Two Stories, One America: How Political Narratives Shape Our Understanding of Reality
BY STEPHEN HAWKINS AND TOMMY FLINT
It’s a troubling day when we have to admit that the TV pundits are right: America is politically polarized. From the halls of Congress, to news articles posted online, and even to our local neighborhoods, we’re increasingly sorting ourselves along ideological lines. But reality is not as simple as our liberal and conservative ideological stories. Reality is stubbornly complex. As our ideologies have become more important to our identities, Americans are increasingly ignoring the facts, disputing reality, and maintaining their narratives—no matter what.
I. Ideologies: The Stories We Tell
In the phrase of literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, humans are “storytelling animals.”[i] We use narrative to make sense of a chaotic and unpredictable world, to imbue events with moral significance, and to define our own selves.[ii] It should be no surprise then that American liberal and conservative political ideologies may too be represented as narratives.
As we see it, the conservative narrative goes something like this:
By nature, people are immoral and lazy. But Christian families create moral, hard-working children, and our capitalist economy rewards their hard work. Our government exists to keep our prosperity safe from evil, both at home and abroad. And this is how America became great: self-disciplined people were given a chance to succeed and granted a government to protect them. Today America holds the moral high ground because we alone have set up the right balance of freedoms and rewards.
Liberals just don’t get it. While government policies to reduce poverty have not worked, liberals won’t admit that the solution lies in certain cultures and families becoming more self-disciplined. They can’t see that welfare rewards laziness; that drug use leads to inactivity; that our moral standards are in free-fall; and that other religions aren’t just different, they’re false. And since they blame our government for society’s failures, they don’t really believe in America and are more trusting of international groups like the UN.
We would tell the American liberal narrative, on the other hand, as follows:
By nature, people are pretty much the same everywhere. Race, religion, and gender are just superficial categories that allowed white Christian men to subjugate others. These artificial categories justified American slavery, segregation, sexism, and homophobia. The social movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights have been slow marches toward a more just society and economy. Our government exists to help move forward this work of making society fairer for all.
Conservatives just don’t get it. Conservatives can’t see that some people are facing harder struggles because of historical prejudices. They won’t admit that government could fix these injustices—most developed countries have used government to provide a high standard of living for all. They can’t see that wages are too low for the poor to advance, that our legal system disproportionately punishes minorities and the impoverished, and that Christianity is used to defend prejudices against women and gays. Oblivious to these problems, conservatives are blindly patriotic, believing America to be infallible.
Now, you have probably never come across these meta-narratives expressed so directly. Any meta-narrative is a simplification, and our reduction of American political attitudes into a binary requires exaggerated language and little nuance. Nonetheless, these narratives help explain the landscape of our polarized reality. Their hyperbolic phrasing and rejection of ambiguity are representative of our contemporary processing of current events.
These narratives can be felt in our news coverage, in our social media, and in our personal lives. According to Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who express consistent ideological opinions, either conservative or liberal, has doubled over the past two decades.[iii] These ideological purists are more likely than others to say that most of their friends share their political views.[iv] Moreover, dislike of the opposite party has more than doubled since the 1990s, with record high numbers of people Americans saying the other party is a “threat to the nation’s well-being”.[v] So straying from the script can mean facing social alienation from friends and family.
Drawing upon the support of a burgeoning field of academic research, we will describe how our allegiance to narrative leads us to misperceive reality in three ways: we ignore pieces of information that don’t fit our narrative, we dispute facts that challenge our narrative, and we maintain demonstrably false beliefs that confirm our narrative.
II. Ignoring the Facts—Ahmed’s Clock
We’ll begin our first case study not with a story, but with a set of five facts:
- On 14 September, 2015, Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Muslim-American boy, brought a homemade science project—a digital clock—to his high school in Irving, Texas.[vi]
- Ahmed was known for bringing gadgets to class, and he was a member of the robotics club in middle school.[vii]
- When Ahmed showed his project to his teachers, he was accused of perpetrating a bomb hoax.[viii]
- Ahmed was handcuffed by police and taken to a detention center, where he was interrogated without an attorney present,[ix] before being released without charges.[x]
- Ahmed received a scholarship to a prestigious science academy in Qatar, and his family has since relocated.[xi]
If you’re not already familiar with the story, it may not be difficult to imagine why it set media outlets aflame. It fit the liberal narrative like a glove: here was an ambitious and inventive young man being humiliated and forced into exile by white authority figures who deemed him a threat on account of the color of his skin and his religious affiliation.
