How Simple Stories About Politics Delude Us

Narratives help us make sense of the world, but they also blind us to its reality. We must take care not to believe stories that are comforting but untrue.

Narratives can be dangerous things. While they shape and are shaped by reality, they are not reality in and of themselves. In Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, an aging man named Alonso Quijano, obsessed with heroic stories of knights in shining armor, refashions himself as knight-errant Don Quixote, a valiant fighter determined to do good and fight evil. In a famous scene, Don Quixote, convinced they are actually giants wreaking havoc upon the earth, attacks some windmills. He interprets and interacts with the world through the prism of this worldview, behaving as if he really were a brave knight, fighting all sorts of enemies, and profoundly puzzling everyone he encounters. He tells himself a story about reality, one that is not completely disconnected from the world, and in doing so does genuinely take some noble actions. But the story he tells himself is fundamentally delusional.

Political narratives convey particular worldviews, presumed truths, or assumptions about particular places or peoples. These stories are deliberately reductive and tend to deter critical thought. They are propagated by the media and popular culture (movies and books), are manifested in political speeches, educational institutions at all levels, and even in grand monuments, phrases, slogans, and pledges. They are repeated ad nauseum, as if repetition instills them with truth. They are what make it possible to characterize as “democratic” a political system in which 330 million people can only be represented by two political parties, and “free” a country with the world’s largest prison population. They convince us that other countries’ war criminals are tyrants and that similar people in our own societies are, though misguided, otherwise well-intentioned leaders. Even worse, narratives can become so internalized that when an event confirms our worldview, it can be considered  “inevitable,” while everything that goes against our understanding is considered “aberrant.” Once you believe your country’s story, the parts of reality that confirm it are accepted; the parts that contradict it are dismissed. 

Stories of Inevitability and Aberration

A debate in Japanese history has at its roots an attempt to make sense of the events of the 1930s and 1940s. In the aftermath of the Second World War, many were at pains to explain what could have gone so wrong that Japan pursued brutal expansionist wars, which saw innumerable atrocities, the enslavement of other Asian populations (not to mention that of allied POWs), and which culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This series of events led some to theorize that Japan had really been a peaceful and democratic nation, and that the 1930s and 1940s represented a descent into the “valley of darkness” where authoritarianism and imperialism reigned. The post-war period, according to this theory, represented the righting of Japan’s true path by returning it to the presumed peaceful development that characterized the pre-1930s era.

The proponents of this theory point to many things to justify their thesis. After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan aggressively pursued modernization by implementing several widespread and radical reforms intended to remake the country into a modern state on the Western European/American model. The country created a unified military as well as a national education and postal system and, in 1889, adopted a constitution that permitted the growth of democratic institutions such as the National Diet (Japan’s representative body). Then, in 1925, Japan adopted universal manhood suffrage, expanding the franchise and allowing the growth of multiple political parties. Surely, the argument goes, such democratic tendencies represented the true nature of Japanese society, and the brutality of the 1930s and 1940s could only be explained as an “aberrant” moment of militarism.

But the story is incomplete. Coexisting with Japan’s democratic reforms was a strong element of conservative reaction. Indeed, Japan’s imperial expansion into Taiwan and Korea, along with events like its 1905 military victory over Russia, significantly boosted jingoism and notions of ethnic superiority at home. Meanwhile, national myths exalting Japan’s supposed uniqueness were promoted in the education system. Militant nationalism and xenophobia had become so embedded that the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake saw paramilitary groups massacring several thousand Koreans as well as Japanese socialists, ludicrously accusing them of national treason. Furthermore, while the 1889 constitution nominally created a constitutional monarchy, it was still far from democratic, as imperial ordinances could override the national Diet. In 1925, an imperial ordinance did just that by enacting the “peace preservation law,” making political dissent, particularly on the left, a jailable offense. This curtailed any reforms that could have been achieved due to the wider political involvement that was brought about by the expansion of the franchise that same year. Such developments substantially refute the notion that Japan’s militarism of the 1930s and 1940s was an aberration. Instead, a complete consideration of the facts suggests a degree of continuity and an exacerbation of certain existing trends, with militarism and war being the logical conclusion. Assuming that the militarism that eventually won out was a mere aberration ignores the very circumstances that birthed it.

