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Joan Didion and the art of political narrative

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

In the wake of last week’s third and final presidential debate, as both campaigns shifted into end-game mode and the conversation tilted toward not what had happened but how it could be spun, I began to think about Joan Didion’s “Political Fictions,” a 2001 collection of essays that frames the electoral process as less a matter of facts or policy than the expression of “a series of fables about American experience.”

These fables have to do with values, and they have to do with performance, or so we like to tell ourselves, but at heart, they are generated by the process itself. “You used to look for twenty-eight electoral votes or some demographic block,” Didion quotes Republican pollster Robert Teeter as saying to the Washington Post on the day George Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate. “Now, the crucial question is how the press and public react in the first forty-eight hours.”

Twelve years later, in a bit of post-debate analysis for New York Magazine’s website, Jonathan Chait made a similar point in regard to the Romney campaign, which, he suggested, “has orchestrated a series of high-profile gambits in order to feed its momentum narrative.” Chait continued: “This is a bluff. Romney is carefully attempting to project an atmosphere of momentum, in the hopes of winning positive media coverage and, thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The key word here is “narrative,” which Didion has always understood. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she opens her 1979 essay “The White Album,” although almost immediately, she doubles back: “Or at least we do for a while.”

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The implication is that we often use narrative less for sustenance than self-deception, a set of stories we impose upon a reality too oblique, or too chaotic, to be reckoned with on its own terms. Certainly, that’s the case with politics, where, as Didion notes, the prevailing narratives have become increasingly disconnected from the issues (whatever those are), or anything else that’s actually going on.

“It was clear for example in 1988 that the political process had already become perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent,” she writes. “It was also clear in 1988 that the decision of the two major parties to obscure any possible perceived distinction between themselves and by so doing to narrow the contested ground to a handful of selected ‘target’ voters, had already imposed considerable strain on the basic principle of the democratic exercise, that of assuring the nation’s citizens a voice in its affairs. It was also clear in 1988 that the rhetorical manipulation of resentment and anger designed to attract these target voters had reduced the nation’s political dialogue to a level so dispiritingly low that its highest expression had come to be a pernicious nostalgia.”

This pernicious nostalgia has been part of our politics, our national identity, from the outset; “The reformation,” Thomas Paine enthuses in “Common Sense,” “was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years.”

It’s the source of our most consistent narratives: a persistent belief in American exceptionalism, in American destiny, a refusal to grant the complexities of a nuanced world. And yet, in recent decades, it’s also motivated a set of counter-narratives that can be equally nostalgic — for a time when there was substance to the process, if nothing else.

For Didion, this is embodied by the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, which, in 1988, was regarded by the Democratic Party establishment as a threat she likens to that of an incendiary device.

“What made the 1988 Jackson candidacy a bomb that had to be defused,” she writes in “Insider Baseball” (the best piece in the book, I think), explaining their response to Jackson, “was not that blacks were supporting a black candidate, but that significant numbers of whites were supporting — not only supporting but in many cases overcoming deep emotional and economic conflicts of their own in order to support — a candidate who was most attractive to them not because of but in spite of the fact that he was black, a candidate whose most potent attraction was that he ‘didn’t sound like a politician.’ ”

I remember that 1988 primary season. I, too, was a conflicted Jackson voter, although my issue was different; I saw him as an opportunist, and still do. Nonetheless, I was more than happy to set aside my reservations and “walk off the edge of the known political map for a candidate who was running against, as he repeatedly said, ‘politics as usual,’ against what he called ‘consensualist centrist politics’; against what had come to be the very premise of the process, the notion that the winning and maintaining of public office warranted the invention of a public narrative based at no point on observable reality.”

The same might be said of all those young, not necessarily conservative, voters who came out for John McCain in 2000 or even the true believers who fueled the Tea party rebellion of 2010. And yet, Didion wants us to understand, these counter-narratives are, in their way, political fictions also, allowing us — no, encouraging us — to read politics as a matter of affinity groups, to parse values instead of information, to look not toward Thomas Paine’s ideal of the commons (in every sense of the word) but, rather, increasingly narrow slices of “contested ground.”

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“Political Fictions” is hardly Didion’s strongest book; there’s too much armchair reporting, too much of her signature distance, in a territory that requires more. Still, she understands how stories shape reality with or without our consent.

“There is a level,” she writes, “at which many Americans simply discount what is said during a political campaign, dismiss it as loose talk.”

This, of course, is what another political opportunist (from Massachusetts, or is it Michigan?) is counting on, that “even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that had become our national River Lethe.”

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