Media outlets on the right, however, were not so quick to accept this story. A new set of facts emerged:
- Ahmed’s project was not part of a school assignment, and consisted of an alarm clock LED display fitted into a pencil case with a false-metal exterior.[xii]
- Ahmed’s father had previously embraced controversy by serving as a defense attorney in Pastor Terry Jones’ mock trial of the Koran.[xiii] He encouraged his son to show the device to his teachers.[xiv]
- Ahmed’s engineering teacher told him the clock was “nice,” but that he shouldn’t show it to anyone else.[xv] However, Ahmed went on to show the clock to his English teacher.[xvi]
- School and administration followed protocol for possession of a hoax bomb[xvii], a felony in Texas.[xviii] [xix]
- Ahmed’s family threatened to sue the former school district if they were not paid $15 million in compensation.[xx]
This new set of facts, in turn, follows the standard conservative narrative of traditional authority being manipulated under the guise of multiculturalism.
The problem here is not that journalists and commentators are disputing the veracity of these facts—as far as we can tell no one is arguing, for instance, that Mohammed was not actually a member of the robotics club—but that these facts are rarely, if ever, told together. In our search, we could not find a single news source that compiled all ten of the facts listed. It’s not hard to understand why this is the case: the combined facts simply don’t come together for a very good story.
Not coincidentally, the facts from the liberal narrative are easily found on media outlets that are more trusted by liberal readers, while facts from the conservative narrative are readily available from outlets more trusted by conservative readers.[xxi] More generally, Democrats and Republicans each tend to have higher knowledge of facts that credit their worldview, and less knowledge of facts that challenge it.[xxii]
The only known photo of Ahmed’s homemade clock. What do you see? (Source: Irving Police Department Press Release)
The tendency to select facts that fit our narrative is on clear display in the media coverage of Ahmed and his clock. After all, if we accept both the likelihood that Ahmed and/or his father had some intention to provoke a response, and the possibility that the administration and police were unduly harsh on account of Ahmed’s ethnicity, we’re left without a strong ideological narrative to cling to. Instead of a tale of good versus evil that confirms the righteousness of our side, we discover a cast of morally ambiguous characters and actions. Who could find comfort in such a world?
III. Disputing Reality—Climate Change
The above example has little material significance for those not directly involved. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We would be remiss if we failed to explore perhaps the most notorious of ideological controversies: climate change. Numerous surveys of scientists have established a strong consensus that man-made carbon emissions affect global temperatures.[xxiii] Yet many doubt the validity of the emissions-climate link—and the overwhelming majority of these skeptics are politically conservative.[xxiv]
Heat map of temperature anomalies in 2015 (Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio)
On the surface, it may not appear that this disputation of scientific theory has anything to do with an ideological narrative—why would one’s beliefs about geophysics be relevant to his political ideology? However, when we engage the issue from the perspective of narrative, we see its salience. For generations, the conservative narrative goes, meddling liberals have used doom-and-gloom scare tactics to justify massive governmental interventions. Progressives used the threat of overpopulation, for instance, to embark upon campaigns of forced sterilization.[xxv] Over-hyped claims about global warming are thus seen as the most recent iteration of the classic liberal strategy.
Surprisingly, the scientific literacy of conservative skeptics of climate change is higher than that of believers.[xxvi] Even more, the better versed a conservative is in the facts of the debate, the more likely he or she is to deny the consensus.[xxvii] This fits well with the research of Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, who has shown that greater intelligence and scientific literacy tends to increase rather than reduce ideological biases.[xxviii]
In this case, conservative skeptics are exhibiting a universal tendency: on complex issues, we defer to experts who agree with our pre-determined conclusions.[xxix] Since the presence of anthropogenic climate change conflicts with the conservative narrative, some conservatives will seek out and give credence only to those experts who dispute its existence.[xxx] Cynics are thus likely to be well informed on the facts of the debate, but they only believe in those experts who are already on their side.
