Q and A with a Story Guru: Amy Zalman: Republican Candidates Reveal Difficulty Maintaining Control Over a Coherent Narrative about Themselves or the Country

See a photo of Amy Zalman, her bio, Part 1 of this Q&A, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Q&A with Amy Zalman, Question 5:

Q: A testimonial on your site express this wish: “I hope the two presidential campaigns have an opportunity to review and digest Dr. Zalman’s work.” Presumably that quote referred to the 2008 presidential campaigns, but what do you see as the narrative issues of the 2012 election, and what could the campaigns learn if they had the opportunity to review and digest your work?

A: It is still early in the election year, but so far all of the potential Republican candidates are revealing difficulty maintaining control over a coherent narrative about themselves or the country. Even more than four years ago, new media and social media have enabled many narrators, who can slice out elements of candidates’ speech in real time and insert it into other narrative streams. These commentators aren’t only responding to what the campaigners say, they are also producing new meanings that the campaigns may have to respond to.

All of this commentary, coupled with the new information that we are continually getting — like the winners of primaries, or the results of major polls — create a constantly adjusting meta-narrative about the campaign itself. This framework offers a great archetypical structure — winners and losers, heroes and underdogs, last minute upsets and dramatic turns.This week saw Republican primaries in Michigan and Arizona. Lately, the metanarrative of the Romney campaign has been that his campaign may be losing momentum. And everything gets folded into that narrative — the way that Romney’s speaking before an empty stadium has come to reflect his downward slide rather than the fact that he had to find a new place to speak when his first venue grew too small. Of course, these metanarratives twist and turn — as of this writing, he seems to be on the upswing.

My work recommends a holistic viewpoint, and I would say that a campaign intent on winning and seeking to maintain a strategic edge should adopt this view and try to watch the metanarrative, and intercept it as it can and as necessary. It should look down on the information environment like a subway map, and try to see all of the relevant information flows, as well as making traditional efforts to look out at the landscape at ground level and shape the agenda from that vantage.

The other important narrative issue in this campaign relates to the incredible complexity of the most important issues. The economy and budgets, foreign policy, employment strategy, the role of government in our lives, these are difficult to understand and none has a single “right answer,” but rather better and worse strategic approaches. So the candidates have to work through shorthand to explain their vision, and one of those ways is by presenting themselves as mirrors of the American people, and telling us obliquely their story of who they think we are. Santorum presents himself as the leader of a rugged, working class, strong but fearful America, victimized by a liberal elite. Romney says we are a nation of innovators and risk takers who are overburdened by a government that is taking our resources and inhibiting our intrinsic entrepreneurial spirit. Obama has not officially gone campaigning yet, but in a speech earlier this week at the University of Florida he reflected back to us a country that is also entrepreneurial, but younger, and in need simply of access to things like education in order to move us into the information age, through science and technological prowess in particular.

As voters, I think it is important for us to listen reflectively to how each of these candidates uses narrative devices to tell a story, not only of themselves, but not only in their anecdotes about themselves, but in their policy statements as well.