The War of the New Narratives

Many, many years ago, back in the seventies, it was teaching English at that prep school in upstate New York. It paid the bills (sort of) and the kids were fine (pretty much). But there was the school’s curriculum – from seventh grade through twelfth it had to be a Shakespeare play each year. Macbeth was fine for the seventh-graders. It was bloody and had witches. And the eleventh-graders were fine with Hamlet. They got noble hyper-intelligent angst in a world run badly by corrupt and nasty adults. They knew all about that. That play spoke to them. But choosing the Shakespeare play for any of the other years was always a crap shoot. Romeo and Juliet sometimes worked – the girls liked it, and the guys decided they’d better like it too, for tactical reasons. But King Lear, about old age and wisdom, and inevitable tragic foolishness, was out of the question.

But then there was the fixture of eleventh grade English – Homer’s Odyssey (the friendly Fitzgerald translation) and the unit on Greek Myth. And the next year it was The Bible as Literature. Those were problematic. The Odyssey went down easy. They could get into that, if just as a fantasy adventure yarn. But the myths made them angry. What sort of dumb-ass primitive people would believe such things – Atlas holding up the world, or Zeus as a horny swan ravishing Leda, who should have been puzzled by just what the bird was up to, and so on. So it was weeks of explaining that people use narratives to explain the world, even if they don’t believe the narratives are literally true – and these were the core narratives that started our culture. They weren’t intended as truth, and really, they weren’t even symbolic. They were expressive. They expressed the way the world feels to people. The Orpheus and Eurydice tale helped with that – losing someone you love to death, and almost bringing her back from death through the power of art, in that case music. They got that. The world feels like that, or does to teenagers.

The Bible as Literature unit the next year was more problematic – another set of core narratives in our culture. But you had to teach it as such to still-evolving potential stable adults, who weren’t quite there yet, some of whom were of the evangelical sort who would argue the sections of the New Testament should be taught as literal truth, not like the myths the year before. The Bible wasn’t literature, really. The whole idea was wrong. And there were the Jewish students who were fine with the Old Testament tales but were a bit offended, or scornful, of the Jesus stuff, the same way the evangelical crowd these days is offended by and scornful of the Mormon tales of the new holy books found in Palmyra, New York. And there was always a scattering of kids who had decided they were atheists, because it was cool. They refused to open the book, one of those expensive brilliantly illustrated Bible as Literature textbooks, with the key tales none of the boring who begat whom stuff. They would have none of it. Religion has ruined the world. The school at the time had no Buddhists or Muslims or whatnot, so that was a relief, but it was slow going. About the only thing the kids agreed was kind of cool was the story of Job. They too felt put-upon. So did their teacher. And there was no point in even bringing up Jonah and the Whale.

All in all it was like living through a never-ending amateur production of Inherit the Wind – one where no one quite gets their lines right and scenes stop and need to start over and everyone gets frustrated and angry. But it had to be done. Wealthy, important people were paying many thousands of dollars each year to send their kids to a school where their kids would get grounded in core stuff in our culture, not warehoused and ignored in the public schools. Of course many of the public schools in the area were brilliant, but yes, they weren’t intensely focused on teaching the Western Canon, so to speak.

So you did what you could. The kids would know the key narratives that people through the ages have used to express, but not exactly explain, the emotional truth of the way the world seems to work, or know of those narratives, or have been exposed to them. The parents seemed to know, perhaps instinctively, that people know the world through narrative, through the storyline, not the actual facts at hand. That’s probably why they were wealthy and important. Control the storyline and you control the situation.

And in America these days that plays out in politics. No one talks about the facts at hand, unless they much. They talk about the storyline – the Republicans are the Daddy Party, perhaps the mean daddy who might hit you, who never explains anything much, because that would only frighten you and you shouldn’t worry about it, but the daddy in the end who will protect you from the bad guys. And the Democrats are the Mommy Party – nurturing and making everything all better, if possible, and encouraging you, but a bit ditzy and confused and not terribly effective or focused.