As mentioned, this bias is not unique to conservatives—Kahan’s work also suggests that liberals and conservatives are equally susceptible to politically motivated reasoning.[xxxi] The ongoing contention over anthropogenic climate change is significant, however, in that it reveals the strength that our narratives hold—they may lead us to reject a belief that nearly the entire scientific community deems true.
IV. Maintaining the Story—Michael Brown and Ferguson
Some events are so critical that they become part of the script of our narratives. Events such as 9/11, the 2008 financial collapse, and the 2012 Benghazi attacks necessitate explanations within the narratives we tell. When this happens, we fiercely maintain our versions of events.
Consider the infamous August 2014 killing of African-American Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Initial local outrage over Brown’s death was inflamed by eyewitness reports that Wilson had shot Brown in the back while the teenager had his hands in the air in surrender.[xxxii] This claim helped push the story to national coverage, drawing protesters and journalists from across the country to the small suburb to protest, chanting “hands up, don’t shoot.”[xxxiii] The claim was truly disturbing: an execution-style murder by a law enforcement official.
With the facts still in dispute, the ideologues went to their corners. Liberals referenced the event to highlight systemic issues of police violence toward black Americans nationwide. To many liberals, this served as a classic example of the abuse of disenfranchised minorities by the privileged establishment. Meanwhile, conservatives emphasized the grave danger of failing to respect authority and condemned the unruly destruction of rioters. To many conservatives, the nightly mayhem in Ferguson represented society’s failure to instill values of personal responsibility and self-discipline in its youth. Soon, ‘Ferguson’ became a featured point of both ideological positions.
A memorial to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (Photo Credit: Jamelle Bouie, Flickr)
After six months of investigation, the Department of Justice released two reports.[xxxiv] Dramatically, the reports powerfully contradicted both the general liberal and conservative accounts. Undermining the liberal narrative, the Department of Justice concluded that Brown had not surrendered or raised his hands, but had punched Wilson in the face and then attempted to seize his gun. [xxxv] After subsequently fleeing on foot, Brown turned and charged at Wilson until he was shot dead.[xxxvi]
Faced with this new reality, many liberal media outlets were quick to maintain the narrative. Some challenged the objectivity of the report, but most simply downgraded the importance of Michael Brown’s particular case.[xxxvii] [xxxviii] [xxxix] The wider narrative—that of rampant implicit and explicit discrimination against African Americans by law enforcement—was nonetheless true.[xl] The ‘truth’ then, existed not in Michael Brown’s posture, but in the minds and actions of police officers in Ferguson and across the nation.
Indeed, the second Department of Justice report exposed systemic racism and abusive practices by the Ferguson police department. Officers used excessive force, including the use of Tasers and canines, disproportionately against African-Americans.[xli] But for conservatives, the story remained largely the same as before. They focused on the confirmation that Brown had attacked the police officer, disputed the reports, and argued that the DOJ and its Attorney General had political motivations to smear police officers.[xlii] For months afterwards, authors revisited the false story of the execution-style death, implying that the status quo of policing was acceptable.[xliii] [xliv]
The release of the Department of Justice reports demanded that both liberals and conservatives reexamine the stories they had been telling regarding Ferguson. With some laudable exceptions,[xlv] neither version represented the facts fully, and the emergent information recolored the picture in critical ways. Self-righteousness and sanctimony should have subsided to advance a constructive dialogue, but instead the sides maintained their original noise. This underscores a worrying dynamic: when significant events are woven into our ideological narratives, we insist on maintaining them in the face of contradictory evidence in order to protect our ideologies.
V. Can we write a happy ending?
Given the powerful biases these ideological narratives engender, it would be nice to think that we could author our own escape from them. Unfortunately, such an ending would be mere fiction. Indeed, we can’t escape our biases through reason alone. As alluded to in the climate change controversy, research shows that the smarter we are, the better we are at justifying our own biased interpretation.[xlvi]
Thus far, we’ve discovered only a couple ways that ideological bias can be minimized. When research participants receive money for answering politically-charged questions correctly—when they’re forced to put their money where their mouth is—they exhibit much less bias.[xlvii] Likewise, when the same facts are framed with multiple ideological narratives, readers tend to perceive the issue more accurately.[xlviii] While interesting, neither of these approaches presents us with a means to reduce ideological biases en masse. It is simply not plausible that our government could require citizens to place bets on their beliefs, or censor journalism that doesn’t fit an ambiguous standard of narrative framing.
