It’s primary season once again in New Hampshire, and once again those of us who live here have been under a deluge of political ads for the past several months. This year it’s the Republicans who are looking to unseat a host of Democratic incumbents. To hear the Republicans talk, one would think that being labeled a liberal is worse than being a member of ISIS, that the democrats are killing jobs, and that Obamacare is the single worse thing to happen to the United States in recent memory. The Republican strategy machine is once again putting fiscal responsibility at the forefront of its campaign ideology, and even though we live in New Hampshire, the problem with illegal immigration along the US-Mexican border is a threat to our way of life here in the Granite State.
I do not think I have misrepresented the playbook of the Republicans here. They still pledge to cut spending and create new jobs, while bolstering security and providing citizens with the opportunity to succeed on their own rather than depend upon government “handouts.” All of which, we are lead to believe, leads to personal pride. But this particular ideology depends upon the belief that the capitalist system provides a level playing field, which it doesn’t. My aim here is not to go into the failures of late-capitalism, but to ponder the way politicians present themselves to the public, using one politician as a sort of case study. What large part of what gets politicians elected depends upon how successful they are with the stories they tell about themselves. In other words, it’s all about the narrative. Narrative, story telling, is one of the basic components of being human. How we conceive of ourselves, and our place in the world is told in the form of a story, which makes narrative one of the most important skills one can have. Everything from resumes to grocery lists tell a certain kind of story, and the more appealing that story is, the more apt people are to believe it as truth. Likewise, negative political campaigns also present a story, and as hundreds of campaign gurus will tell you, negative campaigns work.
As a sort of case study let’s take Scott Brown, the ex-senator from Massachusetts who has now moved to New Hampshire in the hope of become that state’s next senator. Brown’s successful bid to become a Massachusetts senator was due in large part to the story he told about himself. He would drive around the state in a pick up truck wearing jeans and work boots, selling his story to anyone who would listen. His story? He was a regular guy who would refuse to be swayed by party politics. It did not hurt that he was attractive and could form a complete sentence. (However, one could also claim that Scott Brown did not win the election, but that Martha Coakley lost.) When he ran for re-election against Elizabeth Warren his down-home, everyman appeal had grown stale. With Warren he was up against a real intellectual who could wipe the floor with him during any debate. Good looks and charm can only get you so far.
Now that Brown is running for senator in New Hampshire he has come across as at least three different people. One, the native son returned home to save the land. This narrative follows a mythical story line that presents Brown in a heroic light. Two, the protective big brother who saved his sister from an abusive stepfather while being forced to move various times. In this Hansel and Gretel like story, Brown is viewed as protector to those who cannot protect themselves. It did not hurt that his campaign placed his sister in an ad speaking (in obligatory damsel in distress voice) about how he saved her from the monster of her childhood. And three, the man who is tough on crime, illegal immigration, and is fiscally responsible. Of course, like all good conservatives, he also blames Obamacare for the ills of contemporary society in the United States, and sees that law as an assault on our democratic values, when the fact of the matter is that Obamacare is one of the most conservative laws ever proposed by a “liberal” president. This last picture of Brown portrays him as a tried and true American of exceptionalist spirit and true grit. Over the last several months I have witnessed television commercials that portray Brown as one or the other of these three competing narratives. What I have yet to see is how Brown brings these narratives together to form a whole man. Granted, we are all composites of the various stories we tell and that others tell about us, but Brown’s campaign is without a plan. It seems to be grasping at anything that can grab the voter’s attention in the hopes that something will resonate with him or her on Election Day. Even the charm offensive he brought with him in Massachusetts seems to be missing. In New Hampshire Brown seems to want to run on the hero ticket: a political man without a country looking for something to save.
On a recent drive up the coast of New Hampshire I spotted dozens of Scott Brown for Senate signs in yards and on roadways. But the coast of New Hampshire constitutes the most expensive real estate in the state. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Brown’s base is the 1% of those who can afford homes along the coast of New Hampshire. This, of course, is at odds with his everyman persona. But if we are truthful with ourselves, we are not really that interested in what politicians can do for a state or the country, but what they can do for us personally. It is a strange mixture of nationalism and individualism that marks what being “American” stands for.
So who is the real Scott Brown? I’m not even sure Scott Brown can answer that question. I suspect that the real Scott Brown lies buried beneath the tangled narratives that he has found himself caught up in. He is now at the mercy of media consultants who inform him what he is by persuading him that one Scott Brown sells better than another. Perhaps the real Scott Brown is really nothing more than a career politician wanna-be. After all, it takes a hell of an ego to run for public office in the first place, but to lose in one state and move to the next state over to run for that office? Now that takes an ego of mythical proportions.