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Thursday, December 24, 2020

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Arc of History Bends towards Narrative (Part 1)

Stories may seem feeble compared to big data or political power.  This is a false impression. In reality, data and power operate through stories and their effects are determined by them. Your budget slides or whatever have to have the proper story.

The strongest stories in 2020 were abolitionist: abolish student debt, abolish college tuition, abolish grad student rent burden, abolish the police. Abolish the at-will firing of abolitionist scholars. These stories always get out in front of the means of achieving their goals. This is a feature not a bug. Their point is to imagine and concretize the goal itself, and rally people to figure out how to achieve it. The same goes for abolishing Covid-19. Full eradication of pestilence of all kinds is what makes people jump out of bed in the morning.

My approach is chronically materialist and institutionalist, so I chronically focus on finance and budget.  We don't have the same abolitionist power with these narratives, and generally haven't found narrative power in other forms. I'm going to look at the national budget picture here, and then, in Part 2, turn to a local university budget insurgency that should be put to use. 

The Covid relief bill arrived six month late, with fractional funding for higher ed and nothing for the states that fund it. Its support for the overall public is a shadow of the need. The failure of the federal government to meet the basic requirements of its population is a two-party creation. The Democratic contribution has been an unconvincing narrative grounded in a failed economic model.  The compromise deal emerged from moderates from both parties who share the disastrous "safety net" model of government, and who agree that government's collective action produces no real value, just remediation. The Democratic leadership had no better storyline of mass enablement or intelligence working in common, so politics is trapped in the Victorian logic of public assistance, and treats a raging pandemic with quarter measures.

The glaring example of narrative success is Ronald Reagan's hydra-headed narrative, for which the series title was, "government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem." Thousands of smaller stories fleshed out this master plot. They had a stock cast of characters that were themselves compressed political types, like "welfare queen."  The Reagan machine perfected this narrative with remarkable discipline for decades. It dismembered the New Deal, discredited the civil rights movement, and turned every public system into a remedial function, the very opposite of what created economic value and national greatness. Public education became a problem rather than an asset, and public colleges and universities did not escape.  Reagan's story was a fabrication. But it changed the course of U.S. history.

Barack Obama has been known to quote Martin Luther King quoting Theodore Parker that "though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice." It's more accurate to say, "the arc of the moral universe bends towards narrative."  

This week's example is the $900 billion relief finally passed by Congress, that is, allowed to pass by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (It is likely to survive Trump's possible veto, with still more delay.)  The deal offers important material relief, but it is also the vehicle for a Republican story, to be told in Georgia.  The story has a goal, which is to keep the Republican Senate majority by delivering both special election seats to the Republican candidates, so McConnell can remain our shadow POTUS. 

The story is this: "Republicans like Kelly and David offered a helping hand to regular Georgians struggling with the pandemic. The delay was (not because they were busy insider trading with confidential Senate public health testimony--that's fake news, but) because we had to fight Democrats who wanted to take your money to bail out failed blue states." The story has to convince a lot of voters that Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, two of the most plutocratic, anti-Black, self-dealing members of that body, really do care about them.

The secondary story is, "the moderates saved the stimulus." The press is obliging with articles about how Romney, Collins, Manchin, Warner et al. produced a "road-map" for governing under Biden. Sanders, Warren et al failed to get a deal: the future is the bi-partisan center.  Unfortunately, moderation means no money for states and one-fifth of the economic stimulus envisioned by the "liberal" Pelosi in May.

What could help people buy these stories? The lack of a radically different and compelling alternative. That lack is being constructed as I write. For example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is NOT authoring a narrative saying this: 

Senate Republicans gave you half a CARES act for a quadrupled pandemic. Mitch McConnell gave you that fraction of a loaf. The bill is crap compared to actual need, and crap compared to what the American people deserve, and it's crap entirely because Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, not me. Let me describe the great version the Democrats wanted that will rebuild the country, and if you want it you need to get Kelly and David the heck out of the Senate.

