My Fellow Citizens,
John Dickerson made a simple statement last week. It sounded like a public service announcement:
There are narratives about who we are in the U.S. that have nothing to do with who the President is.
These other narratives have their sources of power, difficulty, and all kinds of complications too. They have room for us to act. They offer storylines where you can stop watching someone else, where you can imagine yourself jumping in and taking part.
Without these other narratives, we might forget our own capacity for sorting through complexities and make sense of them. By focusing on one guy or the latest outrage, we lose our connection to the stories that give us strength and carry us forward.
The word “narrative” seemed so big when Dickerson used it in that single sentence. From anyone else, the word would solicit skepticism. Office holders, candidates, lobbyists, and issues organizations all aim to control the narrative today. That’s a strategic win and proof of messaging swagger. Dickerson’s quick side comment pulled the word out of all this muck. He made it possible to see it again and to remember that these narratives belonged to us before they became the playthings of political operatives.
So, what’s the difference? What do these big narratives have that the marketing strategies only imitate?
In 2003, The Poynter Institute asked journalists: “What is narrative, anyway?” The response ranged from the sort of technical specifics you would expect to colorful allegories, “Narrative is the dirt path that leads us through the impenetrable forest, so we move forward and don’t feel lost.” (Wade Rawlins, Raleigh News and Observer).
A narrative works by offering movement, direction, and purpose.
Bob Barker, who writes for the Los Angeles Times, offered an answer with an even bigger idea, “‘Narrative’ means any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happened next.” 🤩
That’s the mark of engaging a story. You want to know what happens next. You connect to the purpose and imagine yourself to be the one that finds the path.
So, when did you first imagine yourself to be part of the larger story of the United States?
I can’t escape hearing the Hamilton soundtrack here, and I haven’t even seen the production! You can find meaning for your own story by interweaving it with the larger project of the United States:
“Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot! “
(From “My Shot” by Lin Manuel-Miranda)
With a powerful narrative, you can connect to a shared mission and the greater purpose of a political community. Later in the song:
“But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I. Do or die. Wait till I sally in
On a stallion with the first black battalion”
What story made you want to “sally in” and be a part of it?
I wanted to go to the moon. The idea of Americans as explorers, boundary breakers, and scientific geniuses had me thinking about what I could do to be part of this story. The USA would escape the bounds of gravity!
Think on the question for long and you’ll discover the power of Dickerson’s reminder. The possibilities keep coming.
Consider the story of civil rights activists as fearless champions for our highest ideals, and investigative journalists as truth-seeking detectives. We have stories of Generals who stood strong against Fascism and rebuilt Europe. We have today’s innovators working to unlock the power to restore health to the human body and (hopefully) the planet.
These narratives need air time, too. We’re just the people to do it. We know that greatness lies within these bigger stories of who we are and can imagine that “history has its eyes” on us. 😉
Let's write a great story together,
🥇Big thanks to Trish Everett who checked my treatment of Hamilton lyrics. I appreciate everyone who offered to help too.