« Eyes that fail to see; Ears that fail to hear | Main | A Tale of Two Articles: Gay Life in America »

August 07, 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Steve Klien

I like your argument, John, and it makes a lot of sense -- but there's a lot to like in Westen's case. One should clearly not lead by narrative alone, but having a coherent, compelling emotional narrative sure does help. We surely must assess narratives in terms of facts and argument, but facts and argument without a sound narrative vehicle ain't gonna sell in a televisual political culture, and Obama ought to know that better than anyone. John Kerry should have kicked W's ass in 2004 after the latter squandered the post-9/11 goodwill with Iraq, dropped balls on Afghanistan and homeland security, etc... but Kerry's narrative was crap, and Bush's/the GOP's was disciplined and evocative.

The ideological tilt to the right during the past generation is less about individual presidents than about the clash between a consistent and effectively demagogic story the GOP has told for over 30 years, and a dithering, milquetoast response from the Democrats over that same time period. (Of course, the political media structure that has favored the rhetorical mode of the right over the left has been a huge variable helping this along.) Obama's win can be explained in large part by the fact that Bush was stunningly bad, and by the transformative narrative in his campaign rhetoric that hasn't been matched by his governing since then. As Obama's narrative has degraded, that of the Tea Party loony fringe has ascended to fill the vacuum.

By contrast, Clinton's successful triangulation politics, and his popularity even in the face of vicious attacks and scandal, are surely connected to his centrist third way argument within an accessible "just folks" personal narrative. His health care debacle, notably, was an initiative wholly inconsistent with that narrative. Besides this moment (and the "I did not have sex with that woman" bit), Clinton's narrative and his politics were pretty darned consistent. Obama's has veered and faded, and has certainly not been consistent with the way he campaigned (hence, the massive drop-off of enthusiasm among his supporters going into 2010).

There's good work being done in political psychology... and I'm not convinced that Westin's expertise in this area is cause for indictment. He's shamelessly pimping himself out to the media, for sure -- the political "Dr. Drew" is an apt comparison -- but his basis for a psychological explanation is less on Obama's internal motivation than on the political emotion of the body politic, one that shares a lot with Rod Hart's argument in "Seducing America," as well as George Lakoff's stuff on political metaphor. Makes good sense to me.


I also read Westen's analysis and found a bit unrealistic for a couple of reasons. First, no matter what I think it discounts the constraints on the presidency, particularly in an age of 24 hour newscycles. I mean we only have experience with three presidents who have totally had to deal with these cycles and only two who have to deal with blogs and other forms of new media. THis might change the game a bit, creating more polarization and create even more constraints with the presidency.

Second, I am not sure that presidents can create totally coherent singular narratives within this environment. They must b/c of the different audiences create lots of mini-narratives and try to link it to a larger one. Perhaps, it can be done, but it is then it must draw upon some, in my mind, some of the old truths of the U.S. (i.e. myth of the American Dream, American Excepionalism, etc) and use those items to integrate into a larger narrative.

Third, Obama when he did his triangulation politics had an economic recovery that was starting in full swing. Obama doesn't have that. Thus, Clinton had some latitude with people liking him b/c the state of the economy got better. The problem is that I think people still have the mindset that this economic downturn is just like other ones. After reading a lot of analysis, I think that Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart's analysis of "This Time is Different" is dead on. When you have a onc in a 75 year debt problem that we have, it is going to take a long time to get out of this problem. If this were a normal economy Obama might be able to get away with some traditional liberal policies that I would favor, but these aren't normal times. I don't think he has a choice but to be centrist and give a little, maybe even a lot, to dig us out of the mess that we are in. He didn't create it, but it is going to take pain to get us out and it will probably have to happen on his watch, if not the next administration. It is unfortunate, but I don't know we can do it any other way. Thus, we will continue to have people say "What Happened to Obama?" Maybe, what happened is that the circumstances are different than anyone every imagined and b/c of that the Obama we saw in '08 has had to morph, which may not be a bad thing at all for the country.


careful with your "every"s. thanks, as always, for OA.


I don't know if you saw it on FB, but Chait pretty much dismantles Westen. Little else to say for me: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/93323/drew-westens-nonsense

The comments to this entry are closed.