Republican values, Schumer could explain in the LP version, dictate mistreatment of regular people, because they oppose government, which is the only way to treat everyone fairly when we all need the same thing. In reality, Schumer reframes it as an "emergency survival bill" and promises to fight again next year. But that's not a story. That's an adaptation to defeat.  

Most people in this country are in trouble--unfed, sick, evicted, unemployed, lied to, and about to be further abandoned by their bankrupt states.  In building the true and motivating story out of this one, it's worth bearing in mind how tired people are of half-measures and excuses. Take the half-stimulus check.  $1200 (the CARES Act level) may have meant that you could pay a month's rent and focus entirely on your 12 other major problems.  $600, the new version, means you can pay half your rent, and have to keep "rent" on the top of your list of 13 things while you find the other half, who knows how. If you find it, you don't thank the Democrats for fighting for a new stimulus since May: you thank yourself, for scrambling for the other half.  

People are engaged in a continuous low-level resistance to weak support. Democrats don't seem to get this, and they are walking into an ambush in Georgia.

There are countless books and papers on narratology, like Paul Waldman's on politics; there's a whole discipline that studies narrative and affective engagements-- my home field of literary criticism. One general lesson is that it's essential to critique the false story, but critique is just the start.

First, the critiques, which are widely available: David Dayen drills into details and pronounces the stimulus to be not enough. It is, after all, about a fifth of the $4.3 trillion HEROES Act the House passed in May. The one-time stimulus check is half of the CARES Act's ($600 per person); extended unemployment is cut from 16 weeks to 11; the eviction moratorium extends only to the end of January. Jessica Haberkorn describes other ornaments on the Christmas tree.  

Eric Kelderman does the drilling for the higher ed elements: colleges and universities get $25 billion of a $125 billion need. The student debt moratorium, already running through January 31st, was not extended, leaving that up in the air at least through Joe Biden's inauguration.  Since the bill has no money at all for states and local governments, they will struggle to avoid more cuts to K-12 and higher ed. By undermining government employment and spending like they did after 2010, Congress is priming the country for Great Recession 2.0.

Some good things do happen: the ridiculous FASFA form for financial aid applications is greatly simplified, some loans to HCBUs are forgiven, and the bill finally extends Pell eligibility to formerly incarcerated students. There's more--but only a drop in the money bucket. On this point, Kelderman cites Ted Mitchell, president of the higher ed advocacy group, the American Council on Education: “The money provided in this bill will provide some limited relief, which is welcome news to struggling students and institutions. . . . But it is not going to be nearly enough in the long run or even the medium term.”

These are fundamentally important critiques and need to be widely circulated.  But they don't generate an alternative story.

A true counter story would have a feature that the UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, prolific author on the Democrats' inadequate framing and narrating, calls the "truth sandwich." You set out your own view, you then critique the false or opposing view in the context of your framework, and then state your truth or vision again. 

I started to illustrate this with Schumer above, though I had it a bit backwards: Schumer should start with the glories of the House's HEROES Act, and all the problems it would solve, then blast Mitch's phony, bail out-a-Republican Senator plan, then describe the better future of Builder Biden working with strong progressive Congressional support. 

The more radical and inspiring narrative won't come from above. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were exceptions at the national level, but they too had to devote themselves to counterpunching the Washington establishment.  Sanders is in fine form denouncing McConnell's fake Covid medicine, but of course this isn't a left alternative. It's missing the compelling social philosophy that has to do to bipartisan Reaganism what Reaganism did to the Great Society and anti-racism movements.

Abolitionism reminds us yet again that narratives of a new society are going to come from us--not from above but from below.  Sanders did enormous good putting free college and student debt cancellation on the political map, but he did this by advancing concepts developed by scholars (like UCSB's Bob Samuels early on) and activists. This bottom-up process works, but it needs a fully engaged and activated base, in real numbers, to work at the required speed. 

Where is that base?  I'll turn to a current university example in Part 2.


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