Political Fables

In his typically contrarian way, Errol Morris assembles a video essay, “11 Reasons Not to Vote?” Morris actually believes people should vote, but he’s interested in finding out why they don’t.

I asked why most young people won’t. They told me that many of the issues they care about — climate change, civil rights, the war on drugs, immigration, prison reform — are not discussed by Democrats or Republicans. That there is such a gulf between what candidates say they will do, and what they do, that it’s impossible to trust anyone. That apathy is actually supported by the evidence.

Voting is a leap of faith. Calling it a civic duty is not enough. Either you believe that the system is both changeable and worth changing, or you don’t — and most new voters are not convinced.

A less empirical approach to the problem of voter alienation was taken by Joan Didion in her 2001 essay collection, Political Fictions. She argues that American presidential elections are really about “a series of fables about American experience.” Elections are narratives, she says, but unlike, say, historical narratives that clarify events, election stories both obscure and reveal events. She points to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 run for the presidency as a compelling political narrative not because blacks supported his candidacy, but because so many whites did. Jackson appealed to whites “not because of but in spite of the fact that he was black, a candidate whose most potent attraction was that he ‘didn’t sound like a politician.'”

The narrative Jackson offered gave form to the same sense of alienation Morris captures 24 years later. Jackson’s candidacy was a failed one, of course. Didion notes that the fables associated with George H.W. Bush, the eventual winner, obscured the real issues of the day. The political discourse of the election bore little resemblance to the political problems of the time. 

The fabulist nature of the 2012 election is pretty self-evident. But even despair in the face of an empty political discourse is a kind of pernicious fable as well. According to a recent Pew poll, Obama consistently out polls Romney among registered voters, while the race is essentially tied among likely voters. Belief in the fable of Romney’s momentum, the story of his late conversion to moderation, could be motivating enough to throw the election.

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