In German history, there is a different theory, that of the Sonderweg, or special path. As an explanation of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the Sonderweg holds that supposedly unique German characteristics of aggressiveness and militarism placed the country on an inevitable trajectory, centuries in the making, which culminated in the Third Reich and the atrocities that followed. In contrast to the “aberration” argument, the Sonderweg goes to the opposite extreme by adopting a narrative of “inevitability.” Many historians have rightfully criticized the Sonderweg thesis as ahistorical and selective in its failure to consider the many liberal and democratic trends that long existed in German society. The thesis also ignores the particular circumstances of interwar Germany, which saw economic fallout, political impasse, and global instability—all of which significantly contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. Like the “aberration” argument, the Sonderweg presumes a natural and inevitable trajectory of states, in which events can be located as part of a society’s “normal” development or be dismissed as simple “aberrations.” 

In considering the reductionist narratives around Japan and Germany, one sees that reality is always far more complex than the propagated story. Indeed, when looking at the industrializing societies of the interwar period, one finds strikingly similar processes playing out in all of them. That era was one of unbridled nationalism but also of strong and idealistic progressivism around the world. In the end, the United States did not lapse into totalitarianism, thanks in no small part to a strong and organized left that agitated for change, but the democratic trends in both Japan and Germany were counteracted and eventually lost out to regressive ultranationalism. In each society, however, no outcome was inevitable. 

Rethinking National Narratives

There are times when realities on the ground force a rethinking of national narratives, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is particularly fascinating in this regard. Generally speaking, official Soviet ideology placed the repudiation of a classed society, as well as the repudiation of ethnic nationalism, at its foundation. As such, expressions of ethnic nationalism were only tolerated up to the point that the Soviet leadership deemed it a threat to the legitimacy and integrity of the state. Indeed, the relationship between the state’s anti-nationalist narrative and the multi-ethnic reality of the Soviet Union was a fraught one, and creating a coherent national identity proved difficult. However, the collapse of the USSR challenged its fifteen successor states to promote nationalism to legitimize the existence of the new states. Virtually overnight, nationalism went from taboo to official state ideology, with individuals having to similarly refashion themselves to meet these new narratives. This is what allowed a KGB officer—a servant of a state that derived its legitimacy from a narrative of proletarian rule and a refutation of nationalism—to be a Russian nationalist president with more riches than the Tsars. The narrative of nationalism is thus used to legitimize and cement power. 

The Rise of a Narrative: Liberal American Exceptionalism

One of the most common narratives is that of American exceptionalism. The many strains of American exceptionalism may be used by different actors and in defense of a range of agendas. The focus here will be on an explicitly centrist/liberal narrative. This narrative holds the United States to be a unique country, deserving of a special place in world affairs. It encompasses a belief that the United States plays a fair hand at home and around the world, standing on the side of reason, justice, and democracy. In this narrative, inconsistencies, like support for authoritarian governments, can be dismissed either as missteps or the unfortunate nature of realpolitik of an otherwise morally superior and righteous country. For decades, this basic line has come to be accepted among centrists of both American political parties. 

In the aftermath of the Second World War and for the duration of the Cold War, American exceptionalism portrayed the United States as the world’s principal defender of democracy, a narrative that justified destabilizing left-wing governments and subverting democratic processes all in the name of anti-communism. From support for Mobutu in Zaire to Pinochet in Chile to Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, American foreign policy was marked by the contradiction between its rhetoric about freedom and democracy on the one hand and its actions on the other. While it might not be particularly insightful to highlight the hypocrisies of American leadership during the Cold War, it speaks to a certain continuing lack of awareness among political and media elites today when Cold War criminals like Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—who played a heavy role in expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia and engineering a coup against Salvador Allende in Chile among other things—receive praise from the likes of Hillary Clinton and are regularly sought out for advice on geopolitical issues. If there ever was a secretary of state deserving of being “cancelled,” Kissinger is surely one of them. Yet, he continues to have a presence in American political life—Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently praised Kissinger (as well as the similarly destructive Condoleezza Rice) as his “remarkable” predecessor, deserving of special thanks for his “service to our country.” The inability among political and media elites to reckon with the damage wrought by Kissinger is indicative of a broader inability to confront the dark aspects of American power, thereby ensuring the persistence of the narrative of American exceptionalism. 

