argues that this notion of "story" provides the subtext to the presidential race between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. The latter is a 46-year-old multicultural Harvard-educated lawyer, the first black presidential candidate, who casts himself as the man who can inspire Americans to transcend their partisan divisions. The former is a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese, who has become a living symbol of duty and heroism. He calls on Americans to remember the traditions of patriotism and service that sustains the country in troubled times.
Which story will Americans make their own? Judging by the polls many Americans have yet to buy into Obama's narrative of "change we can believe in." True, he has wide support among blacks, the young and educated urbanites, but he is challenged by his lack of experience, particularly on international geo-politics. McCain, on the other hand, is popular among older white men and women, Latinos and blue-collar workers. Nonetheless, many question whether, despite his military credentials and long political experience, he is simply too old for the job.
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