Introduction & Rationale
My study begins with the presumption, per Fisher (1984; 1985; 1989), that political commentary is narrative in nature. In addition, as per Nossek and Berkowitz’s (2006) suggestion that societies as a whole have master narratives, I presume the possibility that smaller groups—narrative communities, if you will, such as adherents to a political party or ideology—might also share a master narrative unique to that group that operates as a template into which new events and characters are fit. “Membership” is such groups would be premised upon acceptance of the narrative, and the group’s worldview would be shaped in an ongoing way by the application of the master narrative template. Furthermore, the multiple studies of melodramatic form suggest that not only would these narrative communities have a master narrative, they might also (or even only) have a master narrative form. However, while multiple sources identify a reliance on melodramatic form, all these studies are focused exclusively on the political right, which calls into question the universality of this particular narrative form. Finally, given the unique rhetorical situation in which partisanship and ideology are largely in conflict, it becomes possible to examine how each publication balances support for these two communities.
Thus my research questions for this study, focused around how political media and the communities they represent create a narrative image of the world, are as follows:
- Is it possible to discern a “master” narrative form of the political/ideological Left and Right, as represented by The Nation and the National Review?
- How do these political media address events that might threaten the community’s political identity, or might set its ideological identity against its political identity?
From the Right, this paper examines 17 articles totaling approximately 18,000 words published in the National Review (6 published prior to the commencement of U.S. intervention, and 11 after), and from the Left it examines 7 articles totaling approximately 9000 words from The Nation (3 prior to U.S. intervention and 4 after). The two narrative forms examined are melodramatic and dramatic, defined as follows:
- Melodrama relies on “two-dimensional characters,” representing a “valorized ‘us’ and a dehumanized or demonized ‘them’” (Simons, 2007, p. 338), and arranged in the roles of hero, villain and victim (Anker, 2005). Additionally, the moral legibility of melodrama is created not only by the nature of the characters but by plot devices such as “grandiose events, unprovoked actions, hyperbolic language, and spectacles of suffering” (Anker, p. 24).
- Dramatic form (defined by contrast to melodrama) adds a depth to these characters that complicates (but does not necessarily prevent) their categorization by type. Additionally, dramatic form should mute the grandiosity of the events and the extent of the suffering of participants.
To determine which narrative forms were used I examined how each publication characterized the key participants in the Libyan drama, as well as how each described the stakes of the conflict.
To address the second research question, I examined how each publication dealt with two potential conflicts: (1) members of the opposite party who acted in accordance with that publication’s stated goals, or (2) members of the same party who acted in opposition to the publication’s stated goals.
National Review: Though no single author produces a complete narrative, they all rely almost exclusively on five core characters described in uniformly melodramatic terms: the three villains of Qaddafi, Arabs and Arab states in general, and Obama; the heroic Unites States; and the two victims of the Libyan people and the United States (the U.S. playing, as suggested by Anker, the dual role of hero and victim). Additionally, there are two essential levels of consequences, both of them fundamentally melodramatic in form. Finally, though the authors were almost uniformly in favor of U.S. intervention, there was not any praise of Obama’s decision to intervene, but instead merely a shift to a new focus of criticism.
The Nation: The writers in The Nation, with one exception, rely primarily on dramatic form, but still construct a narrative that tends toward a hero/villain/victim construction. However, the participants, even Qaddafi himself, are generally presented with at least some degree of complexity, and the consequences—and especially the motives—of U.S. intervention (or lack of intervention) are portrayed as uncertain. Finally, the authors exhibited great willingness to criticize not only Obama, but other media voices in favor of U.S. intervention.
Conclusion & Parting Thoughts
These two partisan/ideological media outlets play a key role in the maintenance of core political narratives by contextualizing new information into existing narratives, and more importantly by contextualizing new information into a core narrative form—melodramatic for the National Review and dramatic for The Nation. Thus, while the National Review operates almost exclusively in the binary world of good and evil, The Nation largely stakes it claim in the murky shades of gray that lie between these poles. Furthermore, perhaps because of their respective narrative forms, the National Review was more partisan than ideological, while The Nation tended to be more ideological than partisan. While the scope of the article is too narrow to offer a generalized claim about the form of the narratives of Left and Right, it does suggest further study of other media and of other contexts,.
Possible future research questions:
- How does media format affect the dominant narrative form? (Is television or radio more/less melodramatic than print?)
- Might narratives surrounding a domestic policy dispute utilize a different narrative form?
- What is the relationship between narrative form and policy preferences, and is political loyalty a product of narrative preference, or is narrative preference a product of political loyalty. Or neither. Or both.
- Is bipartisanship possible when one group (or both groups) is operating from a melodramatic form where the political opposition is categorized as a villain?
- What does this say about the possibility of persuading members of these groups? Must persuasive narratives utilize the form of the audience’s community?
- What other “narrative communities” might exist?