Hillary, Bernie, Trump, and …? Political Affiliation as Policies, People… AND Stories. (Or, What, Who… AND How)

Here’s my attempt at the elevator talk version of the article I’m currently writing. Okay, I’m assuming it’s a really tall building, but anyway…


Currrent View

The popular view of political affiliation is that it is driven by policies. People, it is assumed, pick  candidates based on the policies they support, or the policies they oppose. The standard corollary of this understanding is a lot of teeth-gnashing as people support candidates who favor policies that seem to be disadvantageous to their voters.

This view is largely wrong, or at least hugely incomplete. Most voters are much more likely to change their policy preferences to match their party’s candidate than they are to change their party to match their policy preferences.

The newer and better understanding is that political affiliation is an identity. People support parties that identify with people/groups/communities with whom they personally identify, or that identify against people/groups/communities they oppose. For example the Republican party identifies with “Christian,” and so those individuals who see themselves as Christian tend to identify as Republicans. Similarly, Republicans identify against (define themselves in opposition to) “big cities” and “urban” people (wink wink, nudge nudge). So individuals who also don’t like big cities and “urban” people tend to identify as Republican. And, of course, there are tons of these identity groups, and lots of them overlap (but as Mason points out, there are fewer and fewer that overlap with both the left and the right).

The corollary here is that changing people’s minds is really hard, because politics isn’t so much about what you believe, but rather about who you are.

My Addition

I am arguing that we need to also consider narrative; after all, you can tell very different kinds of stories with the same sets of characters. So, political affiliation is not only about policies. It’s not only about who people identify with or against. It’s also about how they view the conflict between the people who represent the self and those who represent the other. Or, phrased differently, politics is not just about what and who you support and oppose, but HOW you support and oppose.

So a chart of political identity would be something like this:

Identify with…

Identify against…

Policies Policies
People/Groups/Communities People/Groups/Communities
Narrative forms Narrative forms

Now it’s easy to fill in the first two rows—the policies and the people. We all know what kind of things to list there. Democrats identify with raising the minimum wage and the LGBTQ community, for instance, and they identify against a border wall and Big Banks. Republicans identify with tax cuts and gun owners, and they identify against environmental protections and Black Lives Matter. We could go on.

But what kind of narratives are there? What do we put in the third box.

Basically, I’m going to suggest that the big distinction is between melodrama and comedy. (I’ll do another post on the characteristics of each, as it isn’t intuitive.)

However, there’s a huge catch. While the policies and people of the left and right are quite distinct, the narratives are not. What I’ve found is that both melodrama and comedy are used by the left, and in fact this is one major point of contention between the Hillary and Bernie camps. On the right… lots of melodrama. Tons. Almost nothing but melodrama in the media and in the Trump presidency. But surely there are some comic Republicans out there? Right? I haven’t looked closely yet, but I will.

So anyway, here we are at the end of that long elevator ride, and the summary is this:

If you want to understand someone’s politics:

Policies matter

People matter

But how you describe the conflict between people matters too. A lot.


The Narrative–Political Continuum

narrative & politcal continuum

Liberals are predominantly comic, but there is a significant minority that is essentially melodramatic (the Bernie Sanders element in the latest election). Both narrative elements are represented in liberal media.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are dominated by melodrama, so much so that there is essentially no comic-conservative media. This, I suggest, is the “missing right”–a group that likely exists but lacks media representation, and to a great degree political representation as well.