The Story We Tell

story-tellingYesterday’s op-ed piece by Ross Douthat at the New York Times told a great story: the story of a nation divided down narrative lines.  He does not begin with our current political moment, but with the just-preceding one.  Reflecting on President Obama’s refrain of “that’s not who we are,” Douthat points out that

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

This self-undermining flaw makes the trope a useful way to grasp the dilemmas facing Trump’s opponents. In seeking to reject Trump’s chauvinist vision, they end up excluding too much of what a unifying counternarrative would require.

Narratives are important, of course.  For many they are more important than the flash-and-blood world right in front of them.  Every fall I show my students a talk from Donald Miller where he talks about the power of narrative to change things: learn to tell a better story if the one you’re in is going no where.

But what do you do when you cannot decide on a guiding, comprehensive narrative (of which a worldview is same coin, different side)?

What is both interesting and sad is that this conundrum is true for more than just a nation.  It’s true for organizations, institutions, people, and even relationships.  And for some reason, we’d rather wallow in the slog of unnecessarily messy narrative than to get out in front of it or above it to get a better view in order to find a better way.

After a broad-strokes look at the liberal and conservative narratives, Douthat concludes (?)

Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Douthat’s article is a good conversation starter (much like Jedediah Purdy’s recent tweet asserting that “you might classify people politically now by whether they think the country needs to be restored (the right) saved (center) or built (left)”).

You can read all of Douthat’s post here.

(image from

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