gender, language, other topics, politics

Who’s Gotta Narrative?


One of the reasons repeatedly offered for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination, was this: Obama had a compelling “narrative,” which Clinton lacked. This explanation had the virtue of allowing us to believe that America didn’t have a problem with sexism or misogyny, just as Obama’s victory proved that we were now “post-racial.” The explanation felt good, but didn’t answer, or even address, a few relevant questions:


  • What is a “narrative”?
  • Do presidents have to have one?
  • Since when?


And now eight years later, the pundits are trying to explain Clinton’s rhetorical difficulties in the unexpected battle with Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Their task is exacerbated by their determination to avoid any explanation using words like “sexism” or “misogyny,” since America is a non-sexist and non-misogynist society. That makes it hard, but they’re trying.


On last Friday’s PBS NewsHour, the political commentary team of Mark Shields (the putative liberal) and David Brooks (the increasingly reluctant conservative) was asked that question. Brooks hedged, but Shields went right for the proper answer: Clinton lacked a “narrative,” which Sanders had. I felt as though I had fallen through a wormhole back into 2008: same evasions, same self-satisfied whitewash.


It doesn’t make much sense to blame Clinton’s problems on a lack of “narrative” until we have answered the three questions above, which no one ever does. If we can’t do that in a satisfactory way, we may have to fall back on answers that don’t let us off the hook.


All right, what is a “narrative”? The notion of the “narrative” has been around for a long time, and scholars in many fields have attempted precise definitions since the early 20th century. For more than a century linguists had been making progress in the creation of grammars: predictions about what forms could exist and be understood, at the sound, word, and sentence level. Now it was time to move up to larger and more abstract units, treating them in analogous ways. As you would expect, narrative analysis first arose within literary criticism. Vladimir Propp, a Russian, made the first attempt to find predictable structures in one literary genre, the folktale; the great European polymath Roman Jakobson did further work on the topic a few decades later. In the late 1960s the eminent sociolinguist William Labov and his student Joshua Waletzky began to develop a theory predicting the structure of narrative, specifically narratives generated in informal conversation. Labov and Waletzky collected “the time I almost died” stories and analyzed them to find recurrent units. While their organization of the narrative changed in many papers written over 30 years, a basic structure can be given below: for Labov and Waletzky, a proper “narrative” consists of at least some of the following elements, in the following order:


  1. Abstract: what the story will be about
  2. Orientation: who the protagonists are and where the action takes place
  3. Complicating Action Sequence: the only essential element for defining a series of sentences as “a narrative:” two or more sentences whose order cannot be reversed without changing the meaning of the whole; in some sense, the “plot”
  4. Resolution: how the story turned out
  5. Evaluation: what the story was about, and how to feel about it
  6. Coda: what the teller learned, how it affected protagonists’ future behavior


Here is a representative narrative for illustration:


  • This is how I got these bandages.
  • I go into this bar. I sit down at a table.
  • There’s this guy sitting at the next table. He comes over to me. He says, “Why’re ya lookin at my girl like that?”

I say, “I’m not lookin at your girl.”

So he takes out a knife and comes at me.

  • So I end up in the hospital with 25 stitches.
  • Wasn’t that the weirdest thing!
  • One thing I can tell ya – I’m never going into that bar again!


You might compare a Labovian “narrative” to another complex linguistic structure, the “list.” A list can look a lot like a narrative, but doesn’t have the sense of progression that a narrative does: a list is static, while a narrative moves from a “beginning” to an “end”: it has a plot. Labov points out that narratives are privileged, because people love to listen to them. Ordinarily in a conversation, participants wait eagerly for a “transition relevance place,” a momentary gap where they can snatch the floor from the last speaker. But when that speaker is telling a story, interruptions are rare, and the speaker is normally allowed to finish the story. Clearly for our species, the narrative has special virtues. We protect it and give its teller unusual respect.


But interest in narratives is not limited to linguistics and literary analysis. Over the last half century, the concept of “narrative” has spread throughout the humanities and social sciences, with each field making use of it for its own purposes. Besides the two cited above, narrativity is currently important in law; psychotherapy, especially psychoanalysis; history; and, of course, politics. Not all of these assume a strict Labovian model, but they all encode some notion of what humans think of as a “story.”


But if political savants want to use “narrative” – having or lacking one – as an explanation for electoral success, they need first of all to show that campaign activities involve some kind of narrative. Yet one thing is clear: political debates in this country are not conducive to, and seldom contain, anything resembling Labovian narrative structures, nor Proppian nor Jakobsonian narratives, nor anything else fitting anyone’s definition. Despite his charisma, Sanders does not appear to tell stories, as we (and Labov) understand the term. If anything Sanders operates on anti-narratives: he enunciates principles, beliefs, and slogans which do not contain anything like complicating action sequences, nor do they have other aspects typical of stories, like characters or plots. If anything, Clinton is the teller of stories: about her family and her growing up; about people struggling with debt and discouragement, whom government has helped (the last two clauses constituting a complicating action sequence). These are not necessarily narratives according to Labov’s strict definition, but they do contain narrative elements. So if Sanders is winning the rhetorical conflict with Clinton, it cannot be because he alone has a narrative, or because he has a better narrative than she does. In fact, Sanders’ typical rhetorical product(debate answer or stump speech) comes closest, among discursive forms, to a list, and lists are not all that exciting.


Do presidents, or candidates, need narratives to succeed? It is not at all clear that they do. Some have them: Obama did, but not his predecessor. In fact, scanning the 44, few if any clearly used their family histories or tales of derring-do to win the White House. William Henry Harrison used a deceptive narrative of being born in a log cabin (which he literally was, but only because his wealthy parents were touring the west and he was born a bit sooner than expected), the virtuous narrative of those times. He didn’t have any real Horatio Alger up-from-poverty story: he was a Harvard man. FDR arguably tacitly used the story of his struggle against polio, but he never “told” that story. So it is not true that a narrative is necessary to win the presidency, or that the candidate with the more compelling personal narrative usually wins.


If we can’t make use of narrative theory to account for Clinton’s difficulties, what are we left with? There are a couple of suggestions:


  • We don’t like the way she talks (because she doesn’t sound like a woman should.)
  • We don’t like the fact that she, a woman, speaks publicly.
  • We need to criticize how she talks, but we have to be careful and avoid words like “shrill” and “strident,” critiques of phonological properties. So we move to pragmatics – discourse.


Of course, no one wants to talk or think this way in post-gendered 2016. So we make use of a term of art, “narrative,” that sounds serious and meaningful, but in this case is merely evasive.