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When Narratives Collide

When Narratives Collide—Nations (and Businesses) Falter

It’s not just the politicians in Washington who can’t seem to agree on anything. Americans have lost their single-mindedness when it comes to core, basic values. This polarizing atmosphere is the topic of a recent letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal by Michael Barone titled “America is Partisan – Get Used to It” (October 17, 2013).

Barone gives three key reasons for this change, and notes that it’s not going to get any better any time soon, as evidenced by the government shutdown. I’ve summarized the points he argues (and it’s the last point that I want to focus on in this blog):

  1. There are fewer issues that allow politicians to unite across party lines, so compromise and negotiation are much more elusive.   As political scientists and pundits exploit this (given the ridiculousness of past irrational arguments) we now seem to be lacking agreement with a clearly Liberal party, and a more sharply conservative one.
  2. The greatest generation, with shared, vivid, life-changing experiences, is dying out. America is losing its collective memory of the events of the 30s and 40s, though tragic and difficult, that forged a culture that favored peace and prosperity.
  3. Universal popular culture has given way to fragmented, niche cultures. This is reflected most obviously in the media, where hundreds of cable channels, personalized radio stations, Facebook fan pages and other ‘tribes’ that form over social media are specifically targeted and generally smaller than the hordes who tuned in to watch American Bandstand or I Love Lucy, or even read the Sunday Funny Papers.

We Are Losing the Fabric of a Culture: Common Dialogue and Common Definitions

The implications for numbers two and three are profound. World history repeatedly shows us that any common culture requires a common language, and a shared sense of the collective self.

In his book, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Bertrand Russell writes how hatred of a common enemy is the quickest and surest way to unite people. Nowhere is this human fact more apparent than during political elections. At the start, all sides say they abhor negative advertising, yet as the campaign heats up both sides inevitably resort to it in order to win the election.  Politicians and political advisors bombard their opponents with cluster bombs of negative ads and sound bites until they find the one that sticks (resonates with the voting public).  Facts be damned! Hearts and minds are driven by fear and hatred, so a majority of the electorate divides and adamantly votes against the candidate they’ve come to demonize.

What’s the biggest problem with this? The compelling hatred that drives most of the voters to the polls doesn’t dissipate after the negative ads are run and the election is decided. The negative narrative that divides the electorate tends to live on as truth in the minds of the tribes that voted for the victor. And while one politician wins and another loses, the real loser is the common cultural narrative that made the “United” States of America true to its name.

The latest ABC News / Fusion Poll points to the same truths that Barone discusses, but with statistics from polling they conducted by phone in mid-October.[1] The poll takes the divisiveness beyond Washington and into our homes. They conclude that:

“While these issues divide a variety of Americans, this poll, produced for ABC and Fusion by Langer Research Associates, finds that the gaps in nearly all cases are largest among partisan and ideological groups – so enormous and so fundamental that they seem to constitute visions of two distinctly different Americas.”

Here are some details that point to two distinctly different Americas – with results at or near a 50% split in opinion:

  •  Among all adults, 53 percent think women have fewer opportunities than men in the workplace.
  •  Forty-one percent think nonwhites have fewer opportunities than whites in society.
  •  Forty-three percent of Americans say it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress
  •  Support for legal status for undocumented immigrants is at 51 percent overall
  •  Fewer than half of all adults, 45 percent, say political leaders should rely somewhat- or a great deal- on their religious beliefs when making policy decisions

The Mind and Narrative

While some may think that losing a common sense of our collective selves may not be a problem for America, let me share this.  I have studied the workings of the individual and the collective mind (culture) for over thirty years.  I made the commitment to do so when I was 18 years old.  I’ve learned that—above all else—we are the stories we tell ourselves we are—both individually and collectively.

I’ve spent my entire career helping business and organizational leaders understand how to create, communicate and maintain a common, edifying narrative in order to create a culture where success can thrive. Great leaders understand that this is their most important job. They also understand that they don’t create an individual’s success, but rather, they contribute to creating a culture where people are compelled to work together to reach goals and solve problems.  They do this by making sure there is a shared compelling, sustainable, believable, common, unifying, and edifying narrative.  Individuals then find themselves in the narrative and behave according to it. This behavior contributes to their individual success, which in turn creates success for the organization as a whole.

Helping Create a Better World, One Leader At a Time

I know I’m only one man and I can’t change the way an entire country thinks, but my personal narrative is that I can contribute to a positive change in America—one leader at a time—by helping them understand their role in regard to creating unifying, edifying narratives for those they lead and serve.

My hope is that political leaders and media pundits recognize that their divide-and-conquer approach to political victories creates collateral damage that is damaging to America as a whole – and it’s getting increasingly more difficult to reverse this trend.

Walt Kelly’s popular comic strip, Pogo, which ran in America’s newspapers for nearly thirty years, is proving to be prophetic. In one strip he has the main character (Pogo) utter an aberration of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous statement during the War of 1812.

It’s hard for me to believe that it was 43 years ago when this eleven year old boy sat in his living room reading what nearly all Americans referred to then as, The Funny Pages

Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.


[1] ABC News/Fusion poll conducted by telephone Oct. 17-20, 2013, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. The survey was produced by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.

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