The word “narrative” as a political term of art is by no means new. The concept has been around since long before the days when Hollywood production values migrated to the White House with Ronald Reagan. From “the boy from Baie-Comeau” defining Brian Mulroney’s rise from son of an electrician in a Quebec mill town, to the impact of Bill Clinton’s Man from Hope video at the 1992 Democratic Convention, politicians have used storytelling to connect to the public.
Covering the 2008 United States presidential campaign, I know that I uttered the phrase “He’s got a great narrative” on more than one occasion referring to Barack Obama’s background as the Harvard-trained son of a Kenyan father and mother from Kansas. As Paul Waldman wrote in a piece titled The Triumph of Narrative in The American Prospect in February 2008, “If Obama does win, it will be because Democratic voters, and then the wider electorate, found themselves transported by his story.”
Like so many things political, the word “narrative” isn’t what it used to be. As a political term, it has evolved from referring to a fixed set of chronological facts and the biographical colour or other content connecting them to something far less empirical.
Today, when we hear the word “narrative” in a political context it’s usually deployed as a term of war: weaponized narratives, taking control of the narrative, owning the narrative, hijacking the narrative, “Who’s winning the narrative?”
Narratives are now fought over in hourly increments, with winners and losers measured by the notoriously misrepresentational gains and losses of manipulated social media bandwagons and backlashes as well as the increasingly dubious barometer of poll numbers.
Winning the narrative at any cost has now become such a ridiculously distorted driver that political actors are being cast, scripted, and paid to actually perform as actors in engineered stories to enable and rationalize otherwise unachievable or implausible results.
In Alberta, aides to United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney have been busted for recruiting former Wildrose Party president Jeff Callaway to do his dirty work against rival Brian Jean in the 2017 UCP leadership contest, acting as an avatar for Kenney, complete with speeches, strategy, and talking points provided by Kenney advisers. (This reverse-Cyrano operation carries the added frisson that while Callaway doesn’t look exactly like Kenney, he looks enough like him to live with Kenney’s mother.) That Callaway entered the race knowing exactly what his character motivation was and that it had nothing to do with winning has caused him to be called the “kamikaze candidate.” Both Callaway and Kenney, though, deny they planned a fake leadership bid. Mr. Kenney has said communication between campaigns, which he acknowledges occurred, is not unusual.
If this sort of narrative wankery were the sole domain of Kenney, contained to Alberta or limited to one party, it might be funny, in a political Darwin Awards sort of way. But it belongs to an arsenal of tactics being used in democracies worldwide that includes a range of other relentless reality hacks, from Donald Trump’s daily cavalcade of lies, to the Russian spy shenanigans superimposed over the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, to the lies that sold the massive lemon of Brexit to the British people. At some point along the way, the obsession with narrative colonization, engineering, and domination jumped the shark and—to mix TV metaphors—we’re now in Twilight Zone territory.
When politicians start faking their motives and allegiances and every headline is just a means to an end on the way to a predetermined result, it corrupts history and it corrupts the reporting meant to inform the public about the first draft of that history. And at a time when all politics is global, Alberta’s narrative fraud is neither the beginning nor the end of the story.
Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and was a Washington and New York-based editor at UPI, AP, and ABC. She writes a weekly column for The Hill Times.
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