Thursday, January 20, 2011

Democrats, Republicans and their Narratives: The Tucson Shootings

The political landscape in the United States is dominated by two political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that embrace competing macro-narratives. Sometimes individuals and coalitions group members within the parties do not always embrace the "official" group narrative, sometimes party leaders change the macro-narrative in order to placate more powerful internal groups avoid extinction via the ballot. Both Republican and Democratic narratives have evolved over time based on internal and external pressures. Those narratives follow four dimensions: liberal-conservative, social-economic. Since the late 20th century, Democrats have been social liberals and economic liberals. Hence, Democrats generally did not try to employ the coercive power of government to regulate social morality on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, drugs etc, but did seek to regulate corporations. Republicans have been social conservatives and economic conservatives. Hence, they try to legislate morality on core issues like abortion, marriage, and drugs; but otherwise did not seek to regulate corporations.

Today the core beliefs of the Democratic Party reflect the interests of a coalition of interest groups that shape their narrative(s). Those groups include: the least advantaged and their advocates, African Americans, public and private labor unions, most college and university professors, and trial lawyers. Traditionally, many of us libertarians vote Democratic because the party has not sought to overtly control our personal lives. However, in recent years the social side of the Democratic narrative has become less liberal.

In the case of the Tucson shooter, the prevailing Democratic narrative might include include some of the following arguments. Since most Democrats today are large group communitarians, that narrative would blame our national social and political environment for the shooting. According to this narrative, Jared Lee Loughner was programmed by a national culture of violence, especially in states like Arizona where political discourse is volatile, guns are easily accessible and can be legally carried and concealed. Some Democrats might also attribute the mass shootings to the the lack of access to mental health services, Arizona's tightening of Medicaid eligibility, or poor mental health coverage offered by private health insurance companies. They may also blame individual Republican political leaders (Sarah Palin), the media (Glen Beck), and lobbying groups (National Rifle Association) for the Arizona shootings. At least some Democrats would hold Walmart International or at least the local Walmart franchise responsible for selling Loughner the ammunition. Most Democrats probably agree that, if we want to prevent terrible future shootings like this, the federal government must control inept, irresponsible state and local governments, gun manufacturers, retail stores, and the right wing media moguls, "for the good of the nation." In short, the social side of their narrative is becoming more conservative. 

The Republican narrative is also evolving under both internal and external pressures. The social side of their narrative remains conservative on most core issues however, on other social issues they tend to be more liberal, especially on gun rights and free speech. For Republicans, their most salient internal pressure is how to maintain a political coalition comprised of major corporate interests, evangelical religious groups, and an amorphous (and logically incoherent) body of Tea Partiers. External pressure comes from a growing number of Latin American immigrant voters, and public dissatisfaction with both parties, corporate welfare, and government in general. Republicans have recently adopted select portions of the libertarian individualist narrative, which which attracts corporate cronies, and some (but not all) Tea Partiers, but alienates evangelical protestants. Republicans claim that they are individualists or small group communitarians committed to a small (limited) federal government, and therefore prefer to let individual states, localities, and individuals take responsibility for their own problems. But they only do so as long as it doesn't interfere with their courtship of the lobbying groups that give them the most money: conservative evangelical Protestant groups, NRA, oil companies, and banks. Hence, the Republicans tend to be the main drug warriors. In other words, the Republican narrative is currently incoherent, waffling between social liberalism and social conservatism, and therefore will not have much of an interpretation of the shooting, other than defending gun rights and Walmart. Republicans might argue that the community college officials that expelled him should have notified the police of the shooter's bizarre behavior. His parents, and the school officials might deflect responsibility by saying that the mental health laws in Arizona (and federal guidelines), which were designed by socially liberal Democrats from the 1970s, make involuntary committment almost impossible.
Traditionally, the individualist libertarian narrative is based on social liberalism (toleration) and economic conservatism (free market). The libertarian narrative would avoid all forms of "collective responsibility" and hold Loughner responsible for the Arizona shooting, unless it can be shown that a "brain lesion" caused his aberrant behavior. If there is "shared responsibility" it would be among individuals (leaders and followers), but not abstract groups.

The genious of the U.S. constitution is that it provides a roadmap for principled interaction between competing narratives. In the upcoming months we can expect a barrage of competing narratives on the Arizona shootings. Small groups, large groups, and individuals will rally behind their respective narratives. These narratives will be replicated on media outlets, including radio, television, printed media, and the Internet. The problem for the United States is that we have a cacophony of small group narratives, but only two political parties. Neither of those official narratives resonate with most us. Both parties are currently more interested in defending the rights of internal lobbying groups (cronies) than the rights of individuals. Libertarians continue to embrace social liberalism and economic conservatism, but neither party really tells our story. Many, if not most, libertarians will not vote in the next election.

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