Thursday, April 12, 2012
Environmental Vow Part 20: The Role of Narratives
Unfortunately, the “flip flopping, broken promises, and perceived hypocrisy that are an inevitable bi-product of this endless round of patronage, coalition building and fundraising results in a deep cynicism amongst the over-whelming majority of voters. And cynicism is absolutely caustic towards any attempt at self-motivation. If the political system cannot even get people to go out and vote, how can we hope that it will ever convince people to make significant personal sacrifice in order to deal with environmental issues?
The Role of Narratives
It is important, however, to not become totally fixated on the role of money or patronage in politics. There are primary and secondary causes to many events. In the case of politics, a politician may gain the support of a patron or a donor and use that to gain more power in the community of voters, but he also has to find some way to gain the support of that donor or patron in the first place. The way this is usually achieved is through the development of some sort of narrative that cements a relationship between the two.
A “narrative” is a story about the world that neatly encapsulates a broad range of very complex and poorly understood issues together and provides handy and immediate answers to almost all questions. These can be small “conceptual rules of thumb” such as “all people on welfare are lazy bums”, or, “small businesses create most of the jobs in an economy”, “everything gives you cancer if you give enough of it to rats”, or, “the world’s problems could all be solved if the rich paid their fair share”.
Politicians also create narratives to explain who they are to the voters. In Canada three Prime Ministers were very successful at composing narratives that they used to encourage voters to develop loyalty to their “brand”. Pierre Trudeau invented himself as a “devil-may-care” intellectual, in part through media stunts such as his famous May 7th, 1977 pirouette that he did in front of photographers but behind the Queen at a G7 conference in London England. Another example is Jean Chretien who, although being a very successful corporate lawyer constantly styled himself as the “little guy from Shawinigan. Brian Mulroney, another successful corporate lawyer, “rebranded” himself after losing his first bid for the Conservative party nomination by buying a used car, a cheap suit and describing himself as being “the son of an electrician from Baie-Comeau”. In the USA, Barack Obama did much the same thing through his successful campaign that implied that just as it seemed to many Americans impossible to elect a black man president, yet it still could happen, so too it is possible for the country to solve the huge problems facing it (i.e. “the audacity of hope”.)
If the narratives diverge enough from one another, they become ideologies, and politics becomes radical. The communist ideology is a narrative that talks about professional revolutionaries, inexorable laws of history and class warfare. Nazi ideology talked about the clash of races, the mystical identity of a “folk”, the need for an absolute leader or “Fuhrer”, and the need of “living space” for a Master race. The difference between a narrative and an ideology, IMHO, is that an ideology doesn’t believe in the ability of different narratives to co-exist in a given society. It might be that ideologically-driven parties might co-exist for a while as political parties in a democracy# but this is only a temporary truce brought about by relative weakness. Once any of these groups gains enough power, the “gloves come off” and politics starts to “come from the barrel of a gun”, as Mao once remarked.
In a functioning liberal democracy, however, the narratives are not so extreme that there can be no room for compromise between the two. Indeed, in some societies there seems to be very little to separate the different narratives from one to another. That is why in some political systems successful politicians are able to “cross the floor” and go from one party to another without destroying their careers. In other systems, the divide between parties becomes so poisonous that every single decision of government becomes a opportunity to “score points” and inflict as much damage as possible on the other side. Ideally, a democratic systems exists between these two opposites. Enough divergence so that voters have more to choose from than just “tweedle-dee versus tweedle-dum”, but not so much that there is never any room for compromise on any issue.
The Importance of “Walking the Talk”
Politicians have to be careful about narratives, however. They can also turn against them if the public believes that they are not living up to what is expected. Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien were able to preserve their “brand” until the day they retired, but Brian Mulroney ended up being crucified because of the dissonance that the public believed it saw between his portrayal of himself as a humble “boy from Baie-Comeau” and what they perceived as “ly’n Brian”’s lavish lifestyle while Prime Minister. Trudeau was able to date celebrities and live an extravagant life as a playboy, but that didn’t clash with the narrative he’d constructed about himself, so it was acceptable. Mulroney didn’t have that luxury because he’d put so much energy into explaining his humble origins to voters. Time will only tell if Obama’s “audacity of hope” will survive all the compromises with the establishment that he has made since gaining office.
If narratives are so important to electing politicians, perhaps it would be possible for a mainstream politician to be able to craft some sort of narrative around environmental issues that would allow them to “ride a green wave” into office. Unfortunately, I fear that there is a significant problem with environmental issues that make it a special case, one that makes it almost impossible for a politician to mobilize a campaign around.
To understand this issue, consider the case of Al Gore. His documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006 and talked about climate change as a moral imperative, which was a new thing in mainstream circles. Unfortunately, in 2007 it was revealed that Al Gore’s home was a monstrous energy pig that consumed a little under $29,000 worth of energy per year. In Gore’s defense it has been argued that the building is large, houses two home-based businesses, and that the cost of electricity and natural gas is inflated because it uses more-expensive “green” sources. But the fact is that a great many “ordinary folks” have home businesses and use environmentally-friendly energy sources without blasting through anything like this amount of money. It is pretty clear that Mr. Gore doesn’t really “walk the talk”. If he does see global warming as an ethical issue, then he should view himself as an immoral, evil man. Otherwise, he is not much more than yet another hypocritical politician spinning a narrative in order to build popular support. The revelations about his lavish lifestyle pretty much undid most of the good of his documentary.
There is a very important point here. When someone tries to cast their politics in terms of morality, it is absolutely imperative to make sure that she at least tries to live according to the ethical values that she is suggesting everyone else should live up to. If she does not, she not only undercuts public support for her individual leadership, she also undercuts the ethical ideal being espoused and the very idea that ethical considerations should be considered at all. Hypocrisy leads to cynicism, and cynicism leads to disengagement from whatever process that is view as being dominated by hypocrisy. Since politics is dominated by hypocrisy, is there any wonder that larger and larger fractions of the body politic refuse to vote?
The problem for Mr. Gore, however, is that even if he did live a more modest, eco-friendly lifestyle, he’d probably have to live a life with a much larger carbon foot-print than most people simply in order to be able to “play the game” on the scale necessary to be able to do things like promote his documentary. Film makers, distributors, donors, government panels, etc, all expect people to jet all over the planet and have a large home to entertain important guests. People who live in modest, energy efficient homes, refuse to drive a car, take the train, and refuse to fly simply cannot get the “ear” of important people. Yet at the same time, it is impossible for ordinary folks to take seriously any enviro-prophet who doesn’t seem to even try to live in harmony with nature. In effect, even if Gore were not a hypocrite, he would still be on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he could never have gained the power and authority in society to be able to organize and promote something like “An Inconvenient Truth” without “living large”, but on the other, what he has to do to build his “brand” up to the point where he would have the power and fame to promote his documentary dramatically undermines the message.
This leaves the environmental politician with a really big dilemma. What sort of narrative can he or she create that will defend him or her from the charge of hypocrisy while at the same time retaining the visibility necessary to exert real influence on society?