A Narrative and The Narrative

There’s been an awful lot of talk today in political circles, much of it promoted at Politico, about the IRS/AP/Benghazi! firestorms creating a “dangerous new narrative” that could spoil Obama’s second term, or at least give Republicans a boost going into 2014 and 2016. Much of this discussion has been vastly confused by a reluctance or inability to distinguish between a narrative of contemporary politics being promoted by one of our two major political parties and its media allies, and the narrative that’s simply a plausibly accurate description of objective reality.

I got quoted, God help me, in one of the main Politico pieces, saying this:

“The biggest picture [view] is that this reinforces the whole conservative argument that Obama, or liberalism in the day of Obama, or however you want to call it, represents something new and menacing. ‘It’s not just Nixon all over again, it’s 20 times worse,’” said Kilgore, who clearly does not subscribe to that view.

“What is the distinctive political phenomenon of the last four to five years? Is it a radicalized Republican Party, which is what people like me write every single day? Or is it this lurch to the left, this hungry welfare state that’s now so out of control and is threatening our liberties?” he asked rhetorically. “This many data points for the latter point of view is going to be very hard for Republicans to resist. The temptation to go crazy on this is made all the more powerful by the timing, going into a midterm election.”

My point, however inelegantly expressed, was that the “scandals” could well lock the GOP into an intensification of the “narrative” its base and most of its spokespeople and politicians already accept. Perhaps that will boost GOP turnout in 2014 or beyond; perhaps it will even make the “narrative” compelling to some of the swing voters who haven’t much bought it up until now. Perhaps, however, it will backfire, as a similar “narrative” backfired in 1998. Maybe it will incur enormous opportunity costs as Republicans fail to focus on enacting legislation or offering a positive policy agenda of its own or “reaching out” to voter groups suspicion of them or learning any of the other “lessons” they supposedly learned in 2012.

These are all open questions, which is why it’s fundamentally wrong to suggest that this narrative is the narrative driving American politics, aside from the extremely important objection raised by Alan Abramowitz yesterday that it’s dangerous to assume any narratives (much less the individual events contributing to them) have a major impact on actual elections.

So journalists really, really need to be clear about this when writing about “narratives,” since leaping on the latest one as The Final Word can very quickly get you into the professional quicksand that Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei entered today when they declared “D.C.”–which in their world means the only people who matter–had “turned on” Obama.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.