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism injected a great boost of confidence into this narrative. “Victory” was loudly declared in the form of declarations, most prominently by Francis Fukuyama, that we had reached “the end of history.” Thus, not only had communism been defeated, but American-style “liberal democracy” had vindicated itself as the ultimate method of societal organization. But, as historian Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a critical mistake of the time was in assuming nothing else had to be done to ensure the continuation of stable democracies:

“The politics of inevitability seem at first glance to be a kind of history. Inevitability politicians do not deny that there is a past, a present, and a future. They even allow for the colorful variety of the distant past. Yet they portray the present simply as a step toward a future that we already know, one of expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity. This is what is called a teleology: a narration of time that leads toward a certain, usually desirable, goal. Communism also offered a teleology, promising an inevitable socialist utopia. When that story was shattered a quarter century ago, we drew the wrong conclusion: rather than rejecting teleologies, we imagined that our own story was true.” 

Still, the changed geopolitical circumstances prompted a slight change in the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. No longer was the United States the just promoter of democracy vis-a-vis communism. It had also become (fast forward to the Clinton administration) the world’s “indispensable nation,” endowed with unique wisdom and foresight, as exemplified in Madeleine Albright’s statement  that “we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”

The powerful narrative of the fundamental uniqueness of the United States even managed to survive the Bush years, and the confidence it inspired in the superiority of the United States played no small role in that administration’s disastrous foreign policy. American exceptionalism even allowed for the Iraq War to be cast as a mistake, one not borne out of malice but rather out of misunderstanding and bad intel. To put such a spin on events has real consequences, as it enabled the neoconservatives of the Bush administration to be welcomed back  into the public spotlight, which had the effect of cleansing their reputations and erasing the public’s memory of their crimes. As a recent example, George W. Bush was invited to deliver remarks on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where he lamented the state of division in the present-day United States, fondly recalled the post-9/11 period when the nation was united behind his administration, and praised the American public for their embrace of Muslims and their rejection of bigotry—this all from a president who bears much responsibility for the current state of disunity, whose administration manipulated the trust of the American people to lead the country into senseless wars, passed the Patriot Act, and embarked on mass surveillance of American citizens, violating their civil liberties. In his speech, Bush made no mention of his administration’s failures or its role in deteriorating Americans’ trust in institutions. Instead, he spoke of how “Americans struggled to understand why an enemy would hate us with such zeal,” a regurgitation of the post-9/11 “why do they hate us” line of thinking, and then condemned the terrorists’ “disdain for pluralism” and their “disregard for human life.” He did this without a hint of irony or self-reflection, and he spoke in the language of American exceptionalism (literally describing Americans as an “exceptional group of people”) and received rapturous applause.

The 2008 election of Barack Obama, who campaigned on a progressive platform promising, among other things, hope and change, elicited much optimism in the U.S. and abroad. A gifted orator, he spoke of democracy and of reshaping the United States for the 21st century in ways that genuinely moved people. (He was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize before he’d begun to implement said change.) He cast his own election as the realization of the “dreams of our founders,” representative of the “arc of history” being bent “once more toward the hope of a better day.” The country would eventually learn differently, but Obama’s platitudes were right in line with the narrative of American exceptionalism. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, perhaps unwittingly, uttered an endorsement of this narrative. Responding to Donald Trump’s famous campaign slogan, she declared “America never stopped being great.” 

A Shock (or not) to the Narrative

Many, but not all, were shocked that Donald Trump became president in 2016. It was a particularly earth-shattering moment for many adherents of the liberal narrative of American exceptionalism. Someone who so blatantly expressed contempt for democracy, the rule of law, and basic decency had been elected to the White House. The polls, but more importantly the prevailing narratives about the United States, had told us differently—Trump winning was just not in the script. There was plenty of blame to go around, and many culprits were identified as responsible for this calamity. 

Though the situation is dramatically different (and far less severe) from that which faced Japan in the aftermath of World War Two, the long-prevailing narrative of American exceptionalism, the notion of a fundamental righteousness of the United States, meant that Trump could only be interpreted and portrayed as an aberrational president, representative of a bygone era. The sentiment that Trump is an aberration has been echoed in the media and by politicians a multitude of times. As one example, in 2019, then-candidate Joe Biden referred to the Trump years as “an aberrant moment in time,” comments which he later walked back but which nonetheless do reflect a common sentiment about the 45th president. Indeed, Biden’s campaign trail stump speech, in which he referred to returning the United States to an age of “decency,” suggests a view of Trump as an especially different president. 

