The year 2020 has been a great year for me personally and professionally, but it has also been a tremendously disappointing and frustrating year for me as a citizen of the United States of America. I have been studying ISIS and related extremist ideologies for many years now. I recently completed a doctoral dissertation on how weaker actors like ISIS use narrative to achieve their objectives: narrative war. As I have watched the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and riots associated with controversial police actions, and the presidential campaign, I have been both shocked and profoundly disappointed by the obvious presence of narrative war actions in all of these events and I have been a bit taken aback by the lack of understanding of these very techniques by many of the smartest commentators on news and politics. Each of these people use the word narrative a lot and they talk about “the narrative” or “a narrative” and yet like in the movie The Princess Bride, I cannot help but say to myself, “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I want to provide my observations of how narrative war is playing out in America in 2020 and how we should expect to see it play out in the future.
I truly hate that I have to say this, but I believe that I do have to say this. I am not making a political statement in favor of one narrative or another. I hope that I am conveying the nature of each narrative honestly and openly and doing so without putting my finger too heavily on the scale. I clearly have an opinion and bias. I know the narrative to which I adhere; however, I am still trying to present each narrative so that people who ascribe to the other two can better understand what they are hearing and seeing. More importantly, I want people to know why we cannot seem to talk across these narratives and why each group sees the others as either stupid or evil.
I will briefly describe narrative and story and then I will discuss how various parties use story and narrative to move toward their intended objectives.
The U.S. Military describes narrative in its manual titled Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency (2018) as “an organizing framework expressed in story-like form. Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements. They provide a basis for interpreting information, experiences, and the behavior and intentions of other individuals and communities.” In essence, a narrative is how a person or group interprets events: it is the filter through which we see or understand the world. Dr Ajit Maan regularly emphasizes that narratives are not about facts or truths, but about how we interpret those facts and truths.
Most people intuitively grasp the meaning of the word story. We have heard, read, and seen them portrayed our entire lives. We regularly tell ourselves stories inside our own minds. The five parts of story come from Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives (1969): actor, action, goal or intention, scene, and instrument. We use stories to make sense of the world and most importantly they are used to solve for problems of dissonance between what we expect from the world and what actually happens. Some people call versions of these stories excuses and maybe they are, but they are also our internal means of solving for dissonance.
Each society has a narrative. As I will explain in a few paragraphs, the United States of America has three such dominant narratives in 2020. The expansion of important narratives contributes to the problems we see on our streets. Each governing person, party, or ideology offers a story for how that person, party or ideology will solve the dissonance for the various voters, citizens, or subjects and help them to achieve what seems to be the objective of the societal narrative.
In narrative war, a narrative entrepreneur also recognizes the dissonance that exists between the societal narrative and the governing story and seeks to further disrupt that story and by so doing weaken the connection between governor and governed. An objective of such disruption is displacement – moving the governing entity from a given place, service, or function.
What about America? An American narrative might be the American Dream. That narrative could be simply defined as America is a land of opportunity where average people can make of themselves whatever they want through hard work and great ideas. This is a narrative that has been created over generations with numerous stories and experiences as support. It is promulgated with millions of testimonials of hardworking women and men who achieved more than their parents through dedicated commitment. Every weekend, millions of people watch sports events where they hear stories of disadvantaged youth with bad family situations whom they watch as elite stars with large salaries and lucrative product endorsements. Every political candidate in America, either through a personal story, or by attacking the story of the opposing candidate seeks to connect with this narrative. I think there are currently three powerful versions of this American Dream narrative: America is Awesome, I Have a Dream, and 1619.
I will explain each of these narratives, but first I want to address the meaning of powerful or dominant narrative. Every country, nation, or state has multiple societal narratives. Like in linguistics where every language is made up of multiple dialects; however, there is usually a dominant or standard dialect that the majority or plurality of speakers use, the same is true of narratives. Every society has a dominant or standard narrative that seems to be common. For most of American history there tended to be a dominant and subordinate narrative. In 2020, I believe there are three narratives that have some level of equal significance.
America is Awesome is a play on the song title from The Lego Movie, but I also think it captures the meaning of the narrative. The narrative is based on a premise of opportunity. This is the belief of America’s divine founding, inspiration, and destiny. Phrases like manifest destiny, a city on a hill, the indispensable nation, an arsenal of democracy, and others capture the gist of this narrative. America is blessed. People come from all over the world and in America these people can achieve and enjoy their greatest possibilities.