That’s been the narrative for decades now, but then something shifts. Narratives can change, and they seem to be changing now. People are telling different stories, because things somehow feel different, and Garrison Keillor offers what seems to be an entirely new narrative that has been emerging:

We have a good guy in the White House, a smart man of judicious temperament and profound ideals, a man with a sweet private life, a man of dignity and good humor, whose enemies, waving their hairy arms and legs, woofing, yelling absurdities, only make him look taller. Washington, being a company town, feasts on gossip, but I think the Democratic Party, skittish as it is, full of happy blather, somehow has brought forth a champion. This should please anyone who loves this country, and as for the others, let them chew on carpets and get what nourishment they can. End of sermonette.

That shifts everything around, and is the sort of thing that makes Karl Rove weep and Glenn Beck run back to his blackboard. Old white men waving their hairy arms and legs, woofing, yelling absurdities, making the cool and open and thoughtful (and already tall) Obama look taller. That’s not supposed to be the narrative. How did this happen?

The answer is Senator Jim Bunning, as narratives are nothing without the characters that inhabit them. And he expresses how many have come to feel about the Republicans. Everyone is talking about him, and as Mike Madden explains at, the Democrats plan to keep talking about Bunning. Bunning provides a narrative framework, as they say. And Madden thinks he may have handed Democrats ammunition as they prepare to pass healthcare reform. But in any case they will build that narrative, even if Bunning may have agreed to end his “quixotic crusade” against extending unemployment benefits:

The last couple of days – with Bunning refusing to allow the Senate to move forward with a bill both parties agreed should pass, and an increasing number of Republicans coming to the floor to defend him – couldn’t have come at a better time for Democrats. Why? Because they’re going to have to use the budget reconciliation procedure to finish work on healthcare reform. And the specter of Bunning leading an angry one-man effort to keep the chamber from doing anything makes for a pretty good backdrop from which to argue that the Senate’s rules – including the filibuster – are easily abused. Reconciliation would let Democrats pass fixes to the healthcare bill with a 51-vote majority.

Late Tuesday night, Salon obtained a set of talking points circulating among Senate Democrats, laying out the way they’ll use the Bunning mess to push back against Republican efforts to paint reconciliation as some nefarious conspiracy to gut the institution’s rules. After all, if the rules let Jim Bunning hold up unemployment benefits for 200,000 Americans just because he feels like it, maybe voters won’t get so outraged when the GOP talks about how important the filibuster is.

The last two lines in the memo make the point most clearly: “Senator Bunning lifted the curtain on the great lengths that Republicans go to drag out every single action taken by the body, no matter how routine. It is why we need to return to an era of more up or down votes and fewer filibusters. It’s why all options are on the table moving forward, including reconciliation.”

The whole memo is at the link. The message is clear. We can build a narrative here. Let’s do it.

And Josh Marshall has a name for it, The Horror:

First Shelby. Now Bunning. I don’t know what the pithy way to phrase it is. But somehow the Democrats need to capture for people that the true horror of Republican rule would be every couple weeks having some cranky, seventy-something guy from the South pulling a freak out, screaming at the country to get off his lawn and shutting down the government until the veins in his forehead de-bulge.

You can see the new narrative building. And Bunning is the gift that keeps on giving, as Talking Points Memo DC was reporting this:

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), who has become a one-man filibuster of a bill to extend unemployment benefits, apparently placed a hold on all presidential nominees last week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office confirms to TPMDC that Bunning has placed the holds.

“It turns out that not only has he been blocking the unemployment insurance bill, he has also been blocking the confirmation of nominees since last week as well,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Bunning’s spokesman tells TPMDC that he doesn’t know about the holds.

Bunning will shut down the government – no open positions will be filled. That’ll prove… something. Yep, the seventy-something old guy from the South is pulling a freak out, screaming at the country to get off his lawn. Democrats couldn’t ask for more.

But there is pushback to the new narrative, as the New York Times reports this:

While trying to blame Democrats for mishandling the entire matter, other Republicans also distanced themselves from Mr. Bunning, whom Democrats were holding up as the embodiment of what they say has been a maddening pattern of Republican obstruction in the Senate.

“This is one senator,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a chief political strategist for Senate Republicans. “This does not represent the position of the caucus.”

Other party officials said that while the Bunning fight was not helpful, it probably would not do serious damage as long as it ended rapidly.

