Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Policy as Narrative

Here's an assertion that the leftward bias of the media is a natural outgrowth of the fact that conservative narratives are less compelling than liberal ones.
Mainstream publications give our insights insufficient due, hence the rise of right-of-center outlets. But those publications rarely influence the apolitical, centrists, or liberals, for they are funded by, produced for, and read by those already sympathetic to the right — and mostly ignored by everyone else.

Escaping this ghetto requires understanding why the media slants left. Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn’t any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rent control. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find a sympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rent ceiling.

As almost everyone long ago conceded, however, opponents of rent control offer superior counterarguments. Limiting rent degrades the quality of a city’s housing stock, causes shortages as a dearth of new units are built, and spurs a black market where well-connected elites game their way into subsidized flats. A talented reporter, given enough time and space, could craft a narrative that illustrates how rent control ultimately makes poor families worse off. His job is relatively difficult, however, for he can hardly write a pithy anecdotal lead about the hundred families that won’t occupy a non-existent apartment building because a foolish policy eliminated an unknown developer’s incentive to build it.

The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occassionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?
Kevin Drum disagrees:
The real difference, though, isn't that one side or the other has a monopoly on simple narratives, but that left and right tend to rely on different narratives. Liberals traffic heavily in guilt and personal tragedy. Conservatives specialize in fear and self-interest. Conservatives don't have the same narratives as liberals, but they've still got plenty of narratives.
For all the bitching I do (along with everybody else) about the superficiality of political discourse, it's hard not to see that the core of the discourse--identifying the problems and framing the solutions--is still the thing that determines whether you're going to win or lose. Narrative is an important tool for both activities, especially when it allows the audience to see a complex issue or solution in a simple way. But narrative can't substitute for doing the hard work in the first place.

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