I Have a Dream comes from the famous speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr on 28 August 1963. This speech captures the heart of the narrative which is a vision yet unfulfilled. The foundations of America are good, but the realization of that original vision is yet to be. The foundations may need some repair or amendment and the structure needs to be made true, plumb, and square and then that dream may be realized. It is the dream of achieving America is Awesome for all Americans, because if America is Awesome, it hasn’t yet been awesome for everyone, but it can be.
1619 comes from the name of the 1619 Project of The New York Times that began publication in August 2019. The root of this narrative is that the founding of America was flawed. This is an argument of power relationships. White European settlers and colonists established a system where non-white, non-European, and non-Protestant Christians were at a disadvantage. The very systems established are flawed and need correction. Every person, organization, and institution attached to such systems are corrupted by association. To move forward, the structure must be remade with a complete and proper foundation otherwise whatever structure built on such a foundation is flawed.
I want to emphasize that I am not explaining these narratives to express why people are different, but why for each person his or her narrative is right. She is correct for her. It is only once we realize this that some level of productive discourse can begin. A person who holds that America is Awesome needs to see that a 1619 person is right and try to see the world from that perspective. The 1619 person is not being cynical and manipulative when he says that there is systemic injustice. He really believes it to be true and from the 1619 perspective, he is right. The same holds true for the 1619 person looking at the America is Awesome person. She is also right. Now to use politics as an explanation of what happened this year.
I believe that most presidential campaigns prior to 2008 were discussions over which candidate’s story best solved for the America is Awesome narrative. Even the 1860 campaign was about who could best solve for the greatness of America and make sure most Americans could enjoy that greatness. We could debate president for president, but most presidential candidates held to the greatness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and then later Abraham Lincoln. In 2008 and 2012, I believe the narrative shifted, but it shifted for both candidates. Both candidates crafted stories of how they could solve the dissonance between experience and the I Have a Dream narrative. Maybe this was primarily generated by the candidacy of Barack Obama, but I believe that many Americans, and especially the media and academic institutions, came to believe that there were numerous flaws in the America is Awesome narrative.
The 2016 campaign was probably the first campaign where the two presidential candidates had stories solving for dissonance in two different narratives. Donald Trump returned to the America is Awesome narrative with his catchy Make America Great Again slogan. It was simple and attractive to many who still believe in the America is Awesome narrative. Hillary Clinton sought to develop a story that connected to the I Have a Dream narrative as did Barack Obama. The attempt to solve for two different narratives is part of the tremendous division following the 2016 election. Because the two different camps addressed two different narratives neither side believed the other’s explanations for events. The two groups are not from two different worlds, they were and are from two different narrative worlds. This is like the 6 October 1967 Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” where the Enterprise crew interacts with a parallel universe. Neither side fully understands the other.
The 2020 campaign has faced an even greater divide. If seen on a spectrum, America is Awesome is on one side and 1619 is on the other with I Have A Dream in the middle. Though I don’t believe that Joe Biden fully embraces the 1619 narrative, many of his surrogates do and many of the various media outlets do. In this sense, the narrative divide in this current election is even greater and the cognitive dissonance following the election will be more significant as a result.
What does this have to do with narrative war? As the year unfolded, each side sought to disrupt the story-narrative resonance of the other. 1619 sought to disrupt the America is Awesome story-narrative resonance by expressing loudly and clearly the problems with America as various police events unfolded. In most cases, these efforts were peaceful; however, more aggressive elements expanded the disruption into literal displacement through acts of aggression that led to the actual displacement of police precincts or police action in some cities or parts of cities. 1619 adherents displaced certain article, voices, and organizations from social media platforms. America is Awesome adherents sought to disrupt the 1619 story-narrative resonance by implying or stating that such acts made the individuals involved outside the definition of Americans and thereby displacing them from conversations.
My concern is that neither side effectively accomplished their goals as neither side actually understands the other. The efforts at the disruptions and displacements worked primarily from the perspective of the actor and not the audience. People who rioted did not displace those who believed America is Awesome and those who chastised and called out looters did not actually reach those who believe that the entire system is corrupt. At best, these actions served to polarize those of the I Have a Dream narrative and further separate the two camps.
Regardless of who wins on 3 November 2020, the incredulity of the other side will be greater than in 2016. Both sides will claim that the winning side cheated, was corrupt, manipulated the process, etc. Both sides will continue to seek to disrupt the story-narrative resonance and there may be greater efforts at displacement whether that is through social media, mainstream media, protests, riots, or worse.
I believe that for America to become one country we need to have a single dominant narrative, one that both parties agree to solve for. I believe that the effort to reclaim such a position must begin with every person seeking to understand the correctness of the narrative of others.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,