Narrative Woes

NARRATIVE WOES….I had to laugh a bit when I read Conor Friedersdorf’s piece in Doublethink about why conservatives have trouble with the media:

Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn’t any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rent control. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find a sympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rent ceiling.

As almost everyone long ago conceded, however, opponents of rent control offer superior counterarguments. Limiting rent degrades the quality of a city’s housing stock, causes shortages as a dearth of new units are built, and spurs a black market where well-connected elites game their way into subsidized flats. A talented reporter, given enough time and space, could craft a narrative that illustrates how rent control ultimately makes poor families worse off. His job is relatively difficult, however, for he can hardly write a pithy anecdotal lead about the hundred families that won’t occupy a non-existent apartment building because a foolish policy eliminated an unknown developer’s incentive to build it.

The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occassionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?

The reason I laughed is that liberals complain about this exact same thing all the time. I guess everyone is convinced that the other side has nice, simple heart-tugging narrative storylines while their own side is consistently burdened with complex, bloodless, policy-heavy wonkery.

The real difference, though, isn’t that one side or the other has a monopoly on simple narratives, but that left and right tend to rely on different narratives. Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy. Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest. Conservatives don’t have the same narratives as liberals, but they’ve still got plenty of narratives.

Eminent domain? Take your pick of stories about elderly widows kicked out of their homes to make room for a CostCo. Social programs? Ink has been spilled by the barrelful on welfare queens and related undeserving poor. Taxes? I hear the common man is groaning under their oppressive weight. National defense? The commies Islamofascists are coming! Free trade? The media ranks protectionism right up there with creationism on its list of mouth-breathing quackeries. Social Security? There isn’t a reporter alive who doesn’t believe it’s going bankrupt. Unions? Pretty much responsible for the destruction of American industry. Bureaucratic bungling? Reporters love stories about bureaucracy run amok. Hell, the (liberal!) magazine I work for was practically founded on the notion of exposing bureaucratic idiocy.

Obviously each side has issues that it has a hard time with. The conservative case against rent control, granted, probably doesn’t lend itself well to narrative treatment — though I’ll bet it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with one. But if you think that’s tough, try the liberal case for higher taxes to fund social programs. Sure, it’s easy enough to find some photogenic five-year-old suffering from the ravages of poverty, but the conservative counternarrative against funding a program to help our struggling five-year-old is pretty widespread too: (a) it’s your money, (b) it’ll just get wasted by the bureaucracy, (c) we already spend enough on welfare anyway, and (d) the free market would take care of this if we just let it. If you’re wondering which narrative is more effective, just ask yourself how many big new social programs and how many big new tax increases we’ve gotten over the past few decades. Not too many.

It’s true, of course, that favored narratives rise and fall over time, and right now we’re entering an era when the repertoire of conservative narratives is showing every sign of Cheyne-Stokes breathing. But it had a good run until the current crew got hold of it. Blame them, not the storytelling power of conservative thought.

Via Megan McArdle.