Adherents of this narrative point to the fact that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 as evidence that his election was the result of an outdated electoral system. This perspective also holds that Trump’s presidency itself is also fundamentally different from and worse than preceding presidencies. To name a few examples, one could look at the Trump administration’s inhumane treatment of immigrants, both at the southern border and in its ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries, as evidence of a uniquely cruel president. One could also look to Trump’s much-criticized embrace of dictators, his tax cuts for wealthy Americans, and his refusal to concede the 2020 election. Much of the outrage over Trump in liberal media also tends to focus on the president’s penchant for flaunting norms and breaking unspoken rules in politics. Trump’s capacity to flaunt norms outraged academics Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky so much they were prompted to write How Democracies Die, an ironically-titled anti-democratic manifesto which heaps praise on “gatekeeping,” the tradition of American political parties deliberately conspiring against outside challengers to authority (the book is curiously ignorant of how precisely this tradition contributed to Trump’s emergence in the first place). 

The narrative of liberal American exceptionalism, bolstered as it was by the end of the Cold War and what the Obama presidency appeared to represent, promotes the idea that nothing was fundamentally wrong in the United States before 2016. If this is basically accepted, then the only conceivable reason people voted for Trump is bigotry. As a result, Trump’s election and presidency have been cast as an expression of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia deeply embedded in American society. References to Trump’s racist rhetoric and policies, as well as the behavior of some of his followers, seems to support this narrative. Even intellectual explanations, such as historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1965 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” have been resuscitated in recent years to explain the Trump phenomenon as reflective of the regressive masses (there were problems with Hofstadter’s research and argument that are beyond the scope of this piece). This narrative portrays Trump supporters as too stupid to vote for candidates on complex policy issues and ready to jump for the first authoritarian that comes along promising to restore vague notions of greatness which, according to this narrative, can only be rooted in racism and white supremacy. Even after Trump’s 2020 loss, the media was awash in stories labeling all Trump supporters as white supremacists who need not be understood but only condemned, a view sorely lacking in introspection. 

What Narratives Leave Out

Indeed, Trump’s behavior and style didn’t adhere to the norms of the political class. And there certainly are differences between Trump and his predecessors. Furthermore, it is true that some of Trump’s coalition are racists. Nonetheless, the narrative also makes notable omissions that are equally important to consider. Indeed, considering Trump uniquely aberrational demands that we ignore the similarities he shared with previous administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, as well as the multitude of forces that led to his presidency. The narrative of Trump’s election as an aberration has many real and dangerous implications. First and foremost, it impedes critical engagement with many of the factors that led to his presidency—it is easy to dismiss it as the result of an outdated electoral system, as an expression of deep-seated racism among the “bad” half of the American population. But it is another thing entirely to interrogate the myriad ways conventional politics have failed Americans across decades. Indeed, the Bush administration, with its unwinnable wars on terror, torture, widespread spying, incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, economic crisis, and much more, generated a craving for a new direction in American politics. In 2008, Obama was elected on promises of change. However, in too many instances, those promises did not materialize. Wars continued, mass surveillance worsened, the economy recovered unevenly, Obamacare left millions without health insurance, and the culprits of the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the architects of Bush’s torture regime, never faced justice. Such failures of previous administrations played a large role in stirring resentment toward politicians and creating an atmosphere ripe for exploitation in 2016. Indeed, the road to Trump was long, and it was a road paved with bipartisan support. Put in this context, the reason tens of millions voted for Trump cannot solely be put down to racism, sexism, and xenophobia. 

In terms of specific policies, there are many ways in which Trump’s presidency itself was not an aberration. For example, whatever one’s view of Trump’s 2017 tax cuts may be, it is hard to cast them as particularly aberrant when put in the context of a bipartisan dedication to tax cuts going back to Ronald Reagan, or even to George W. Bush, whose namesake tax cuts were later made permanent under Obama. Furthermore, when placed in the context of the Obama administration’s three million deportations, Trump’s actions on immigration, which resulted in the deaths of immigrant children, may have been worse but were certainly not aberrant. (The infrastructure for the country’s immigrant detention and deportation system was built under Bill Clinton.) Regarding his embrace of dictators, Trump showed himself to be no aberration, as such actions have long been standard practice in American foreign policy (though perhaps Trump did embrace the “wrong” dictators). Trump continued U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, escalated the use of drone strikes around the world, and ordered assassinations of senior members of foreign governments and militaries. Within this context, much of Trump’s behavior can be cast as a continuation of previous administrations. Similar things can be said about Trump’s campaign strategy. Though he might have been more blatant in doing so, appealing to racism and xenophobia as an electoral strategy is hardly an invention of Trump’s own making.