Nor, necessarily, would we want to remove ideological narratives from our lives. They are the building blocks of our sense of nationhood: our narratives communicate our most essential ideals, determine our own goals and interests, and connect us with others. And sometimes, regrettably, they do mislead us. Even this essay, the reader may have realized, has presented a reality-distorting narrative of its own, in which two bumbling characters, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, are advised by an all-knowing academic observer. Doing away with this narrative, however, would have hindered our ability to communicate our thesis.
We will thus make a humbler request. The next time you open your favored newspaper or news website, we challenge you to identify the narrative underlying the pieces presented, to seek out a news source that offers an alternative narrative, and to present an opinion to your friends that does not conform to your shared ideology. Finally, we ask that you question the stories you’ve been told—and the ones you tell yourself.
Tommy Flint (MPP ’16) studies the relationship between culture, politics, and human evolution. Formerly, he worked throughout the Americas in the non-profit sector.
Stephen Hawkins (MPP ’16) is a public opinion professional who has served clients ranging from issue advocacy groups to presidential candidates to Fortune 100 companies. His interests include democratic reforms, political satire, and religion.
Cover Photo via DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons.
[i]Jonathan Gotschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (New York: First Mariner Books, 2013).
[iii]Pew Research Center, June, 2014, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” p7.
[vi]Kat Chow, National Public Radio, “Texas High School Student Arrested After Homemade Clock Mistaken For Bomb,” September 16, 2015. http://www.npr.org/2015/09/16/440914070/texas-high-school-student-arrested-after-homemade-clock-mistaken-for-bomb
[ix]Ashley Fantz, Steve Almasy and AnneClaire Stapleton, CNN, “Muslim teen Ahmed Mohamed creates clock, shows teachers, gets arrested,” September 16, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/us/texas-student-ahmed-muslim-clock-bomb/
[x]Matt Ferner, Huffington Post, “Fox News Host Says Ahmed Mohamed ‘Did A Really Dumb Thing’ By Bringing Clock To School,” September 18, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fox-news-ahmed-mohamed_us_55fc71e3e4b08820d918a17d
[xi]Al Jazeera, “Ahmed the clockmaker is moving to Qatar to study,” October 21, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/ahmed-mohamed-clockmaker-moving-qatar-study-usa-151020234841092.html
[xii]Foxnews.com Tech, “Bad timing? Experts skeptical of ‘cool clock’ that led to Texas boy’s arrest,” September 21, 2015. http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2015/09/21/bad-timing-experts-skeptical-cool-clock-that-led-to-texas-boys-arrest.html
[xiii]Pamela Geller, Breitbart.com “Ahmed Mohamed and the ‘Islamophobia’ Clock,” September 17, 2015. http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/09/17/ahmed-mohamed-and-the-islamophobia-clock/
[xv]Foxnews.com, “Texas 14-year-old arrested for bringing homemade clock to school after teacher said it looked like a bomb,” September 16, 2015. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/09/16/texas-14-year-old-arrested-for-bringing-homemade-clock-to-school-after-teacher.html
[xvii]Kyle Shideler, Town Hall, “Irving Mayor: Ahmed Mohamed’s Family Blocking Release of Records; Obama Tweeted Support Even Before “Clock” Pic Released,” September 22, 2015. http://townhall.com/columnists/kyleshideler/2015/09/22/irving-mayor-ahmed-mohameds-family-blocking-release-of-records-obama-tweeted-support-even-before-clock-pic-released-n2055545/page/full
[xviii]Texas Penal Code Title 10, Chapter 46. http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PE/htm/PE.46
[xix]Texas Penal Code Ann. 46.08: Texas Statutes Section 46.08: Hoax Bombs. http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/txstatutes/PE/10/46/46.08
[xx]Merrill Hope, Breitbart.com, “’Clock Boy’ Ahmed’s Demand Letter: Pay Up or Else!,” November 24, 2015. http://www.breitbart.com/texas/2015/11/24/clock-boy-ahmeds-15-million-demand-letter-surfaces-pay-else/
[xxi]Pew Research Center, “Where News Audiences Fit on the Political Spectrum,” October 21, 2014. http://www.journalism.org/interactives/media-polarization/
[xxii]Jerit, Jennifer and Barabas, Jason, “Partisan Perceptual Bias and the Information Environment,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington D.C, August 27, 2010.
