I have a deep love of personal stories like those explored in memoir and essay. Seeking personal truth through narrative prose is a profound act. I most like stories told by real people who have overcome, coped with loss, or who have beat back illness or despair. But this powerful narrative tool has been taken and twisted by politicians who want to win our affections -- and therefore our votes. I don’t want to hear a politician talk about his mamma or his Jesus, but I’ve been struck during the last few election cycles by how much of the process has become personal narrative rather than discussions of policies or solutions.
First, I must tackle what might seem like my own hypocrisy on this issue. Some years ago, I underwent a shift not only in my politics but also in much of my world view, and I write often about it in personal essays. I enjoy exploring ideas and experience through writing, and I want to share my experience in hopes that it’s enlightening or interesting to others. But I’m not running for anything. Politicians have taken personal narrative, a thing of beauty, and twisted it into something ugly to manipulate people. It’s tawdry theater.
Politicians peddling personal narratives are making a cheap grab for America’s growing cult of celebrity. Often, especially on the right, their political positions are wildly unpopular and even damaging. People like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee must lean on “compelling” personal stories and appeals to religious tribalism, because their policy prescriptions straight up suck. It’s much easier to offer some folksy nonsense about Jesus than it is to explain away their ugly bigotry toward the LGBT community.
Of course, I think the Republicans are more desperate to “humanize” their image. The party platform is one of corporate interests and tax cuts. The only real authenticity in much of the GOP is derived from a Dark Ages version of Christianity that is ever more offensive to most Americans. I think it’s just swell and all that Mike Huckabee loves Jesus, but I’m more concerned that his prehistoric opinion about social issues would relegate women to the kitchens of America. It could be that there are so many Republican candidates that the stories have to get ever more heartfelt, unlikely and dripping with emotion in order to stand out.
The presumed front runner is Jeb Bush, and you have to pity him. He has to invent a personal narrative compelling enough to hide his epic elitism. He’s rich, his dad’s rich, and brother and father were both presidents. The Bush clan is to “regular American” what Foie Gras is to McDonalds. He is so desperate for any kind of authenticity that he once claimed to be Hispanic. He embodies a growing neo-feudalism that would have America dominated and then looted by a tiny group of wealthy assholes.
I watch a lot of these announcements, laden as they are with mentions of moms, kids and some (very distant) relatives who experienced some kind of poverty. One of these stories rises above the others. In his announcement, Donald Trump rambled for 47 minutes on his wealth and coolness, sounding less like a politician than a kid bragging on a playground. Despite the fact that it’s both outlandish and juvenile, it’s not a side show. Trump embodies the steady decay of personal narrative in politics as a growing insult to our collective intelligence. His performance wasn’t accidental, but rather it was the inevitable next step of our diminishing political process.
As much as the Republicans have tripped over themselves to be like regular “folks,” the Democrats are not wholly innocent. I like Hillary Clinton, but she suffers from 20 years of hyper-exposure. Her attempts at personal narrative are necessary to “reintroduce” her to a public that is wary of dynastic politicians, but it all sounds forced and artificial. At least in her husband’s run, Bill Clinton felt our pain and not just his own.
It’s hard to blame Clinton or the Republican candidates for embracing personal stories. Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008 in large part to Obama’s compelling personal narrative, much of which was written before he was a candidate. Obama’s success helped fuel a cottage industry of the “personal hook.” In Obama’s case, his personal story had relevance and resonance, and it many ways it was unique and fresh. For politicians who went to prep school on daddy’s dime, it’s a much harder case to make.
This central conceit of modern politics is creating a backlash, helping politicians like Bernie Sanders, for example. In many cases, I’ve watched interviewers pester Sanders about his “feelings” and personal story. Instead he redirects to radical-sounding but popular ideas. This campaign cannot and should not be about him, and he keeps the conversation where it belongs.. If Sanders cared at all about celebrity, he would at least comb his hair.
The mainstream of journalism, right and left, has a lot of blame here. The journalists, especially on television, who work in Washington or New York, are too often as clueless or insulated as the people they interview. The very profession of journalism is endangered if it’s not extinct already. Fox News engages in naked tribalism on a daily basis, telling fictional stories about good guys and bad, but you can’t hold Fox News responsible for the banality of Chuck Todd, for example. Watching Todd’s show is a case study on missing the point, hyper focused as he is on “personal narrative” and horse-race politics.
I’ve started to play a game during these tortured presidential announcements. As a politician talks, I’ll add in or substitute other facts. “I was born with a superfluous third testicle, and my family doctor was able to remove it with a rubber band and a lot of patience,” I might say to myself while watching. I used this one once, and then I realized that my invented story was only slightly nuttier than one that actually worked for the vapid Joni Ernst, now a senator from Iowa. It was of course all fiction and exaggeration, but it worked. It’s almost enough to make a guy lose hope.
The focus on outlandish and often invented personal narratives is a sign that politics is devolving into a fight between bloviating narcissists. With the growth of “reality” television and a media focused on frivolity, it seems inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be. I think the rise of some candidates, like Sanders, shows an appetite for real conversation. Whoever you follow or support, we must demand answers and real positions on issues. If I want to read about personal experience, I’ll pick up a memoir or essay by someone who has something interesting to say.