In my ongoing studies of identity, a thread that comes up again and again is the importance of narrative in determining who we say we are. Demographic groupings are useful for looking at differentials within a society, but showing that Jews disproportionately vote Democratic – even and especially after controlling for income – only really means anything when it’s part of a larger narrative. When you tell the story of why, demography can move from being a series of spreadsheet headings and start becoming a many-layered text.
And just as you can only divide any group – even one so large as a nation – into so many groups before the labels become arbitrary and devoid of explanatory power, so too are there a finite number of stories. Perhaps this is especially so in a nation as large and otherwise diverse as our own; with so many different places and people, what is the one thing we can all point to together? Stories. Apart from Election Day, the largest shared experiences in our country today center around stories – movies and television, millions of people watching and recognizing in themselves the same stories; our sports, the same familiar narratives played out again and again over the courses of games, seasons, careers.
I like talking about the traditional identity markers of Blood, Soil and Church. Viewed in this context, these markers are powerful because of the stories they tell – or rather, the narratives to which they allow us to attach ourselves. One of the reasons that for many these markers are less salient is that for many people, the stories of their Blood, Soil and/or Church are unknown or not relevant to their lives as experienced day to day. Perhaps societal atomization – Putnam’s famous and (rightly) much-maligned “Bowling Alone” – is at least as much the fault of institutions for failing to realize a lack of connection in their ongoing narratives to today’s culture, as it is in individuals for dropping those stories that don’t speak to them.
But unlike voluntary associations, politics is interested in us even if we’re not interested in it, and continues to both bind us together (and divide us) with its narratives, regardless of other societal changes. With that in mind, Robert Reich’s essay on “The Four Stories of American Life” is especially perceptive. The essay is worth a full read – sit down with your favorite beverage at the ready, and take it down in a go – but more briefly, Reich’s four stories are:
1. The Triumphant Individual
2. The Benevolent Community
3. The Mob at the Gates
4. The Rot at the Top
He lays out how each political party and polarity has harnessed – or had harnessed against them – these narratives through our political history, and closes by saying,
“The challenge for Democrats and progressives is not simply to manufacture a new set of stories but to find and tell stories that match their convictions… As the contest unfolds between Obama and McCain, listen carefully for their stories of hope and fear.”
It’s hard not to recast every campaign narrative along these perhaps reductive terms. But I don’t think they’re reductive – rather, they’re our best way of talking to each other across the divides of class, race, geography and language. What is a President, in the end, but a grand National Storyteller – telling the story of – and at their best, making possible – the kind country not only that we live in but that we want to live in.
It’s a time of transition (haha, ain’t it always?), and while I believe that large societal trends have a way of cementing themselves one way or another, I’m no historical determinist. There are moments in the procession of history with many possible Nexts – William Gibson’s “nodal points” – and where the color and shape of what comes after is affected very directly by a limited set of decisions in the Now. Our emerging Now may determine what those next set of markers of identity are – and we’ll see them emerge from what we want the next versions of our national story to be.