Once again, reality proves more complex than the standard narrative would have us think, a realization that should not be profound for anyone invested in the truth and in a consideration of how we might avoid electing leaders who enact such harmful policies. Trump’s presidency did not so much deviate from a norm as bring to the surface many of the worst tendencies in American politics and culture—jingoism, racism, xenophobia, an “America First” mentality, a disregard for the environment, a catering to elites and corporate power, and an actual refusal to implement social policies that might help average people, including health care (which he promised to fix) during the pandemic. Timothy Snyder has categorized Trump’s so-called populism as sadopopulism, or the politics of pain. Indeed, one could argue that the politics of pain—the gutting of social services, the rise of mass incarceration, the lack of implementation of universal health care—have been reflected in the country’s domestic neoliberal policies since the 1970s. Trump, as a personality, may not sit comfortably within the liberal belief in American moral supremacy because he offends the sensibilities of the professional and political classes (he says the quiet parts out loud), but he is absolutely a product of American political culture.

Ultimately, the narrative of American exceptionalism and the tendency toward “aberration” thinking can be utilized for whatever purpose one wants—whether to explain away Trump’s win using flawed voters or a flawed voting system or to deploy it as a weapon against his memory and rhetoric in the future.

The Current Political Moment

In 2020, though Donald Trump was defeated, the narrative of his presidency as an aberration is still a danger, for packaged within it is an assumption that there was nothing fundamentally wrong before 2016. Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s administration seems all too content with a return to pre-2016 “normalcy,” dedicated as it is to an idealized notion of “bipartisanship” in the face of a Republican Party not remotely interested in allowing the majority to govern. Moreover, while Biden has broken with his predecessors in some instances (the administration’s actions on antitrust are indeed hopeful), the fundamental change demanded by the current political moment is simply not happening

How to Challenge Narratives

Narratives of “aberration” and “inevitability” ought to make us skeptical, for they discard inconvenient facts that do not conform to the story. Once complex groups of people are placed into neatly packaged boxes, each with its own label, the world becomes an easier place to comprehend. Much of mainstream media even caters to this impulse, driven as it is by a business model that commodifies outrage and division. But, as concerned citizens, we must be critical of narratives and question easy assumptions about the world.

For those seeking to break free from this dynamic, there is much hope. Indeed, while the rise of fake news (whether it arises online or in established media outlets) has posed several issues for democracy, it is an equally positive development that the internet and social media have enabled the rise of independent media. While in the past, only a handful of media outlets steered the thoughts of the majority of the population, we now have alternatives to corporate mainstream media. 

One of the most valuable things concerned readers can do is to seek out and support independent media and investigative journalism, which are not beholden to grotesque business models or special interests. Independent media, especially on the local level, tends to draw attention to the important aspects of how society operates—such as instances of local corruption, money in politics, and social movements. It also bears the hope of driving more genuine political engagement, a crucial thing for any healthy democratic society. Independent media enables people to get a glimpse of reality for what it is and makes readers (or listeners or viewers) more critical of the meta-narratives they encounter throughout their lives. 

Finally, it is important to be aware of the tendency of national and political narratives to make us ignorant to, and therefore incapable of confronting, reality. Learning how to identify and critique narratives is crucial. Politicians and prominent ideologues often invoke vague platitudes to push their specific agendas. They might speak of the “free market” and “democracy” while neglecting to define what the terms mean. They will refer to their political enemies as “traitors” and “terrorists,” deterring us from questioning the rights and wrongs of a situation and the applicability of the terms. We must distinguish between narratives (and their authors’ agendas) and the actual values and priorities that are often used as the basis of their appeal. We can commit to our common national values without accepting simplistic ways of thinking. Instead of accepting the patriotic narrative that warps these values, we can embrace our civic duty to be informed, critical thinkers in a democracy. 

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