Skip to main content

Column: Is it too late to create a narrative where we’re all on the same side?


I was only seven when Richard Nixon left office, but I vividly remember the former president reading his letter of resignation on live TV. We were on vacation at the time, visiting a friend with no television. We had to watch at the home of one of his neighbors. 

When I think back to this episode, what strikes me as most remarkable is that all the adults crowded into that room were living in the same story. Everyone – from our host, a former Nixon supporter with a crew cut, to our friend, a hippie with hair down to his waist – agreed that the president had betrayed his oath of office.

That moral consensus was, in fact, what forced Nixon from the presidency. It wasn’t just that he had committed crimes. It was that virtually all Americans accepted the evidence that these crimes had occurred.

When it comes to our political discourse today, there is no such consensus. Not only do Americans live by different creeds, but we don’t even agree on basic facts. We’re no longer living in the same story.

I use the word “story” because stories are the basic unit of human consciousness. They are how we construct our reality. 

What happens, then, when some of the stories we tell ourselves are fraudulent, by either design or negligence? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves are frivolous? Or when we ignore stories that are too frightening to confront? What happens when we fall under the sway of stories intended to sow discord, to warp our fears into loathing? 

My principal argument is that bad stories lead to bad outcomes. The reason Americans spend so little time talking about how to solve mutual problems and so much time fulminating against our perceived enemies is that we’ve placed our faith in bad stories.

Candidate debates are no longer forums to showcase competing ideas. They are promoted and analyzed like prizefights.

Illustration by Dave Cutler

Bad story No. 1: The media is fake news. Just a few days after the release of the infamous Access Holly-wood tape, in which then-candidate Donald Trump boasted about forcing himself on women, I found myself at a conference devoted to female empowerment, talking to a woman who was a vice president at a large media company. 

The woman said she wasn’t crazy about Trump, but she also didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. “She defended a rapist and got him acquitted, then she laughed at the victim,” she told me. “There’s a tape of the whole thing.”

I had never heard this claim. Later that night, I went online to investigate.

In fact, Clinton had been the defense lawyer for an accused rapist, some 40 years ago, after a judge ordered her to take the case. Her client wasn’t acquitted. He accepted a plea bargain, under pressure from the victim’s mother. And there was a tape of Clinton discussing the case, years later with a journalist. She never laughed at the victim. That was a fiction created, via cunning editing, by partisan radio hosts.

When America’s founders enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment, they could not have anticipated a world in which citizens would construct an alternate “reality” based on misinformation.

But some lawmakers did foresee trouble. That’s why, in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission created the Fairness Doctrine. The doctrine didn’t require that radio or TV programs be ideologically balanced. It simply forbade stations from using the public airwaves to broadcast unfiltered propaganda.

Whether the subject was a national policy debate or a local referendum question, broadcasters had to provide a “reasonable opportunity for opposing viewpoints.” 

With its revocation, in 1987, broadcasters were free to air partisan programming around the clock. The result was that Americans began to get their “news” from sources, such as talk radio hosts, who railed against “the mainstream media” as unreliable. Over the past two decades, an increasing number of politicians have weaponized this mistrust.

The result has been an erosion of faith in our Fourth Estate. According to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, barely one-third of Democrats trust the news that comes from national media. The figure for Republicans is 11 percent.

As citizens migrate to partisan media sources, they become more vulnerable to propaganda. They begin to seek out bad stories – about death panels, or vaccines that cause autism, or candidates who laugh at rape victims. They begin to reject science in favor of conspiracy theories that are emotionally satisfying but false.

The most important step we can take is to support media outlets that value fact-based reporting, rather than punditry or so-called opinion journalism. Second, we can seek out all perspectives on an issue, not just the one that supports our pre-existing beliefs. Third, we should support the reinstatement of some version of the Fairness Doctrine.

Bad story No. 2: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. As a freshman in college in 1984, I volunteered for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. I remember getting up on the morning after Ronald Reagan’s landslide win and running into a bearish figure in shower sandals in the hall. This was the dorm’s resident hockey player, a guy named Sam. “We kicked your butt,” Sam boomed. “Your guy got three points! Three lousy points!”

Mondale actually received 13 electoral votes. But as a fellow jock, I understood where Sam was coming from. His attitude toward politics had almost nothing to do with governance. To him, it was a sport.

Americans have always, to some extent, regarded politics that way. What has changed over the past half-century is that the media and political classes now function to intensify this bad story. 

Rather than interviewing experts who might illuminate policy, cable news outlets stage pundit cage matches. Candidate debates are no longer forums to showcase competing ideas. They are promoted and analyzed like prizefights. Who won? Were there any knockout blows? 

This mindset has led to what social scientists call negative partisanship: an ingrained hostility for the opposing party that has almost nothing to do with ideology. It’s a kind of tribal identity, the same impulse that leads us to root against a rival team. 

Consider this: The proportion of those who hold “very unfavorable” views of the other party has nearly tripled since 1994. Negative partisanship has become the default setting of our electorate.

This encourages politicians to engage in confrontation rather than cooperation with the other party, which deepens partisan rancor. Rather than thinking about the common good, we have come to regard our political system as a zero-sum game. For our side to win, the other side has to lose.

We need to recognize that politics cuts deeper than Red versus Blue. Governance is about the art of compromise, about working with the other side to find solutions for all. 

Bad story No. 3: Our grievances matter more than our vulnerabilities. One of my best friends is a guy I’ll call Josh. He’s a Harvard-educated computer scientist who works for a nonprofit research institute funded, in part, by federal grants. 

We don’t talk much about politics, because Josh is an upbeat guy who considers the subject a bummer. In the 2016 election, he told me, he had cast a protest vote for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. 

In 2008, after he lost his job, Josh had needed help from the federal government to pay for his family’s medical insurance. But in the years since, he had apparently lost his faith in the government’s capacity to aid families like his own. Josh took his grievances seriously, but not his vulnerabilities. Feeling that people should fend for themselves, he opposes government intervention – until he needs help from the government.

Americans love to rail against government, elites, journalists, and so on. But lurking beneath these grievances are feelings that are much harder to talk about, such as helplessness and vulnerability. 

From its inception, the beauty of our great democratic experiment has been that we, the people, have been granted the right to author our own national story. 

If we succumb to bad stories that do little more than stoke our rage and starve our common sense, we’ll usher in an era of perpetual dread and decline. 

We must renew a spirit of hope by listening to – and telling – stories that allow us to see our national fate as a shared destiny, and our personal plights not as signs of weakness, but as opportunities for constructive action and occasions for mercy.

Steve Almond’s new book is Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country.

• Read more stories from The Rotarian