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Elections are not simply about which candidate will emerge the victor, but about whose narrative will prevail. Narrative here means a story that steers the political discourse in a particular direction by tapping into strong feelings. For the past generation, even during a democratic presidency, conservative narratives have predominated. Their success has been remarkable considering that they have so often been eye-stretchingly untrue.
Republicans have wrapped themselves in social intolerance while identifying themselves with ordinary, beer-drinking, God-fearing folks who know how to repair an engine and skin a rabbit, whereas the liberals who allegedly control a decadent American culture and academia are characterized as effete snobs, probably homosexual, who want to pick your pocket while drinking latte and eating imported cheese.
In reality, the vast majority of cultural products are bankrolled by large corporations motivated by profit — in short, the GOP’s core constituency. The notion of leftist dominance of academia appears bizarre if one looks at schools of commerce and finance rather than English departments. America’s highest divorce rates are not in the allegedly anti-family blue states but in the red states of the Bible Belt. And liberals and homosexuals have the same range of faiths and tastes as anyone else.
The right’s false narratives stack the deck against gay people. Permit me to paraphrase several such narratives and discuss their consequences.
”X (fill in the blank) is a threat to children.” Whether the target is video games or same-sex marriage, children are a favorite political pawn. Unfortunately, their welfare is seldom the true motive for those using this line of rhetoric. If it were, conservatives would put the best interests of the child first and stop trying to exclude gay people categorically as potential adoptive parents.
”We must have a zero-tolerance policy on illegal drugs.” In the name of attacking a culture of ”permissiveness,” the War on Drugs has squandered vast sums and imprisoned thousands for drug possession while doing nothing to stop the flow of drugs. It disproportionately targets the poor, and has been used for twenty years to block federal funding for life-saving syringe-exchange programs by criminalizing what is better understood as a health issue.
”Gays are a threat to military order and discipline.” This led to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which has resulted in the discharge of more than 12,000 gay servicemembers since 1993, including dozens of linguists in Arabic and Farsi. Conservatives thus stoke anti-gay sentiment to trump our military’s desperate need for troops and skills during a time of war, ignoring surveys that suggest homosexuality is not a big deal to younger servicemembers.
”Illegal immigrants are a threat to national security.” This thinly evidenced assertion gives cover to xenophobia while doing nothing to address the exploitation of undocumented workers. One casualty is the Uniting American Families Act, which would give equal treatment to Americans with same-sex foreign partners. Many members of Congress assure lobbyists for Immigration Equality that they will vote for the bill if it reaches the floor, but decline to cosponsor. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) cites fears of fraud in withholding her support. When even a relatively gay-friendly senator like Feinstein uses implausible speculation to supplant the real stories of same-sex couples separated by discriminatory immigration law, it is clear that rational voices are being drowned out.
”America is the greatest country on earth.” As comedian Lewis Black points out, there are people who have never left this country who say that. How the hell do they know? And why do we need a constant reminder of our greatness? This leads to American exceptionalism, by which we exempt ourselves from the standards we apply to others. One result is the Bush administration’s embrace of torture. Another is the anti-American sniping every March when the State Department releases its country human rights reports, which include documentation of anti-gay abuses. America’s self-importance compromises its moral authority and hands a convenient excuse to far more abusive regimes around the world.
Common to right-wing narratives is their trading in fear and know-nothingism. To defeat them, we need leaders with the confidence and organizing skills to promote more positive narratives instead of merely maneuvering to beat conservatives at their own game. To implement new policies, we must do more than win elections. We must change the game by challenging and countering the false narratives of the past. We must tell a better story.