Ah, they’re saying Bunning is a kook, and the rest of them are fine fellows, and this is a minor matter that will blow over. But at Duncan Black’s site see this comment:

It only took wall to wall coverage of the Republicans looking like total assholes for them to realize that filibustering assistance for the unemployed was a bad idea. Would have been nice if – say – they thought that screwing the unemployed was a bad idea in the first place. I know, I know, asking way too much.

And there’s the other part of the counter-narrative, as Mother Jones reports here:

If you ever wondered what type of candidate the Tea Party movement would like to see elected to Congress, look no farther than Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R), the man who is single-handedly holding up unemployment benefit extensions and health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Americans. While the rest of his party is quietly trying to ignore him, Bunning is giving Tea Party activists in Kentucky much to love.

“We’re all in support of Sen. Bunning,” says Wendy Caswell, the founder of the Louisville Tea Party. She says Tea Party activists believe that Bunning is being fiscally responsible, and that’s a core Tea Party value. “He is kind of one of our models of a good representative of the people of Kentucky.”

Digby notes that both of the Republican candidates running for Bunning’s seat agree, with Rand Paul even holding a rally outside Bunning’s office, and adds this:

I am getting the same sick feeling in my stomach about this that I got when I watched the torture “debate” unfold. This is yet another unraveling of certain pieces of the already threadbare social contract – the reflexive moral consensus on cruelty and selfishness that we all teach our children and at least pay lip service to if not always live up to. Things like whether or not it’s ok to torture – or to let people flounder with no income at all during a serious economic crisis. You can tell that this is one of those things by the punch drunk response of so many, even some on the GOP side, who are having a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that this could happen.

It seems many are floundering between narratives:

It’s way outside the normal consensus about what is expected of our government during an economic downturn and it could be the beginning of something really ugly. Up until now there was no question that it would be political suicide, much less morally wrong, to make massive numbers of unemployed, working and middle class workers, pay in order to make an ideological point. But with these incoherent tea partiers and nihilistic libertarians pulling the same kind of out sized influence the neocons did during the Great War in Terror scare, this is what happens. We lose our moral consensus.

Actually we lose the narrative. We have no storyline that expresses how we all feel, what we instinctively believe in. And the Tea Party anti-“government faux populism” narrative is a bit confused:

They may not “believe in” Wall Street bailouts, but they don’t believe in unemployment insurance either.(And in return for no bailouts, they are ready to lift all regulations and constraints on business, while the average Joe gets the “freedom” to starve.)

The biggest problem is that this foolish tea party ignorance is having the effect of normalizing the adolescent “individualism” of the Ayn Rand cult beyond the boardrooms and estates of the Master of the Universe. The “parasites” are now anyone who has the misfortune to lose his or her job in the worst recession since the 1930s – a recession that was caused by millionaire con men who are reaping big bonuses these days.

In short you need to get your story straight, and here Digby comments on Republican spokesman John Feehery on television saying that the Democrats, really, are to blame for Jim Bunning’s obstruction because the Senate should have passed this extension of unemployment benefits bill months ago – “You can certainly make the argument that the whole process has broken down and that no one is running the Senate.”

You see the logic. No one is running the Senate, really, or we wouldn’t have this mess, and the Democrats have the majority, so it’s their fault. And Digby sees the narrative they’re trying to build:

A Republican using an obscure parliamentary procedure to hold up unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans in a time of double digit unemployment – but the villagers agree that it is really the fault of Democrats because they are in charge and should be able to “ram it through” (except when “ramming it through” would be undemocratic and destructive to the comity of the Senate and the fabric of our nation.)

Let’s be clear. Bunning couldn’t have done this without the help of his Republican pals who have an interest in creating misery, which is their ticket back to the majority. And they are aided and abetted by a political establishment that is simultaneously demanding that Democrats capitulate AND dominate, both of which are then subject to criticism AND characterization as massive failures. They are creating chaos then blaming the Democrats for allowing it to happen.

The narrative is gelling – the Democrats are both hapless and ruthless and must be replaced by principled, conservative “grown-ups.” We’ve been here before.

In fact, Kevin Drum calls it Jim Bunning and the End of Outrage:

What is there to say about the Jim Bunning situation? It just leaves me speechless. We have here a situation in which the Senate is being hijacked, literally, by the ravings of a single cranky old man against a bill that the entire Republican leadership had already agreed to. It’s pure pique, and the Republican Party is unwilling to do anything about it.