[xxiii]Anderegga et al, “Expert credibility in climate change,” PNAS, vol. 107 no. 27, pages 12107-12109. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.short
[xxiv]McCrighta, Aaron and Dunlapb, Riley, “Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States,” Global Envrionmental Change, Volume 21, Issue 4, October 2011, Pages 1163–1172. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095937801100104X
[xxv]Matthew Connelly, “Fatal Misconception: the Struggle to Control World Population,” Bellknap Press, March 2010. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674034600
[xxvi]Kahan et al, “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 2, pp. 732-735, 2012. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193133
[xxviii]Kahan et al, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307, September 3, 2013. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992
[xxix]Kahan et al, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Concensus,” Journal of Risk Research, Vol. 14 Issue 2, 2011. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13669877.2010.511246
[xxx]Crawford, Jarret and Pilanski, Jane, “Political Intolerance, Right and Left,” Political Psychology, January 2013. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jarret_Crawford/publication/236830480_Political_intolerance_right_and_left/links/00b495193e71878d4c000000.pdf
[xxxi]Kahan et al, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307, September 3, 2013. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992
[xxxii]Cogan Schneier, “Ferguson protests give new meaning to ‘hands up’ sign,” August 19, 2014. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/13/ferguson-protests-hands-up/14010683/
[xxxiv]Department of Justice, Justice Department Announces Findings of Two Civil Rights Investigations in Ferguson, Missouri, March 4, 2015. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-findings-two-civil-rights-investigations-ferguson-missouri
[xxxv]Department of Justice, “Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation Into The Shooting Death Of Michael Brown By Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson,” March 4, 2015, pages 79-86. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/doj_report_on_shooting_of_michael_brown_1.pdf
[xxxvii]Thandisizwe Chimurenga, DailyKos.com, “Darren Wilson got away with murder one year ago,” Daily Kos November 24, 2015. http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2015/11/24/1453957/-Darren-Wilson-got-away-with-murder-one-year-ago
[xxxviii]Jay Hathaway, Gawker.com, “Darren Wilson Is Racist, As It Turns Out,” August 3, 2015. http://gawker.com/darren-wilson-is-racist-as-it-turns-out-1721753992
[xxxix]Frank Vyan Walton, Daily Kos, “No Jonathan Capehart: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot is not a “Lie”,” March 27, 2015. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/3/27/1371761/-No-Jonathon-Capehart-Hands-Up-Don-t-Shoot-is-not-a-Lie
[xl]Department of Justice, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” March 4, 2015, pages 4-5. http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf
[xlii]Conor Friedersdorf, “Where’s the Conservative Outcry on Ferguson Police Abuses?,” March 10, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/the-conservative-ambivalence-about-abuses-in-ferguson-department-of-justice-michael-brown/387196/
[xliii]Michelle Fields, Breitbart.com “Washington Post: ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ One of the Biggest Pinnochios of 2015,” December 14, 2015. http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/12/14/washington-post-hands-dont-shoot-one-biggest-pinocchios-2015/
[xliv]Jerome Hudson, Breitbart.com “Tyshawn Lee: The Real ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ That Black Lives Matter Ignores,” November 29, 2015. http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/11/29/tyshawn-lee-real-hands-dont-shoot-black-lives-matter-ignores/
[xlv]Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post, “shoot’ was built on a lie,” March 16, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/03/16/lesson-learned-from-the-shooting-of-michael-brown/
[xlvi]Kahan et al, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307, September 3, 2013. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992
[xlvii]Neil Irwin, The New York Times, “How Is the Economy Doing? It May Depend on Your Party, and $1,” January 1, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/upshot/how-is-the-economy-doing-politics-may-decide-your-answer.html?_r=1
[xlviii]Feinberg, Matthew and Willer, Robb, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” Psychological Science, January 2013, vol. 24 no. 1 56-62.http://pss.sagepub.com/content/24/1/56; Feygina et al, “System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of “System-Sanctioned Change”,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 2010 vol. 36 no. 3, pp. 326-338. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?rep=rep1&type=pdf&doi=10.1.1.224.651