A lot of liberals have taken lately to calling the GOP nihilistic, and I’ve never bought it. Opportunistic? Sure. Brutally partisan? Sure. Vacuously unwilling to address the country’s most serious problems? Sure. Ideologically frozen in the past? Sure. But nihilistic? On the contrary, they seemed driven by a brute cunning that I might even approve of if it were my own side doing it.

But then along comes Bunning, ranting against a temporary extension to unemployment benefits just for the sake of…..well, no one quite knows. For the sake of whatever demons are running around in his head, I guess. It’s the kind of situation where a non-nihilistic party would finally step up and agree to rein the guy in. But that hasn’t happened.

The Republican leadership did nothing, and many in the Republican caucus actually rallied around Bunning:

Rallied around him! They know perfectly well he’s a crackpot; they know perfectly well this is a bipartisan bill designed to provide working-class relief in the middle of a massive recession. But for guys like Bob Corker and Jeff Sessions and John Kyl it’s more important to demonstrate solidarity with a crackpot than it is to help a few people out. “I admire the courage of the junior senator from Kentucky,” said John Cornyn, apparently speaking for many.

Nihilism is probably still the wrong word for this.

Drum calls it “a very deep rot in the soul of the Republican Party.” That’ll do. But it seems they won’t pay the price for this. One of the consequences of Bunning’s objections is that Medicare payments for doctors went down twenty-one percent on March 1, and Drum notes that according to the AMA, it’s the fault of the “US Senate” And he cites their press release:

“The Senate had over a year to repeal the flawed formula that causes the annual payment cut and instead they abandoned America’s seniors, making them collateral damage to their procedural games,” said AMA President J. James Rohack, M.D. “Physicians are outraged because the cut, combined with the continued instability in the system, will force them to make difficult practice changes including limiting the number of Medicare patients they can treat.”


Not “Jim Bunning.” Not “the Republican Party.” It’s the fault of “the Senate.”

This sort of thing gets played out in headlines around the country, and the result is disgust with government and disgust with Congress. But it doesn’t affect Republicans any more than Democrats until the headlines change.

But the headlines may change, with a new narrative, a new national myth. It’s just that the new-narrative wars have just begun, as someone is telling the Democrats their new narrative will backfire on them and they should listen to the advice of the leader of the Senate Republican caucus:

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, warned Democrats on Tuesday that Republicans will use the issue of health care to bludgeon them in the November mid-term elections if Democrats succeed in passing a comprehensive overhaul.

“It will be the issue in every race in America,” Mr. McConnell said at a news conference in the Capitol…. His comments reflected growing Republican concern over President Obama’s resolve to secure passage of a comprehensive health care measure, which would be viewed as big Democratic achievement.

You guys are bullies, using your majority to ram through legislation just because more people voted for you guys and you have the majority in both houses, and people will see you as bullies – that’s the story we will tell, and people will believe it because it feels right. Sure you can hold up your DON’T BLOCK DEMOCRACY signs and all that, but people see that when you use an up-and-down vote, where the majority rules, that isn’t democracy. And anyway, we’ll use our narrative. We’ll tell the American people that they hate what you passed. That’s the storyline. We’ll tell that story over and over. You’re screwed if you pass this.

Steve Benen is not impressed:

It’s almost pathetic. Indeed, in the bigger picture, I get the sense GOP leaders are actually getting a little panicky about this. After 100 years of talking about health care reform, Democrats may actually deliver. After seven presidents tried to get this done, President Obama may be the one to cross the finish line. For all the GOP bravado, some Republicans might actually realize that the reform bill, if given a fair hearing, is likely to be pretty popular with the public.

That’s an interesting narrative Mitch McConnell is threatening to deploy – you won’t be screwed over by the insurance companies any longer, and you’ll get help buying their expensive products, which will be regulated to protect you, and you won’t be left out in the cold, ever, and you’ll hate it and vote Republican for the rest of your life. Good luck with that. 

But it is a war of the narratives – Mitch McConnell versus Garrison Keillor. And it does seem that narratives matter, no matter what those teenagers way back when thought of the Greek Myths.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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